Garth Janssen might be the only Shepherdstown businessman who really is concerned about the price of tea in China.
As he celebrates 14 years in business the owner of Lost Dog Coffee at 134 E. German St. is inspiring his customers in their discovery of many international tea varieties to go with the shop's already well-loved coffee drinks and smoothies.
In fact, when customers step into the world of Lost Dog Coffee, it's the richly aromatic tea rack - arranged with bulk teas and sundries for home steeping - that first greets them.
Garth is extolling the healthful benefits of Pu-erh tea, which is a "living tea" named after the region in China where it is widely cultivated.
"We have a cult following around here with it," he says, noting he sells about three cups of the Pu-erh tea to every one cup of regular. "It's very seductive, and we can sell tea all day long now. We've conquered coffee."
But the coffee conquest continues, despite Janssen's admission that he's in "a major tea phase."
The first 14 years
The Lost Dog experience and drink offerings have evolved over time.
When the shop first opened in April 1996 Garth recalls the decor - with its clock radio and a church pew - was as spartan as the six-drink menu.
Today, there's a limitless number of possible drinks, based on customer preference and the wall-to-wall selection of teas and coffees.
Through the years, it has been the customers who have helped turn the walls into a multi-layered collage of images and messages . . . "Forget the Dog. Beware of Man."
An LP record sleeve featuring a 1960s party girl in full gyration is tacked on the wall above the cream and sugar. It's Cha-Cha Festival, featuring "All-Star Orchestras of Perez Prado ad Pepito Pavon." Taxidermy: Stuffed squirrel, ring-necked pheasant . . .
Various mannequin parts in stages of dismemberment. A corrugated steel butterfly suspended from the ceiling. A railroad spike used as a paperweight for the Good News Paper. A front page dated Saturday, April 23, 1994, headlined "Nixon dies."
"Sometimes, I come in and there are offerings," Garth says. A John Wayne lacquered wood clock recently showed up on the doorstep, for example. "I don't bring anything in here. I'm really, really proud of that fact that it's a self-generating evolution."
There are toys and children's books aplenty at Lost Dog, too.
"A lot of kids have taken their first steps here," Garth says. Zoe Levine is one of them.
Felix Janssen and younger brother Zane have spent their share of playtime at Lost Dog. But Wednesday Zane was learning the ropes behind the counter.
Lost Dog was a family-oriented (and run) venture from day one. Garth recalls the months of 16-hour days when he and his then-wife Lissa first opened the shop.
"We went into it quite objectively because we knew absolutely nothing about it," Garth says. "We faked everybody out. We were consciously seeking to serve a community."
Many of the first customers to come through the door of Lost Dog Coffee are its regulars to this day.
Dion Hellyer and Grayson Topper, then 13 years old, fought to be the first customer in the door. Hellyer won out and made the first purchase: a quarter pound of chocolate-covered espresso beans.
Garth recently discovered a package of pictures in the filing cabinet that showed parties and many of the 114 employees (as of Wednesday) who have worked at the business through the years.
"We've had our share (of fun) here," Janssen says. "Maybe more than our share."
A beverage emporium
Lost Dog's chai tea is hand-crafted, produced by a painstaking 12-hour cooking process. Most places simply use a chai concentrate, Garth says.
There are more than 100 different organic teas from which to choose. Among them are 70 loose leafs (whites, greens, blacks, oolongs and herbals) and 35 green and black Pu-ehr teas.
The various roasters from which Lost Dog buys its coffees have some 150 years of roasting experience.
"We broke away from one large distributor and went to micro-roasters . . ." Garth says. "It gives us the advantage to keep abreast of different roasters' philosophies." With coffee, he says, the key to quality and flavor is more in the roasting of the beans than in the brewing. The same coffee beans, when prepared using different roasting times and temperatures, can produce many different flavors and levels of quality.
"Now we've got a really solid roundup that just gives us 100 percent perfection," he says.
Another positive effect of buying from smaller fair-trade companies is the knowledge that the working conditions during the growing, harvest and shipping were fair and the environmental impacts minimal, Garth says. He concedes the international coffee and tea industry for centuries has been "fraught with a horrible underbelly." That's why Lost Dog supports the operations whose practices can be verified, he says.
Garth also notes the profound effect Internet commerce has had on the industry. He calls it the "equalizer." One of his Pu-erh tea suppliers lives in a village with no electrical grid. The man has to charge his laptop using a kind of communal generator. Then he can take care of his business orders and transactions as long as the battery holds up. Lost Dog was one of this independent tea supplier's first U.S. customers.
"We're really confident in knowing where our coffees and teas are coming from," he says. With major coffee labels we buy in cans from the supermarket, it's hard to make that claim, he says.
One of the more notable wall hangings in Lost Dog is a handmade poster map of the United States titled "The Staining of America," done entirely with spattered coffee. Spanning the Corn Belt is a green-striped United States of Starbucks flag. Affixed across the bottom of the artwork is a bumper sticker: "Friends don't let friends drink Starbucks."
The Wet Dog legacy
One of the most popular beverages at Lost Dog Coffee is the Wet Dog. And its creation in 1997 was entirely by accident.
During a particularly busy shift, Aaron Blessing was hurriedly preparing drinks side by side behind the counter. Shots of espresso were dumped into a cream soda. Rather than pour the drink down the drain and start over, he decided to give it a taste. It's now one of the top selling cold drinks.
"People have had dreams about it," Garth laughs.
A lot of what happens at Lost Dog - a chance encounter that turns into a life-long friendship, a set of deer antlers hung by the door, or simply the workaday banter at the stoop - is just the natural outgrowth of what really has become a community hub of Shepherdstown.
It doesn't matter what your politics are, what you look like or where you were raised. Everybody's welcome here, Garth says. There are no expectations. "You haven't even been to Shepherdstown unless you go to Lost Dog, some people say."
"They say it's good to live in the moment," Garth notes. "You walk in here, and it's disarming ... It disarms people from what they're doing in their day." - DF