Not just a regular Joe

June 17, 2012

Author:    RICH POLIKOFF

ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

 

SELF PORTRAIT

Date and place of birth: June 8, 1951, in New Orleans

Occupation: Founder/owner, Arsaga's

Family: wife Cindy, daughters Terra Stephenson, Jacqueline Arsaga, Ava Arsaga, four grandchildren

The biggest thing I've learned over the past 20 years is if you pay attention to what has heart and meaning in your life, your life won't necessarily be easy, but it will be full.

My favorite beverage is chocolate milk.

The best part about teaching was students stopping by my classroom on the last day of school and saying thanks.

When the new location opens, the first thing I'll do is give Cindy a great big hug and say, "thank you."

If I had won the mayoral election I wouldn't have a case of "Arsaga For Mayor" stickers in my closet.

A word to sum me up: lucky.

FAYETTEVILLE - A latte? What's that? What it was, Cary Arsaga would explain to the people of Northwest Arkansas, whose palates were unfamiliar with such things then, was a beverage, a fancier version of coffee. That didn't clarify things much.

In the defense of all the people who didn't exactly understand what Arsaga was trying to do, Starbucks was hardly a household name in Fayetteville in the early 1990s, so the idea that someone would have a coffeehouse - not a restaurant that served coffee, but a place that specialized in cups of joe - was a pretty strange one.

"When I would tell people what we were going to do, they would say, 'Do we need this sort of thing in Fayetteville?'" Arsaga recalls. "Even the loan officer would ask, 'Are you going to have bacon and eggs and grits?' and I'd say, 'No, just bagels and muffins.'"

The first Arsaga's opened in 1992, and through its numerous locations, it has become a mecca for coffee lovers in Fayetteville.

Before launching the first place, Arsaga traveled around the country, spending months researching coffeehouses. He wanted to create the perfect gathering spot - what he and his wife, Cindy, call a "third place between work and home."

Yet Cary Arsaga was doing more than starting a place to get cappuccinos and scones; he was finding the answer to a midlife crisis.

Arsaga had given up teaching, which he had loved, and taken a job selling lots and houses in Bella Vista in order to support his wife and three daughters. He did this for years and succeeded at it, but while he earned plenty of money, it was agonizing.

"It just drained him," Cindy Arsaga recalls. "He would come home a zombie, and at some point I said, 'This is killing your soul, and you've got to stop.' That woke him up [and spurred him to open the first Arsaga's]."

Many new businesses struggle early on, but not Arsaga's. Although Fayetteville had been home to coffeehouses before, it had never seen anything like the place that opened at 25 N. Block St. (which has since moved), and success came overnight.

There was a great deal of excitement over the first location, Cary Arsaga recalls, and so the business received a ton of free publicity from the media. When that initial excitement died down, Arsaga's faced an existential threat from a rapidly growing company from Seattle.

Starbucks was vanquishing local coffeehouses all over America, and Arsaga worried that his business was about to join the list of the departed. But then he read a retail coffee magazine that explained how a place in a university town could survive and thrive even after Starbucks sets up shop.

Arsaga's needed to make its name an integral part of the fabric of Fayetteville. That's why it has locations in the Fayetteville Public Library, Washington Regional Medical Center and the University of Arkansas' Law School, and why Arsaga's coffee can be bought at the Fayetteville Farmers Market.

And that's why Arsaga's has stand-alone coffeehouses in Fayetteville, one on Crossover Road and one on Gregg Street, both of which the Arsagas sold in 2009. There's also an Arsaga's in Springdale, which the couple does not own, but was opened under a licensing agreement.

"I was afraid for the survival of my business," Arsaga says. "I thought, 'This is what I'll have to do to survive.' I wanted people who came to Fayetteville to think of Arsaga's as the coffee place.

"Now we have a coffee culture here. There's other local roasters. I love that."

ALWAYS THE TEACHER

The truth about Arsaga's is that it's not about coffee.

It has never been about coffee. It's about creating that "third place."

Arsaga loves people. He's got a great mind for math, and has always handled the finances of all the locations, but what he really enjoys is being the man out front, interacting with customers.

"He's one of the most personable people I've ever met," says longtime friend Ira Schwartzman of Winslow. "He treats everybody like a friend.

"Even if he meets you for the first time, he's willing to sit down and have a heart-toheart talk, to share his feelings and emotions."

It's because of his outgoing nature, Schwartzman adds, that Arsaga was an excellent teacher.

In another world, Arsaga might still be teaching. He taught junior high and high school math in Bentonville for two years in the early 1980s and loved it, but the pay was terrible back then.

He says that when he realized that he qualified for the reduced-lunch program, he knew he couldn't support a family of five on that kind of salary. The Arsagas had just had their youngest daughter, and they wanted to have a parent at home, so Cary gave up teaching.

His departure was close to 30 years ago, but he's still providing education of a sort.

"He just has this real gift for bringing out the best in everybody," says the office manager of the roasting plant, Janis Micklea of Prairie Grove. "He's a real good teacher. Before [coming to Arsaga's], I was a dental hygienist and seamstress, and he taught me how to use a computer, bookkeeping, how to keep a business running - and before that he taught me how to bake and manage a bakery."

The oldest of four children, Arsaga was born in New Orleans and spent his first 18 years living in Louisiana. His sister, Ava Arsaga of Chicago, says that as a boy Cary was much like he is today: enthusiastic, bright and a great instructor.

Born just 13 months apart, Ava and her brother were in the same grade in school. She recalls that, as a secondgrader, he was called to the front of their classroom and asked to explain fractions to his classmates in terms they could understand.

She also remembers an incident a few years earlier, when 4-year-old Cary demonstrated another side of his personality.

"He woke me up and said, 'Let's go sneak into the kitchen and fix ourselves chocolate milk,'" Ava Arsaga says. "Our mom put the chocolate on a high shelf, so he had to climb up the cabinet to get it. Once he got it, he took his time; he had this desire to perfect the chocolate milk.

"That shows his risk-taking, which has been his coffeehouse mentality."

LIFE ON THE ROAD

Arsaga has never been afraid to take a risk. Over the past two decades, he and Cindy have opened, on average, one new shop every two years.

Part of that was to stay a step ahead of Starbucks. That's been a successful strategy, to be certain, although today Fayetteville is home to several Starbucks, proving that it was not an either-or proposition for coffee drinkers.

What the constant expansion really is a testament to, though, is Arsaga's restless nature.

"He needs to be busy," Cindy Arsaga says. "He always needs to have projects."

Cary graduated from high school in 1969, and on his 18th birthday he entered a monastery. He headed to Santa Fe, N.M., where he studied to become a monk.

He decided that wasn't for him after reading Herman Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, so he left the monastery. He was pepper-gassed in Washington while protesting the Vietnam War.

From there, he went to the worst part of St. Louis, teaching kids in a place that some of the brothers from the monastery had opened. It was less a school and more a last-ditch effort to save kids who had engaged in criminal behavior and been in jail, although Arsaga insists they were "good kids, really."

"It was like Teach for America of the time, and he went in there pretty deep," Ava Arsaga says. "This was a tough urban neighborhood. When I drove up to meet him one time, you had to time it so somebody was there to walk you from your car to the building entrance, a halfblock."

While working with these troubled kids, he read about an experimental college at the University of North Dakota, the New School of Behavioral Studies. There were no grades, no tests, no requirements; Arsaga designed his own curriculum.

What he came up with was that after he finished his student teaching, he would hitchhike around the country and "live by my wits." His adviser said to go for it, and to journal the whole thing.

Arsaga went where the rides took him. Along the way, he guest-lectured in graduate education classes at the University of Kentucky and the University of Maryland.

"The emphasis [of the program] was on teaching to the child and trying to have individual studies, rather than having everybody in the whole class doing everything at the same time," says Schwartzman, who studied with Arsaga.

Arsaga enjoyed student teaching and the experience of hitchhiking around America, but after he earned his bachelor's degree in elementary education, he decided he wanted to work with his hands.

So in the mid-70s, he returned to New Orleans, bought a Readers Digest handyman repair book, put an ad in the paper, and said he would fix things. He then hooked up with Mervin Rudolph, who remodeled houses all over the city, and headed up Rudolph's construction crew.

Arsaga never became a great handyman, but he found he had a real skill for managing people - something that has served him well with Arsaga's.

"All my education up to that point had been cognitive," Arsaga says. "I couldn't fix anything, and it seemed that I should be able to. I would never say I got good at that - I don't have a knack for that sort of thing - but I learned I could figure it out."

It was this restlessness that caused Arsaga to run for mayor of Fayetteville back in 2000.

He had been in Northwest Arkansas for more than two decades by then, having arrived when he and five other people, including Schwartzman, pooled their resources to buy 142 acres in Winslow, where the land was cheap.

By 2000, it was evident to Arsaga that Fayetteville was about to boom, and he wanted to be a part of shaping that growth. He thought his skills in building a business with a certain feel would translate to leading the city wisely.

During the campaign, he suffered a compressed vertebra. The excruciating pain caused him to drop out of the race, although he never wound up having surgery on his neck; several months of bed rest and subsequent monthly massages keep him feeling good.

"My wife's fond of saying, 'That's something he had to do to himself,'" Arsaga says. "The only reason I ran for mayor was because I had a coffee shop. That's got to be the least qualifying thing you can do."

BACK IN BUSINESS

As it turns out, Cary Arsaga is not the semiretiring type.

After years of working with the energy of a man pumped full of espresso, Arsaga was ready to relax a little. He and Cindy sold their two stand-alone coffeehouses in 2009, and he "semiretired." He scaled back his hours to a normal work week, prepared for the wedding of one of his three daughters, remodeled the house in Winslow, put in a garden and played his accordion.

Semiretirement, in this case, didn't mean sleeping until noon - it just meant not scrubbing the floors of Arsaga's at midnight. It meant the Arsagas could vacation together; for years they had traveled separately, because someone needed to mind the shops.

"We were both burned out from the stress of opening so many business in a short time," Cindy Arsaga says.

This semiretirement lasted barely two years. Then he learned the old train depot in Fayetteville was available.

Arsaga became obsessed with the property near the corner of Dickson Street and West Avenue. He couldn't stop thinking about it - all the ways he could transform its 2,300 or so square feet into a true Fayetteville landmark.

He signed the lease in August, betting everything he had on the new location, which after an extensive renovation opens later this month at 548 W. Dickson St. He was so certain of its success that he signed away his house, all the assets of his other businesses, everything he and Cindy had accumulated in order to get it running.

"His attitude is ever-energetic," office manager Micklea says. "He just got this idea [for the new location], and oh my gosh, he went through so many roadblocks and disappointments to get this project going. I can't believe he never lost his determination, but his spirits were always high. That's infectious."

In a life filled with daring moves, the store may be Arsaga's boldest yet. The food menu will be larger than ever before, with an emphasis on crepes, and for the first time, one of his shops will serve beer and wine, allowing it to be open late into the night in the heart of Fayetteville's entertainment district. His daughter and son-and-law moved from Washington state to manage it.

The new location has consumed Arsaga. He has slept at the office for stretches so he wouldn't have to drive all the way back to Winslow at night, and imagines it can become like the shops that inspired him when he was planning the first Arsaga's - Trident Booksellers and Cafe in Boulder, Colo., and La Prima Tazza in Lawrence, Kan.

With the location, the building, and the fact that its sizable deck borders the train tracks and a bicycle trail, Arsaga dreams it can become an iconic Fayetteville business.

"This whole thing literally evolved," he says. "We didn't start with a finished vision in our head; it was 'Let's just start working on this and see what comes up.'

"I feel about this project the way I did about my very first coffee shop."