I first visited Arsaga’s at The Depot months ago and loved the location and food. And the wine. Ok, three wines. It’s a full service restaurant at the corner of West Dickson Street and the Frisco Bike Trail with a laid back atmosphere and so much to offer. But my current obsession, and what keeps me trekking South regularly, are the signature toasts, specialty drinks, and the vibe being served up at Arsaga’s Church & Center.
Sitting on a hilltop near the downtown square, it’s the little sister shop in Fayetteville’s original, essential coffee institution. I sit with Ava Arsaga, second generation coffee wiz, in the early hours of a beautiful October morning. Fayetteville Farmers’ Market vendors ready their stalls just a block away, so even though it’s barely light out, there’s a noticeable buzz in the air. This location has a warm itty bitty café with a sprawling veranda. Tables and chairs borrowing their color from bright yellow marigolds fill it up. I sit at the little bar inside curled over a fresh drip coffee, my hands soaking in warmth from the mug, and Ava sips on a velvety-looking espresso. I ask her how Arsaga’s got its start.
“Well, my mom was a nurse and my dad was a math teacher and sold lots. They were raising a family and trying to make it all work, unhappy with how that felt. They wanted to do something that would eliminate the work-related exhaustion, disconnection and depression.” She sits up on her stool raising her voice a little for the other two women readying the shop to hear her, “So they opted for just exhaustion and opened a COFFEE SHOP!” Laughter breaks through the quiet and fills the room.
“Dad visited a café in Colorado and was moved by seeing all the people coming in and engaging. It spoke to him, and he had a sort of revelation over time that this is what he and my mom needed to do. So the original inspiration for Arsaga’s, was to create a space. For the community and for our family, and to use coffee as a way to support that.”
Cary and Cindy Arsaga opened the first Arsaga’s in 1992 on Block Street in Fayetteville with their three girls in tow. Ava was 7 at the time. “It was our life growing up. We were raised there and my sisters and I worked there. I moved away to Washington for college and stayed ten years. I met my husband, Jason, and we ran an inn in Neah Bay for a while, and no matter where I went I always kept a job in a café. We moved back to help open The Depot location, so Jason learned the ropes and I got back in to the swing of things then.”
The Church & Center location soon became Ava & Jason’s passion project. “So what we think is so cool is to foster a space where no one needs to see each other as different. We want a clean-cut conservative to share space with a punk and maybe even strike up a little conversation. We want our line at the counter to constantly reflect the diversity in our community. Coffee is a great equalizer that way. People ask me what our target demographic is all the time. We don’t have one. Well, actually, it’s everyone. We try to keep that in mind with every decision we make.”
I’m moved by how little we talk about coffee and how much we talk about intention. A solid theme is emerging, and all the goodness that springs forth from that is felt here. The honorable commitments of the owners, become those curious intangibles that make a place memorable; that something that makes this little shop much more than meets the eye.
The toast program is just one more reason Arsaga’s Church & Center is so special. On a tiny customized corner of counter, they somehow MacGyver-together magnificent toast masterpieces. The bread, from a talented local baker at Apple Blossom Brewery, is home-style but still light with a tender crumb. It’s cut thick, toasted, then topped with brilliant combinations. Kat Hyatt, Arsaga’s official Toast Manager is the brains behind the menu full of local made-from-scratch ingredients. Try the savory egg salad with pickled onions and togarashi, the Nutella with bruleed banana, or the more adventurous “Dionysus” with serrano ham, ricotta, roasted grapes, thyme and olive oil. Even the gluten-free (and gluten-phobic) folks can partake, as they make their own bread for you in-house.
The Seasonal Drinks menu is something worth working your way through in its entirety. They have all the usual players, pour overs, and an espresso tasting called the “Two-Door Shirkey” worth spending some quality time with. Nitro coffees and local JR’s Kombucha are offered on tap. Smoothies, teas, and even beer from several Arkansas breweries round out the world’s most thorough (and yummy) beverage list. And stay tuned; after the outdoor Farmers’ Market closes, and the Lights of The Ozarks begins, they plan to stay open late and offer an additional menu of extravagant hot chocolates. I can only imagine how incredible they will be. After holding firm as an anti-pumpkin latte person for years, I was converted at first sip after trying Arsaga’s version of the seasonal obsession. “We take what’s become a classic holiday beverage and try to make it ours and make it incredible. We use real ingredients to give the experience of drinking actual liquid pumpkin pie.”
Sometimes you go for coffee and it’s just that – survival in a cup. And then sometimes it’s much, much more. What the Arsaga family continues to offer their beloved community nestled here in the Ozark Mountains, even sweeter than any confection, is a lesson in connection. And if that’s too deep for you, then still, go for the love of toast.