Alumni Biz Spotlight: Perk! Coffee & Lunchbox
Christophile Konstas (B.F.A.’00/A) and Elizabeth Ellen (B.F.A.’00/A) were randomly assigned as roommates at VCU, which led to a lifelong friendship and, eventually, a business partnership. The idea first germinated as they chatted over endless cups of coffee in between art classes, way before the third-wave coffee scene of today. After moving away from Richmond (then back) and starting careers, the idea simmered, and 15 years later, they opened Perk! Coffee & Lunchbox in Bon Air, Virginia. The café includes a full-time on-site baker, with all menu items scratch-made or locally sourced, as well as a retail section with locally made goods. They offer breakfast and lunch, plus catering. They’ve been featured several times in Richmond Magazine and also host the biannual Over the River Makers Mart. They are open seven days and recently expanded Sunday hours and opened an outdoor space.
What inspired you to open up a coffee shop?
Christophile Konstas: My parents were in food service all my life. My grandmother in Greece actually had a little café in the village. I was always surrounded by it and I thought, “I will never go into food service.” When I moved back to Richmond in 2009 with my husband, I was freelancing and editing documentary films. I was living in the suburbs in Bon Air and had two sons and felt really isolated. I tried to get work done in coffee shops in the city, but the drive was a hike, and I couldn’t really bring the kids with me, because those places weren’t really family friendly. I was really yearning for that kind of community. That’s ultimately what inspired me to take this leap.
Elizabeth Ellen: Around the same time, I had just come back from a trip to Sweden. Every neighborhood had these delightful cafes. They served up delicious coffee and food, but there was also a space dedicated for kids to safely play so parents could chat and connect. I just thought it was ingenious that there was a place for parents to be able to talk and get a good cup of coffee. As a new mom and caffeine aficionado, I was completely inspired by those cafés.
What are the keys to your success?
CK: I think the most successful businesses tend to be the ones that answer a question. In our case, I needed a community space. We had to do it right, we had to fill that void, we had to do something for the community.
Something we’re proud of over the years is maintaining our friendship. I get asked this a lot by people trying to start businesses with a friend. Our goal, from the start, was that this wouldn’t get between us, and we have succeeded on that front.
EE: Ultimately, we have a similar work ethic. We are hustlers, in a good way, but we make sure to give each other the space to lead where we are strongest. We both put every ounce of passion for this place into setting up the café, but almost seven years later, Christophile has really become the face of the shop and handles the day-to-day operations, whereas I now focus on the website, merchandise and marketing needs. At the end of the day, we are good sounding boards for each other and have very much a yin and yang partnership.
What’s your favorite part of owning a business? What are you most proud of?
EE: For me, it’s seeing the vision we had come to life. As art majors, we were taught to create a physical representation of everything that’s in your head. Every time I’m in the shop, I’m like, “This place is really cool — I want to hang out here!” and I feel like everything we set out to do came to fruition.
CK: Yeah, making it a space that I would want to hang out in is definitely what I’m most proud of. We each have two boys and we always joke that Perk! is like our third baby — there’s a lot of struggles, a lot of pain and a lot of hard days. But then there’s awesome success and customers who keep coming back and mentioning how thankful they are for the space.
EE: Before we opened, I remember an inspector coming in to do the final walkthrough, and I’ll never forget, she said “Why on Earth would you open a coffee shop? You can’t possibly pick a worse business to open.” I thought, “Oh my God, what have we done?” But all the hard work, love and nurturing we have put into this space has paid off. We’ve been in business for six and a half years and our growth impresses me all the time.
You sell a lot of locally made and locally sourced products. Why is that important to you?
CK: I just think it makes so much sense to support and invest in the local businesses and the community that supports us. We’re asking customers to come and support us as a local business. In turn, we want to do the same. We want to see that the community where our families and employees live is thriving.
How did VCU prepare you for this entrepreneurship journey?
CK: I think sometimes art school and art students get a bad rap. School prepared us to work hard and take an idea and make it into something. For us, the creation of a business is the ultimate embodiment of that. We also learned how to be adaptable; I think this past year has proven those skills. We have learned to be agile and pivot to new ideas, new ways of doing things that have yielded great results.
The business community around VCU has a lot of small independent businesses.
Kendra Feather (who owns Laura Lee’s, Garnett’s Cafe and The Roosevelt) is a good friend, and I often go to her with business questions. We support each other and keep each other posted on opportunities and hiring. We originally met her when she was a waitress and started Ipanema Café. She was and still is an inspiration, which was really pivotal at a young age. In college, seeing people like us succeeding in small business ownership was influential. We were at VCU at the right time.
EE: I remember shopping in Carytown and seeing all these independently owned stores, and I thought how cool a city like Richmond was to not only nurture but embrace small business owners. One thing that really stuck with me was on day one of my Art Foundation class, which was in a big lecture hall, the professor said, “Look to your right and to your left. More than half of you will never end up working in your field.” That statistic made me feel like the thing that would set me apart from my peers was hard work. I was convinced that if you paired hard work with a passion or vision, you could be successful. And I actually do work in the field I studied (communication arts and design): My other job is as a creative director at a marketing firm, so I’d say it worked out!