WORDS Liesel Schmidt
IMAGES Jade Graves Photography
“Coffee as bold as the bison.” It’s a phrase that’s in their tagline, a simile befitting a company that seems as rooted to the land as the massive beast is. And for Black Bison Coffee Company, the bison is the perfect spirit animal, representative of abundance, self-nourishment, prosperity, and contentment.
Established in 2019, Black Bison is the result of perseverance and passion for owners Carey Thompson and Josh Palmer. Housed in a century-old barn that was once the location of the iconic Ozark Mountain Smokehouse restaurant, the company has perfectly filled the space, creating a home for itself in a way that only a company with deep community ties could—and those deep ties and personal relationships were part of the driving force behind creating the brand. “We wanted to bring the barn back to life, to bring something new and unique to our hometown, where people could come enjoy a cup of our fresh roasted coffee and walk through the 100-year-old barn and experience something different,” says Carey. “While our barn does sell our locally roasted fresh coffee, we really are much more than just coffee. Before we launched Black Bison, we were involved in another coffee business that was more of an e-commerce business, so we didn’t really connect with our customers. We wanted to be more focused on a local business with more personal one-on-one relations with our community.”
Both born and raised in Fort Smith, Carey and Josh have lived in the community their entire lives. “Our business more or less evolved from our desire to own a piece of Fort Smith history,” says Carey, who, prior to becoming an owner at Black Bison, worked at ABF Freight System for twenty-five years, while Josh worked in real estate development and investment. “Like so many long-time Fort Smith residents do, we have fond memories of going to the Ozark Mountain Smokehouse for lunch. We look forward to continuing our efforts to improve and repair the barn over time to ensure its preservation and use in the community.”
Officially opened to the public in 2020, Black Bison is different in that when it comes to their coffee, the first focus, above all else, is roasting. “Since we started as roasters first, not a specialty coffee house, we focus more on the bean flavor and characteristics,” says Josh. “Many other coffee shops begin roasting after first being in the drink business.” As small-batch coffee roasters, they buy their beans in small quantities from a wholesaler that helps them find quality beans from several origins around the world. With that dedication to excellence, it’s little wonder that the company has established such a following. From sourcing to roasting, each batch is a labor of love that ensures a delicious cup with rich, superior flavor.
Originally intending to operate as a coffee-only business, Carey and Josh saw the potential of the historic barn to be much more than just a roasting facility. With such a strong brand identity, great product, and, of course community ties, they evolved into a unique boutique gift shop which also happens to produce locally roasted coffee beans. Within the walls of their notable location, Black Bison has created an atmosphere that makes people want to come in: to see, to explore, to taste. And to smell. That incredible smell of freshly roasted beans, that rich aroma seems to charge the air. It’s an undeniable draw, and the very best advertisement for their product. And, of course, there is the patent charm of the building itself. “The atmosphere is very rustic, with wood floors, crooked walls and windows, a tin roof, and the occasional visiting squirrels in the attic,” says Carey. “And when you come through our doors, you will always be greeted by the ‘shop girls,’ Rockit and Bleu, our dogs. They are sure to put a smile on your face as you enter the barn.”
As much as Rockit and Bleu do to welcome customers, however, it is the people behind the brand that bring their customers in, and bring them back, time after time. “Carey is the driving force behind our business,” says Josh of his partner. “She is here to help select that special gift or offer a free cup of our coffee to our customers while they shop. We strive to do anything we can to make life a little easier, from specialty gift wrapping to delivering a gift basket for our customers.”
Among their wares at the shop are, of course, the requisite bags of fresh roasted coffees—with their three signature blends of Buffalo, Sunrise, and Thunder as well as “De-Calf”—but there are also teas, housewares and gifts in a specially curated collection that keep shoppers browsing as they sip on a complimentary cup of the coffee that has made Black Bison such a force. And for anyone who wants to be a part of the Black Bison community, there are branded, logoed items including hats, shirts, and coffee mugs that all bear the name and logo of the company.
All of this has served in establishing the brand, in making it a recognizable part of the Fort Smith community, of strengthening it beyond just the coffee they sell. And in the future, they have plans of strengthening it even more. “We are currently working on acquiring a location to expand our business and move forward with a more conventional coffee shop that will serve specialty drinks and more,” Carey says. A portion of the coffee tip money received at Black Bison helps support the efforts of the Children’s Emergency Shelter, whose mission is to offer a safe and stable home providing long-term, family-focused, and loving care to foster kids who exhibit emotional and behavioral disorders due to neglect or abuse.
Two years in, Black Bison has a lot to be proud of—especially as a company that was brand new at the start of the pandemic. “Our devotion to going the extra mile has helped the success of our business through the recent obstacles of the pandemic and beyond,” says Josh. “With all of that, we would not have been successful without the support of our family and friends. We are very lucky to continue to collaborate with many local businesses, realtors, and local small business owners for special occasion gift baskets. We are very thankful for the support of our local community during the past two years and hope to continue for many years to come.”
Abundance, self-nourishment, prosperity, and contentment. Those are the characteristics represented by the bison. And as they grow their business and deepen their ties to the Fort Smith community, Black Bison Coffee Company embodies that ethos, offering a strong cup of coffee and a smile to all who enter their doors.
3716 South 87th Street, Fort Smith, Arkansas
For more information, visit blackbisoncoffee.com or call 479.551.2880.