Relative newcomers to Bluffton look at Old Town’s Corner Perk coffee house and think it’s been around for 20 years. Its location sets a perfect entryway into the eclectic mix of commerce that is The Promenade. More importantly, its mix of hospitality and world-class java give the business an air of being an institution-level gathering spot.
Josh Cooke laughs when being presented with such compliments. Just eight years ago, he and his wife Kali were struggling to keep the lights on at their original Burnt Church Road location.
Before he gave up on his dream, the Cookes decided to try one last Hail Mary approach. Josh crafted a 100-page business plan for the Promenade concept, complete with more fresh-roasted varieties and a restaurant with a full brunch menu.
An endless parade of banks slammed the door on him. But it just took one willing partner, and thanks to Promenade architect Bill Herbkersman, Cooke got connected with Palmetto State Bank. Despite often having only $100 in his bank account through much of the build, the husband and wife opened the doors in July 2014.
Today, the Cookes have three locations around Beaufort County, with a fourth being planned for Buckwalter Place and a warehouse space on May River Road to store beans and roast his blends. And Josh is breaking in a new roaster that will give the company three times the capacity to make their own blends.
“It is absolutely crazy to think about all that’s happened,” Josh Cooke said of his business baby’s growth. “I’m a man of faith and we had unwavering belief in the concept. We love what we do, coffee is my passion. We have amazingly loyal customers and incredible team members that have fueled us to this current place.”
The new Mill City roaster, which allows his crew to roast 1,000 pounds of coffee beans per day, has allowed Cooke to both buy more beans in bulks from suppliers, like Balzac and Company in Charleston, and to branch out to find even more exotic international blends.
“We found an importer out of Indonesia that connected us with the island of Sulawesi,” Cooke said. The island is known for a rare ancient Toraja region coffee tree that yields a blend with a heavy body and creamy texture that has become a huge hit with Corner Perk devotees. “We bought about a third of all the coffee produced there in one harvest, because we knew we had the capacity to roast it.”
Cooke said he has struggled and adapted like many other small businesses during the COVID pandemic. Thankfully, he has kept the Old Town, Okatie and Port Royal locations open throughout, save for about a one-month stretch when Okatie closed out of an abundance of caution for its heavy senior citizen customer base.
“Our regulars made the ride to Old Town, so we’re very fortunate,” Cooke said. Corner Perk’s online sales have also grown exponentially over the past year.
The overall business has grown annually since the move a half mile down the road to The Promenade. Cooke said that COVID-19 has stunted growth and, if anything, slowed down plans for expansion.
The Buckwalter Place spot, across the street from Heuser Ace Hardwore and next door to the current State Farm location near the Innovation Drive roundabout, is the next big project for the budding chain.
“It was originally supposed to be our second location, but opportunities came up to take over Port Royal and open in Okatie,” Cooke said. “But we’re about to start moving full steam ahead on Buckwalter.”
Cooke said he hopes to have plans submitted to the town in the next couple of weeks. From there, he hopes to break ground in several months and to be open in the next 12 to 24 months.
“I’d love to be more specific but there’s just too many variables when it comes to construction timing and supply availability to make any grand promises,” Cooke said. “I just want that crowd to know we are definitely coming, that much I can say.”
The Cookes are thrilled to welcome back one of their original team members, Heather Watson, as their first official corporate employee. Watson will help with roasting and for ensuring quality control across all Corner Perk locations.
“We’re thrilled to have Heather back on board. She’s an incredible asset to help us keep the smart growth going,” Josh Cooke said.
The entrepreneur doesn’t envision opening many more locales himself. Instead, he’s doing research to potentially franchise the Corner Perk brand.
“We feel we have a unique story to tell, some proven blends and an overall artfully crafted business here,” he said. “I’m a dreamer and like to take big swings. So we’re looking forward to what’s next.”
Tim Wood of Bluffton is a veteran reporter and editor.