As they ready their second location, Fox in the Snow owners Lauren Culley and Jeff Excell reflect on their fortuitous journey from coffee lovers to coffee-shop owners.
Story by Taylor Starek
“Can we go to Fox in the Snow when I come visit you?”
I got the text from a friend in Asheville months before her trip to see me. She’d seen my photo, though, and a few from another Columbus friend. A creamy latte, a picture-perfect egg sandwich.
“Of course,” I typed back—a promise I’m happy to keep.
I suppose that’s why, when I saw this story on our calendar, with no assigned writer, I leaped at it. It read, “Fox in the Snow: I heard they’re opening a second location!” I typed my name in bold and added, “Please?” Desperate times. (And yes, by now you’ve likely heard that Fox in the Snow Part II is coming to German Village next summer. More on that later.)
This place has gotten a lot of hype. The kind of hype that makes you skeptical. The kind that travels 400-plus miles via social media to a friend who then begs to visit. And catches the attention of National Geographic, landing the cafe on a list of reasons “Why All the Cool Kids Love Columbus, Ohio.”
It’s what brought in 20,000 Instagram followers in two years. And what caused customers to approach owners Lauren Culley and Jeff Excell, on the second week they were open, and ask if they could please start offering coffee mugs printed with the cafe’s fox icon. (FYI: They do now.)
It’s also why I couldn’t resist this story. Who is this couple, and what gives this cafe its it?
Whatever it is, you’ll feel it the moment you open the door. It’s more than natural light. It’s more than tables made of upcycled pallets. Or perfectly placed plants. Or soft indie music.
When you pull up to the cafe, humbly housed in a renovated masonry garage, when you approach the counter, piled high with pastries, when you order and take a seat at the bar overlooking the kitchen where those pastries are made, I think you’ll sense it, too.
Each of these moments has this underlying feeling of discovery. I am uncovering something. I have found something special.
You are having a very personal experience, without losing the feeling of community.
It’s funny, too, because Culley and Excell, they felt the exact same way.
Culley, 33, and Excell, 36, met in 2012 at Blue Bottle Coffee in Brooklyn.
Excell, behind the bar, made Culley a cortado, marked in milk with a heart the first time she stopped in. (He was using the very same espresso machine, by the way, that they now have at Fox in the Snow.)
He’d been at Blue Bottle for two years, and Culley, unhappy with her 9-to-5 as a book editor, was making moves toward becoming a full-time baker. She’d spent a few months volunteering at bakeries around the city, sweeping floors for free, just to learn and observe the vernacular of a kitchen—a place she’d always been curious about. She fell hard for this new lifestyle, eventually taking a job as a pastry assistant at Blue Bottle, resulting in a massive pay cut—and a revelation.
“I loved the lifestyle, the people, I loved where food was going and the potential that was in that,” she says. “There’s so much potential in a kitchen, period. Once you tap into that, it’s really intoxicating. That was what did it for me.”
Excell, for his part, had plenty of creative ambitions (writer, painter, musician) but found fulfillment in the coffee culture developing in Brooklyn. After slinging coffee for a few years, he was brought on as manager of Blue Bottle’s flagship store.
The two started dating, and in late 2012, Culley took a fortuitous trip back home to Columbus.
She was visiting family and taking note of the area’s developing food and drink scene. She mentioned to her dad how well a place like Blue Bottle, a neighborhood spot with quality coffee and pastry, would do here in Central Ohio.
“You should just come back and build it yourself,” he said.
Culley made every attempt to shrug it off as a joke.
Back in Brooklyn, she met Excell at a bar across from his apartment.
“I think I’m going to move back to Columbus and open a bakery,” she told him over beers.
“I’m in,” Excell said.
Culley found the Italian Village garage that now houses the cafe on Craigslist. The listing had no photos, but it was in just the right location, so they met their real estate agent on a sub-zero day in 2014 to look it over. It had dirt floors, no plumbing and no windows, so it’s hard to reconcile what was with what is—but not for them.
“This is it,” they said, almost immediately.
“[It was] because of the bones of it and because it was so close to what we thought it could become,” Excell says. “We were naïve in thinking that.”
They underwent a massive, nine-month renovation on what Culley insists was a shoestring budget. They call these months the “unspoken months.” Both were exhausted, working full-time jobs while trying to get the cafe ready to open.
They painted the entire building themselves. They found artists and craftsmen on Etsy who would make their furniture for cheap. The giant mirror behind the counter? Excell and Culley bought crown molding, spray-painted it black and hired a carpenter to nail it around a large piece of glass.
But Excell puts more weight into what they left out of the cafe than what they put in. You won’t see a bulletin board or an overwhelming amount of options on their menu. There’s no wifi at Fox in the Snow, and, interestingly, no sign outside. There’s just a jumping fox, which a customer painted freehand on the side of the building in one day.
(They had every intention of putting out a sign with the cafe’s name. But a major point of discovery for customers, Culley and Excell: The fox has become iconic—and Instagram famous—making a sign unnecessary.)
There is an incredible amount of beauty in the cafe’s simplicity. It’s natural, exposed and unfinished, giving off the feeling that you’re sitting in open air.
“You could add a thousand things to this space,” Excell says. “But it’s just clutter. Cutting all of that stuff out was one of our main design concepts.”
They opened quietly, on Oct. 18, 2014, without so much as a post on Facebook. They alerted their friends and let the people living near the cafe know.
They unlocked the door, and almost immediately, a line stretched toward the front of the building.
“We sold out of everything—every morsel of food we had,” Culley says. “Then it was just a constant game of catch-up.”
For the first six months, Culley and Excell would start their day at 4 a.m. and wouldn’t end it until 10 p.m. They’d brought on just a handful of staff before opening. Eric Renner, the kitchen’s assistant manager, remembers a definite and immediate need for more hired hands.
“What surprised me most was the volume of pastries we were selling,” he says. “And we started getting regulars right away.”
Excell and Culley laugh now about all the ways in which they underestimated the cafe. When they crafted their business plan, they predicted they’d sell around 40 of those egg sandwiches—on a busy day. They sell 300. Excell, who sources all of their coffee from Tandem Coffee Roasters in Portland, Maine, says he ran out of beans in the winter months after they opened.
After about a year, they had proof—the line wasn’t waning, new customers continued to pour in and their staff had grown to 22. They both agreed: They were ready for Fox in the Snow, part II.
“A really good bakery or coffee shop is a neighborhood space,” Culley says. “I think we knew that if you put [Fox in the Snow] in another true Columbus neighborhood then it would really embrace that.”
Their German Village shop, at the corner of Thurman and Jaeger, is set to open summer 2017. The space has incredible history: It was a movie theater in the 1920s and has since been divided to house several businesses. Fox in the Snow will live in what was once the theater’s lobby.
Culley and Excell are already on the hunt for location No. 3. (No, nothing final to report quite yet.)
This is a new season for them—one more focused on the big picture of their business than the day-to-day. They’re stepping back, examining the work they’ve done and feeling thankful for the chance to do it all over again.
“When our friends see us, the first thing they ask is, ‘How are you?’ and then ‘How’s the shop?” Culley says. “It’s an identity. I feel lucky because I’m proud of the shop, and I’m proud of this identity.”