Identical twins Sean and Erik Kopack are the owners and operators of Kobros Coffee, a new, tiny shop in Norfolk that is slinging the best coffee in the state out of an updated garage with no running water.
Days before COVID-19 brought Virginians into a multi-phase lockdown, twins Sean and Erik Kopack opened the doors to a dream they’ve both shared since they were 15 year old punks in Orlando; a tiny, hole-in-the-wall coffee shop slinging the best product they can get their hands on.
Kobros Coffee is a 500 square foot shop run out of an updated garage in Norfolk’s Park Place neighborhood, and they’re doing things that no one else in the city, and arguably the state, are doing with coffee.
“We like to joke that we’re setting a higher standard for coffee in Norfolk,” said Sean. “We’re running two linea minis [espresso machines] and I think we’re the only people on the East Coast doing it. It’s pretty bold and unheard of.”
Sean explained that their La Marzocco linea minis are usually considered home machines, aimed at the market of rich people who want “badass commercial coffee” in their home. The choice to operate two of these machines in a full-on coffee shop isn’t the only odd choice they’re making, either.
“We also don’t have any running water in this space,” Sean continued. “All of our water comes from five-gallon jugs of high-quality distilled water. That’s kind of a blessing in disguise, though, since we don’t have to worry about a filter going out, and we can have a level of quality control for our coffee.”
The twins also have a pour-over bar in their shop. For this, they like to rotate the beans they’re serving regularly. They source from roasteries across the country and world that they’ve been able to become friends with through traveling in their military careers. At the time of this interview, they were serving coffee from Verve in Santa Cruz, Messenger in Kansas City, and Richmond’s Lineage. They also had a fermented pu’erh tea from a Laotian village in China.
“Coffee is complex, but it’s also really simple,” said Erik. “My Navy friends will joke with me about opening a craft coffee shop, but when I’m able to convince them to come down to the shop and try a craft latte, they don’t need to be convinced to come back again.”
“We definitely serve craft coffee,” said Sean. “Every week we do a new craft latte. Over the summer we did a grapefruit latte and worked a lot with mandarin oranges and clementines. Being from Orlando, we love our citruses a little too much. We grew up with grapefruit and orange trees in our backyard. We just did an acorn squash latte. We tapped into our bartending skills, got a little tiki, and used a lot of orgeat in it.”
The twins explained that few people outside of tiki bar employees are familiar with orgeat, a French almond syrup, and that this level of experimentation with coffee is something that sets them apart from other Norfolk coffee shops.
“We keep it different and rotate the craft latte every week,” said Erik. “We like to have consistency but do something new weekly, too. Especially during COVID, having something like this to look forward to and keep people excited and coming back means a lot to us.”
Although Kobros is built on high-end coffee and they get experimental with what they do, Sean says that it’s still a place where your grandmother can come in and feel comfortable buying a cup of coffee.
“You can get as weird as you want, or as simple as you want, with it,” said Erik.
“Coffee is fascinating because it’s so natural, doesn’t have a long shelf life, and is the second most consumed beverage in the world. You can simplify it to its most basic form and have something that most everyone will enjoy,” said Sean. “Compare that to, say, most 21 year olds won’t walk into a bar and order whiskey on the rocks, or they’ll probably have a rough night. But I know plenty of young cats who can rock a black coffee all day.”
It’s one thing to open a business with a family member, but it’s an entirely different thing to open a business during a pandemic as well. Sean says that COVID-19 has been somewhat of a blessing in disguise for the business. It’s allowed them to start off small. It’s also allowed Erik to be in the shop constantly. Because he’s still on active duty in the Navy, he would normally be stuck on base or on a ship more often than not.
“I wanted to stay in our little bubble and be more low-key, but he’s definitely pushed me to do more,” Sean said of Erik. “COVID’s been good for starting small, but it’s been great to have him pushing me, too.”
The twins have been running Kobros as takeout and to-go, and say that hustle has worked really well for them. In March, they had to close down the shop seven days after opening for the start of the phase 1 lockdown. They were sitting on ,more than 30 pounds of coffee then, and have been able to come back strong. They’ve also been doing Decafridays, a late night event where they sling coffee until midnight, blast punk rock, and put up some visuals on a projector. The twins say that surprisingly, the people who show up scoff at the idea of being served decaf, and typically opt for regular.
“We had to face how to have people if people aren’t allowed in the first place,” said Sean. “To-go service was a gamble, but the feedback has been unbelievable.”
Sean said that he first fell in love with coffee as a young punk kid in Orlando. He would go to Austin’s Coffee, a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop that was open 24/7, and would go to the events held there almost every night. When he joined the Air Force, he was stationed in San Francisco, and found himself in a perfect position to see craft coffee come up in the Bay Area. When he was deployed out of San Francisco as a flight crew chief, he would visit the coffee shops in the countries he flew into.
“I didn’t want to do the regular military guy thing and go to a bar and get drunk in every new country. I wanted to experience culture in a different way besides bar hopping, so I went to every cool coffee shop I could find,” Sean said. “All of my family lives in Orlando, so when I got back to San Francisco from deployment, I had no family hug to welcome me off of the jet. I would drive my car to Journey’s Coffee, and each time the owner was like, ‘Welcome home, dude’, and would give me a hug. It was kind of a home away from home.”
Erik would fly out to San Francisco to see Sean, and they would go to all of the coffee shops they could. Whenever Sean was in Hampton Roads seeing his Navy brother, they would go to all the shops they could in Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and even up in Richmond. Eventually, they realized they could create their own shop that specializes in high-end craft coffee that had late night hours.
“We could make something incredible like we’ve seen in other places, and be included in the growth here and make something special as well,” said Erik. “We could have some badass coffee shops here in this growing community that can put Norfolk on the map as a destination coffee city in Virginia and the East Coast.”
Despite their military background, the Kopack twins are far from the clean-cut soldier cliche. They say that they give off a completely different vibe than what you’d expect. Really, you’d have no idea that they’re both veterans if they didn’t tell you.
“When we were opening, we really pushed to our roots of hole-in-the-wall shops. Sure, it is specialty coffee, but we didn’t want to be minimalist. It’s not ‘Hey, look what we don’t have!’,” said Erik. “We wanted some darker vibes, we have an abundance of plants here, a couple of couches, this table we’re sitting at is a concrete slab.”
“We aren’t playing Mumford and Sons in here,” said Sean. “We go from old-head hip hop to IDLES and everything in between.”
“We try to be unapologetic. If we like something, we hope that everyone else will too,” said Erik. “It’s worked really well for us. We don’t try to be something we’re not.”
Sadly, Norfolk has a reputation for having problematic coffee shops. Rape-apologist racist owners and violent kitchen environments have become things that people in the community overlook to appease their caffeine addiction. The twins realize this, and they avoid slipping into that pattern.
“It’s about knowing and being known in your community. We pride ourselves on being kind individuals,” said Sean. “We aren’t doing this to make a buck. We have other means of income. [Erik]’s still active duty, I still bartend and sling coffee down the road [at Equinox]. We’re doing this for our dreams and ourselves, and just to do it. We also want to raise the standard here a little bit. Since money isn’t the concern, we feel like we can be more genuine with our customers, and not be assholes.”
All of the money from their Decafriday nights goes to charities and organizations in Hampton Roads, Sean said.
“Every Friday we’ve done this it’s been incredible. We raised $1000 the first time — in three hours, which is insane numbers for coffee,” said Sean. “That went to the Urban League of Hampton Roads. We see what we’re donating to on a daily basis; we want to help our neighbors and community, especially here in Park Place, where it’s deeply historical and there are a lot of generations here.”
They’ve also made donations to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the LGBT Life Center.
“The other day, I spent hours scrubbing oysters and cages. Erik grew up jumping into it [Chesapeake Bay] out of helicopters for the Navy. We want to clean it up any way possible,” said Sean. “The LGBT Life Center is our neighbor. You could throw a rock at it from here. That’s a weird way of saying that, though… don’t throw rocks.”
David Hausmann, the owner of Kobros’ neighbor, Toast, says that Sean and Erik are great friends of his and that they work hard to help make Norfolk a fun-loving and supportive community. He says they study and think about coffee constantly and push for avenues to share it and even make it charitable.
“Kobros Coffee is elevated yet simple. They are finally bringing exquisite and rare espresso to our area and serving it out of an open warehouse garage,” said Hausmann. “It’s their ingenuity and handiwork which makes this possible. I love giving them advice and seeing what they do with it. The past few months have shown just how much people are looking for something different, but at the same time, comforting. Kobros is every day an adventure.”
The Kopack twins say that they truly pride themselves on being a kind and neighborly business, and they take pride in being small and local. They say that they had no idea that they would have fallen in love with Norfolk and Hampton Roads the way that they have, but it’s become their home and they love it.
“We try to be altruistic. We aren’t doing this to make money; we’re here to serve the people of Norfolk badass coffee,” said Erik. “We’re locals, you can come say hi to us at Toast or The Veil. We try to be transparent with everything we do; you can literally see everything we do through the plastic garage door.”
All Photos courtesy Kobros Coffee