From hosting teen bands to supporting tiny family coffee farms around the world, Josh and Kali Cooke have focused their efforts on helping others in whatever way they can.
Originating in a cozy coffee shop at the corner of Bruin and Burnt Church roads, the owners of Corner Perk Brunch Café and Coffee Roasters now inhabit a prominent corner on May River Road and Calhoun Street as an integral part of the community.
Josh grew up in Bluffton, his family having moved to town when he was in middle school. Kali is from Pittsburgh, but calls Bluffton home after 22 years of living here.
The two met while attending Charleston Southern University in 2000. He initially began to study business but switched to youth ministry two weeks into the semester. Kali majored in music therapy. Following graduation came marriage, an internship in Columbia, jobs in Atlanta, and ordination as a Baptist minister before the couple moved back to Bluffton in about 2009.
It was then that the idea of a coffee shop was born as a place for young people to gather and make music.
“He was having a hard time finding a job, and there wasn’t really anything for the youth to do at all at that point. So we decided, well, let’s start this coffee shop to be a safe place for the kids to hang out,” said Kali.
Over time, Josh said they learned a ton about how to build culture, so when they moved from Burnt Church to Old Town with a better location, more space, and a more expanded food menu, “it was like the faucet just turned on all of a sudden.”
Much of the flood of support showed up during the building of the new site at the corner of Calhoun and May River Road.
“It was that following from Burnt Church that allowed this to even work. We had so many people that were behind us, and even through our building here. They would encourage us every day,” said Kali. “We had a couple of people from Sun City that took a picture of the building progress every day, and they presented us with a big PowerPoint when it was finished. We had people off the street helping to lay bricks and wash windows, put furniture in. We did this for the community, and the community helped us through in turn, and even with roasting.”
Downstairs and outside the atmosphere is coffee, brunch, comfortable booths and tables on the sidewalk. Upstairs, in the Roasting Room Lounge, the vibe depends on the musical acts booked by Jordan Ross, who has scheduled local and nationally known performers over the past six years. Some of those acts have played a big role in the Cooke’s ongoing efforts to help local groups.
“What’s really fun is – those teenagers that we allowed to come into our first location and play music for their friends? Now some of them are on the stage up here in the Roasting Room. It’s just such a neat circle to see,” Kali said. “There is Nick Poulin, one of the teens that used to play at our old location for our wild and crazy teen nights. And now he plays with his group, and they sell out every time they play. He is very talented.”
Poulin has also opened for Collective Soul, who played the Roasting Room after word-of-mouth reached him from Georgia musician Angie Aparo.
Aparo had performed at the Roasting Room a couple of times, including a fundraiser for Haiti. He told Ed Roland, lead singer for Collective Soul, that he must come check out the scene. Roland not only checked the place out, he bought a house in Palmetto Bluff, and told Josh he wanted to bring his whole band and play.
“You don’t have to pay me anything,” he said. “Let’s charge $50 a ticket and give the money all to charity.”
Josh said that was great and they would donate a portion of the bar sales as well. That was one of the fundraising efforts Corner Perk has held for the Lowcountry Autism Foundation, with which the Cookes have a close relationship.
“We just built a relationship with them. I worked with a lot of kids with autism when I was a music therapist, and so they kind of have a special place in my heart,” said Kali.
Performances aren’t the only way they have helped LAF. There’s a special coffee blend that provides a quarterly check off sales to the nonprofit.
“There’s a young boy named Jack. His mom, Sophia, is an advocate and a fundraiser for the Lowcountry Autism Foundation, which does a lot great work in the community. And so we came up with a roast of coffees,” said Kali. “We call it Jack’s Roast. You can buy year-round on our website and in the store, and 25% of all the revenue goes straight to them.”
Kali has gone into the special needs classes in the high schools with a special fundraising project that draws on the artistic talents of those students.
“Right before COVID shut our world down, we did one where we made coffee mugs. The kids painted coffee mugs, I fired them in my oven, and then we had them here for sale. People bought them, and then the proceeds went back to their special needs class,” she said. “I would love to get that up and started again.”
While they have regular interaction with LAF, the Cookes extend their local community support in many other ways. The performance venue is available and has hosted numerous fundraisers for many community organizations and causes.
“The community has sponsored us and helped us, and so it’s our job to give back and help them. All of our sponsors are able to have space in the Roasting Room for private parties at no charge. They pay for food or whatever, but it’s because of the community that we’re here, so we give back,” said Kali.
Josh said they try to make someone’s ideas work for whatever fundraiser they want to hold.
“We try to say ‘yes’ as much as possible. Here’s how I see it. People who are doing nonprofits are doing a lot of physical work in the community to make those things happen,” he said. “And a lot of those – the YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, Volunteers in Medicine, Bluffton Self Help, food pantries – they’re all working really hard, putting their own time, effort, money, and family sacrifices into it … so if we can accelerate that, help them, make it simpler for them, give them an advantage, that’s easy, let’s do it.”
That philosophy extends to the coffees they buy. Once they opened the upstairs as a performance venue, they needed a place to store and roast their coffees. After purchasing a warehouse down the road, the Cookes pursued their plans on how they source their beans.
“What we’ve been more intentional about is, now that we have the opportunity to buy a whole pallet, we’ll buy from people like these guys who came through the Christmas before last from Indonesia, the island of Sulawesi,” said Josh. “They’re on the other side of the island where most of the coffee comes from, but they’ve got this family farm. They produce about 5,000 pounds of coffee a year, green coffee. We were able to buy a third of their whole farm of coffee.”
While purchasing bags of coffee from different farms around the world gives Corner Perk’s customers a wider range of java flavors, there is more to the buying than the drinking, said Kali.
“We bought several batches from Honduras through this guy that’s in Savannah. He’s intentional about buying coffee from families that are in need of his assistance. And then he turns around, and gives back half of what he makes to that family when he sells a coffee,” Josh said. “Most family farms are going to produce about six to eight bags of coffee a year. We go through a family farm’s worth of coffee per month now.”
Corner Perk’s customers are certainly supporting those farms and families. These days the coffee house goes through at least pallet a month – the equivalent of 10 bags or nearly 1,500 pounds of coffee.
In addition to Honduras and Indonesia, other coffees come from Columbia, Guatemala, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, and Mighty Peace, an organization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that’s working to support individual farm owners.
“Because we were selling so much coffee to the community and growing as Corner Perk, and needing to roast more coffee, then we were able to buy that larger warehouse,” said Kali. “And now we’re able to support more communities in different countries because of Bluffton’s support to us.”
“I know that we started this for the community, and it’s like looking at this wall,” said Kali gesturing to the engraved barrelheads on the Roasting Room walls. “I wish that we could put all of Bluffton all over the walls, because it’s so many individuals and so many different companies who have helped us be where we are today. So we have to do what we can to give back. As much as we have the capability, we just try to find ways to say ‘yes.’”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.