Pour Your Heart Out

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Eleanor Bishop

Donkey Coffee and Espresso is abuzz with life. It’s raining outside, the kind of unrelenting downpour that transforms the streets of Athens into surging rivers, but within these purple walls the deluge seems like a distant memory. Here the intermittent rumbles of an espresso machine mingle with the music of Regina Spektor. Whiffs of sweet vanilla chai fill the air and someone is always on the move. The half door that separates the counter from the store is perpetually swinging on its hinges as workers leave and then return to their shifts or grab supplies from the downstairs storage.

Donkey manager Ken Jackson mans the register like a captain riding out the storm. With his wiry black beard, an abundance of silver piercings and green tartan kilt, he would seem at home on the bow of some kind of Scottish pirate ship. Although he would want people to know that the kilt is, in fact, Irish and would likely to offer to tell you a thing or two about the lesser-known history of the Irish kilt-wearing tradition.

Jackson has become a bit of an Athens icon; ask any Ohio University student if they know “the kilt guy” at Donkey, and they’ll likely smile and nod. Watch Jackson at work and it becomes clear he’s known for more than just his distinctive look.

He moves behind the counter with ease, frothing milk and operating the espresso machine like it’s second nature, and after five and a half years on the job, it should be. His skill leaves him with plenty of time to talk to customers. It’s easy to believe that everyone at Donkey is a regular, because whether it’s their first visit or their 500th, he greets every patron with the same cheery, “What can I get for ya?”

Jackson has a knack for making people smile and stick around. In between ordering chai lattes and iced coffees, locals chat with him about their upcoming projects, their kids and recent trips to the gym or the hospital. If it’s not too busy, they’ll park themselves at the counter for a bit.

“I know somebody’s drink before I know their name,” Jackson says. “And I strive to know their name too. Because, yeah, it’s great when somebody knows what you’re gonna get, but it’s also great when they know you.”

He believes that being a barista means more than just giving people the right drinks. “A coffee shop is a five-minute vacation in the middle of a hectic day,” Jackson says. “I get to be the flight attendant or the stewardess of whatever it is that gives you that sense of reprieve, and I like that. I like being able to let people let their hair down for five minutes.”

Jackson takes his role as stewardess very seriously. There is a trust built between him and his patrons, despite, or even sometimes because of, the fleeting nature of their interactions.

“Everyone has garbage going on in their life,” he says. “And when someone has a family member die or whatever, they’ve built this relationship that they might not want to talk to their coworkers about it, but they’ll talk to us.”

For the last 12 years, coffee has been a major part of Jackson’s life. But despite his current expertise, there was a time when Jackson had only the most casual interest in coffee. Years ago, he worked in production at the General Mills plant in Wellston, Ohio. An on-the-job injury, which tore the tendons in both elbows, left him unable to return to work. Ohio workplace injury policies gave him two options for retraining: go to school or start a business. Jackson made a trip to Seattle that offered inspiration.

“I had seen drive-thru coffee shops there— kinda got hooked on one for a while,” Jackson says. “And I just thought, ‘You know what? We could make that happen.’”

Thus, Brew du Soleil was born. Jackson and his then-wife set up a drive-thru only coffee cart in an empty Athens lot near the weekly farmer’s market. Together they researched coffee and experimented with different espresso drinks. The shop ran successfully for seven years, but after their divorce, Jackson decided it was time for a change.

“It was just not in the cards to keep things going that way,” he says. But he wasn’t done with coffee.

Chris and Angie Pyle, the owners of Donkey, were happy to have him. “I don’t know where we would be without him,” Chris says. He says Jackson is “one of the most ethical, moral people I think I’ve ever met.”

Jackson’s attitude fits perfectly with the Pyles’ values. The married couple opened Donkey 17 years ago with a mission to create a community space that served fair trade coffee with a commitment to social justice and the arts. The shop has a reputation for excellent customer service.

“Most coffee shops are kind of snobby, and we never wanted to be that,” Chris says. “Ken is not a snob at all. He’s wonderfully relatable.”

The Pyles pride themselves on allowing Donkey employees to be their most authentic selves. Baristas don’t wear uniforms, but Jackson has developed one of his own: baseball cap, tank top, boots and of course, the kilt.

Jackson says that his wardrobe, like most things in his life, is multifaceted. The kilts connect him to one segment of his ancestry— his family is largely Irish and Cherokee—and serve as a tool to meet new people.

“If you look or act different, people ask you questions,” he says. “And it gives you an open opportunity to tell them your story.”

In his many years serving coffee to the people of Athens, Jackson has observed the inner workings of a community.

“Our country was essentially started in coffee shops and taverns,” Jackson says. “The founding fathers were known for hanging out in tea and coffeehouses. That same thing happens here.”

From his spot behind the register, Jackson has seen families grow and children age into young adults. He has served everyone from the greenest college freshman to the most venerable Athens townie. “It’s the police chief and the prosecutors and the judges, the teachers and the superintendent—I mean, everybody comes here,” he says.

And no matter who they are, they’re sure to be greeted with the low rumble of an espresso machine and a cheery, “What can I get for ya?” from the pirate behind the bar.