Whether you order a nice, cold apple cider or a warm, toasty Toomer’s Corner latté, anyone who ventures into Ross House Coffee stays for the same reason: it just feels like home. In fact, that’s what it originated as.
Before Ross House Coffee existed, it was simply that. Sitting on North Ross Street, it was home to a group of college boys.
Just over five years ago, the house was home to a weekly worship night, had Bible verses written on the walls and each Sunday morning the boys got up and went to Cornerstone Church.
In 2017, the owner was contemplating tearing down the vacant house or using it for commercial property. That is until New Orleans native Toni Holt had a vision.
She saw the vacant property and immediately picked up the phone to ask the owner if she could use it to open a coffee house.
“You know what, that’s a great idea,” the former owner said.
But the move to Auburn wasn’t easy for Holt. The idea of a college town had to grow on her. But now, she smiles every time she walks past the house’s pet: a black, loving cat named Ross, and into work.
“At first, I didn’t want to come here. I was mad that we were leaving because I wanted to make sure all my family lived in New Orleans,” Holt said. “But once I got here after about a year, I absolutely loved it. I will not move or live anywhere else now because it’s such a great, family-oriented town and a great Christian town.”
Five years later, the building has held tightly onto its Christian roots. The Bible verses still remain underneath the walls, but new ones lie on top of it as well. Not just that, but Ross House now has a prayer box that usually gets filled up to the brim before Auburn Community Church can come pick it up each week or so, according to Holt.
Christian music ringing throughout the shop, kind and hard-working employees, delicious coffee with unique flavors, fresh pastries and a home-style environment completed with fireplaces and art from local creators is what the customers say sets Ross House apart from other coffee houses in Auburn.
“Our mission is to provide for the community a peaceful, comfortable place where people can come and read their Bible, have a Bible study, a business meeting or meet with family and friends,” Holt said. “Just a peaceful place for people to go.”
In addition to the coffee and atmosphere, customers see Ross House as a great spot to sit and do homework or reading. It’s quiet, comfortable and there’s a plethora of rooms and tables to set up for a morning, afternoon or night. After all, Ross House is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. CST every day except for Sunday, when it closes in observance of the Sabbath Day.
“It’s a very homey vibe,” said Auburn University junior in microbiology premed Taylor Hughes. “It’s not like your other libraries – like, it’s cold and stark in the library and the lights are very fluorescent, and I like how here it’s dim, warm lighting, which makes it feel a lot more intimate, and it’s easier to connect and get work done.”
Ross House holds strong to its Christian views and values, but Holt makes sure that the shop is welcoming to all people. She described their values as love, empathy and most of all, kindness.
While Christian values are something she takes into consideration when hiring employees, she hopes to serve and make all customers feel welcome. According to Anna Brooch, junior in international studies at Auburn University, Ross House is fulfilling that mission.
“I’m not really that religious, but it’s not something that deterred me because it didn’t feel like – you know, how faith-related things can feel pushy in a sense – it didn’t feel like that,” Brooch said. “It just felt very welcoming, and I don’t feel like they’re throwing it in my face. I still enjoy it here, so I think anyone else can enjoy it, too.”
Outside of comfortable, cushioned furniture and treating customers with kindness, Holt has worked to make Ross House available to all by adapting the old House to be more accessible to those with mobility issues.
The house was built over 20 years ago with a steep, white staircase leading up to both the front and back entrances. They not only added a ramp but the bathrooms were rebuilt to be more handicap friendly and spacious. Ross House also added an online ordering system and a pickup station to accommodate college students’ busy schedules.
According to employees Natalia Kern and Susan Preston, Ross House is just as welcoming of an environment to its employees as it is to customers. While employees do work long hours, as Ross House is opened later than any other coffee shop in Auburn, they enjoy being in the positive, uplifting environment that they call work.
At 60 years old, Preston joined the Ross House team after her daughter had to quit because of school. But her daughter liked working at Ross House so much that she urged her mom to leave her job working at a coffee cart and apply to work there, that way Holt wouldn’t be short on employees.
“I like working here because it’s fast-paced and it keeps me busy,” Preston said. “And I just like the atmosphere. I like the people I work with. I really think very highly of Toni. I think she’s a wonderful person.”
Respect for Holt is common among Ross House employees. In fact, for some, that respect is built before they even get hired, as is the case for Kern.
At 18 years old, Kern met Holt at a “Youth for Christ” event – an annual event for kids in foster care. After sharing her story of the abuse and neglect that she experienced from her parents, Holt reached out to Kern’s roommate and set up a visit to their apartment. After the two met, a job interview became the next meeting for the two.
Now, at 21, Kern is still working at Ross House. Like Preston, she voiced her admiration for her coworkers, a welcoming workplace and Holt, who she says plays the biggest role in setting an example of kindness for the Auburn community. Kern has been employed at several different organizations, but none are as special to her as Ross House.
“(Working here) is the best thing ever,” Kern said. “It’s the best kind of job experience you can have. It’s structured better, it’s run better, it’s organized better and everybody’s kind of calm during stressful times because people don’t jump on each other, like out of frustration. That’s what really makes a difference. There’s a lot of love.”
At the end of the day, Holt says that Ross House’s unique qualities help the business. There are some people who back away from Ross House because of its blatant Christian beliefs, but Holt isn’t bothered by the opposers.
When Ross House expanded to a second location in Auburn on 320 West Magnolia apartments, Holt didn’t know how their Christian music and decoration would be received, but they stayed true to who they were.
Now, Ross House is no longer a living space, but it’s one of Auburn’s most beloved coffee houses. On that hill next to 160 Ross dorms and inside 320 West Magnolia apartments, students have made it their second home, and Ross the cat made it his first.
Whether you walk up the stairs or the ramp and sit down by the fireplace in Ross House Coffee, it will be hard not to come back.
“So, my sophomore year, my sister invited me to go (to Ross House) to study, and it just kind of stuck,” Hughes said. “I think all of our friends already come here. I mean, there’s a cat. It’s great. It can’t get much better than this, you know.”
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Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.