It began with a friend’s wedding, where up in Asheville, North Carolina, Crystal and Richard Tomasello visited a coffee shop and bookstore — Battery Park Book Exchange — at a friend’s recommendation. There, they spent the day reading and enjoying themselves, drinking coffee in the morning and sharing a bottle of champagne when the afternoon came.
The pleasant day made an impression on the couple, and that’s when the idea for Well Red, Auburn’s newest coffee shop, came to them.
“We just said, you know, we could take a little spin and put our own flair to it and have something like this in Auburn,” Crystal said. “So that’s what we decided to do.”
Well Red, which sells coffee, wine, pastries and books, opened on June 22 in the green wooden home off of Opelika Road. It was a delayed opening, though, as plans for a March launch were thwarted by the pandemic.
In a way, postponing their opening helped ease their minds; a delay meant more time to finish renovations and make sure they were 100% ready for their first customers. But as restrictions on restaurants began to roll back, and as loan bills and rent payments for the shop started to come in, they finally decided it was time.
Richard has been a part of several different restaurant ventures in Auburn over the years, where he and his wife have lived for nearly all of the 20 years since they graduated from the University, so he’s no stranger to business openings. He was one of the original owners of 17-16 when it opened in 2007, then an owner of The Depot when it opened in 2015. When Well Red opened this summer, those first day butterflies still came.
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“You know, every time we’ve opened a new business it’s like, ‘What happens when you unlock the doors and nobody comes?’” Richard said.
But business has been good for these first few months.
“Fortunately, we had a great start doing everything and kind of kept that momentum going,” Richard said. “Now that the fall semester has started with more students on campus, we’ve seen a boost.”
The parking lot is nearly always full in the afternoons now, and on weekends you would be lucky to find seating inside the bustling shop. Patrons, mostly students, sit with laptops and books open, studying and chatting with their friends in their new place to study. There’s seating in the back around a large table and couches and comfortable chairs throughout the store, nestled among the books. The books, Richard says, are more than just extra pieces of inventory to sell—they’re part of the decoration.
The couple spent a lot of time after opening getting their book selection where they wanted it to be.
“Those first couple weeks, all I was doing was just sitting right there on the computer,” Richard said, motioning to the bar. “Constantly just sending off more orders to publishers and all. It was fun, trying to play catch up, and now it’s still placing orders just about every week, with either special requests from people or replenishing stock that we needed.”
While they’ve been busy for the first few months, Richard said that he still finds time to enjoy their coffee shop when things get slow.
“There’s a lot of times where, if we’ve got a little lull in business, I’ll be sitting right here with a cup of coffee and a book, reading for 30 minutes,” he said.
Running that type of business, where the environment is relaxed, was part of the appeal of opening Well Red. It’s been a chance for all of the family — Crystal, Richard and their two children — to work together in ways that 17-16 and The Depot didn’t offer.
“It has always been a dream to have all four of our family — because our kids work at the coffee shop as well — … working there,” Crystal said. “This gives us the opportunity to have us together all of the time. We’re a very, very close family, and it’s us all of the time, being together. And so it’s something we have been striving to get to for a really long time.”
The family can be seen working a shift together on occasion, but most often, Richard will be the only Tomasello behind the counter. Crystal teaches at the University now, after spending much of her time after graduating working in the Office of the Registrar, and the kids go to school. But it’s clear that Well Red is still a family project.
They preach the little things: hospitality, friendly service and calling customers by their name. “There’s a lot of times we’re standing back here looking and we’re like, ‘There’s 50 people in here and we know half their names,’” Richard joked. He knows that there are plenty of places for people to get coffee in Auburn, but his hope is that by offering someone a little kindness and making an impression on them, they’ll choose to keep coming back.
Sarah Sims is a first-year student at the College of Veterinary Medicine. The coffee is better here, she said; usually she’ll be drinking an iced caramel latte as she’s studying for one of her classes. She’ll come in in the afternoon and stay for a few hours three or four days a week.
“I normally sit at the bar, because it gets me away from the people who are just here talking, and I know Richard,” Sims said. “I’ve been here enough to know who works here.”
Reporting for this story was contributed by Emma Kirkemier.
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