Serving coffee and eats – not time – in a former jail
By Allison Law
You might be distracted by the unmistakable aroma of fresh coffee and the familiar coffeehouse chalkboard, filled with all kinds of iced and hot drinks, frappes, teas and specialty drinks. Or, depending on the hour, by the food – scones, pastries and Conecuh sausage pigs-in-a-blanket in the mornings, or loaded baked potatoes, salads, tacos and nachos around lunchtime.
But did you notice the bars on the jail cells? Yep. You’re in the old jail in Jackson, Ala., now given a new post-incarceration life as Bigbee Coffee Roasters.
The restaurant/coffeehouse gets a number of visitors who’ve heard of its storied past (a famous music group spent a little unintended time there – see Page 36), but most patrons are local folks eager for a caffeine jolt, some tasty eats and personal service.
“The few things we try to do well are quality, product, whether that be coffee or food, and great service,” says Jesse Quillen, co-owner of Bigbee with his son, Preston Quillen. “I figure, if we can do those things, even if we mess up, they’ll forgive us. We love people, we love our community, and we want to make a difference. I know it’s old-fogey, old-school stuff, but that’s true.”
From the ground(s) up
Preston came up with the idea for the business after visiting Haiti for two summers and seeing how coffee is grown and harvested. He started researching the process, and while he was living in a small apartment in Tuscaloosa, he started roasting coffee beans in a popcorn popper, selling coffee to his friends.
He talked to his dad about a potential coffee business. Jesse’s background was in insurance and economic development, but he was intrigued with the coffee idea. The two took a roasting tour in Minnesota, learned how to use a commercial roaster and earned the necessary certifications.
Father and son considered starting a business in Tuscaloosa, but the expense of a commercial space for a start-up there was daunting. At the time, Jesse was working in business recruitment, and had connections. He knew of a place right in the heart of downtown Jackson, a building that had been vacant for more than a decade and had a rather colorful past.
Bigbee Coffee Roasters opened in June 2017 with in-store coffee sales only, but has expanded to an online and a subscription coffee business, and now does wholesale business as well as supplying regional coffee and doughnut shops. All roasting is done by the Quillens on site, with coffee beans imported from countries in Africa and Central and South America.
A long-term plan to renovate the entire building (Bigbee Coffee Roasters now occupies only part of the space) should allow the Quillens to start holding coffee cuppings, where Preston can teach people about different brew methods and how to appreciate varying flavors. They hope to offer traditional coffeehouse seating, and perhaps a small room for meetings. Preston says the plan is to continue building the atmosphere of community that has been a hallmark of the business from the beginning.
Pre-COVID, Bigbee hosted Mission Mondays, donating some of the day’s proceeds to local charities and churches. “We’re trying to get back there, but COVID has taken a toll,” Preston says. “That’s something we’re passionate about – community, and trying to make a change and trying to help people.”
No ordinary jail food
The emergence of COVID-19 in March 2020 changed everything for businesses, and Bigbee was no exception. The state health order mandated that restaurants were essential and could remain open for curbside service. But Jesse’s interpretation was that since Bigbee served coffee drinks only, it wasn’t a true restaurant.
After a two-week shutdown, the Quillens entered survival mode. They started doing short-order items and quick foods, like sandwiches. Jesse was inspired by watching a food truck operator who once set up nearby.
“He had like a dozen items on his menu. It amazed me, as I watched him serve people, how efficient he was. Right? You could get any one of those 10 or 12 things on his menu, and it was step one, step two, step three, and you’re on your way.”
The menu has continued to evolve and expand since those early days. They now serve brisket and pulled pork, which they smoke on site, as well as chicken and shrimp – as salad toppers, on baked potatoes and in sandwiches, sliders and paninis.
Because the menu changes almost daily, Bigbee has no printed menu, much to the frustration of some customers. But Preston updates their social media channels frequently, and coveted specials can make an appearance with short notice.
Beignets appeared recently, in a nod to Mardi Gras. Loaded breakfast burritos make an occasional appearance, and chicken wings have in the past. Homemade soups warm up a chilly day. One constant is Saturday mornings, when Bigbee does a full breakfast, with pancakes, sausage, French toast, hashbrown casserole and more.
They’ve even catered a Christmas meal for 500 at a local paper mill. And in November, they opened a second location in Chatom that serves coffee beverages only.
“We’re still young, still growing, still trying to probe and find our way,” Jesse says. But one thing will be consistent: Customers are like family.
“You could have stopped at several other places up the way, but you wouldn’t have gotten the interaction that you get here,” Jesse says. “I’m old school, but I still believe that has value to people.”
Bigbee Coffee Roasters
118 College Ave. Jackson, AL 36545
find them on Facebook @bigbeecoffee, for daily specials
7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday;
9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday
Some ramblin’ men pay a visit to Jackson’s jail
The former city jail that is now home to Bigbee Coffee Roasters has had its share of intrigue over the years, but its most famous visitors left a mark on the place. Really.
On March 22, 1971, members of The Allman Brothers Band were travelling between Tuscaloosa and New Orleans and stopped at a Jackson truck stop. Already big names by that time, the appearance of the long-haired band and crew in a small town didn’t go unnoticed.
The whole group was arrested and booked on various drug charges, according to an al.com story, quoting from the book Midnight Riders by Scott Freeman. They bonded out the next day and were eventually able to reach a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to disturbing the peace, and paying a few thousand dollars in fines.
Jesse Quillen says in the cell where they stayed, “there’s a little heart carved into the brick wall in there that says Allman Brothers Band, and right below it says ‘Red Dog was here.’ Red Dog was their roadie. I learned that from a guy that was through here, doing an Allman Brothers tour kind of thing.”
Visitors can enter and view the cell, and some of the other cells are open for dining. The interrogation room still has the carpet on the walls and the one-way glass used by officers.
“The whole intrigue, it allows us to get that conversation started and tell stories about that,” Jesse says.