We talk with Brittany Huff, the founder of Keeper Coffee about the insanity of following your dreams, how to hustle, survive a pandemic, and the humble joy of motherhood.
Brittany Huff got her first job in coffee in Baltimore at age 14, ‘I didn’t have a worker’s permit and I don’t know why they let me work there, but they did.’ As she thinks back about taking the train into downtown Baltimore, alone, in the wee hours of the morning, as an 8th grader, she laughs, ‘what were my parents thinking? How am I alive? But also, cool that I had a job.’
In a certain sense, this line sums up how Brittany moves through the world. She’s not flippant, but her Risk Threshold is set at double the rate of most everybody else. Brittany’s path to opening Keeper, and its predecessor Little Keeper, sounds a lot like Indiana Jones’ leap of faith: taking a step out into midair and praying you make it across the cavern.
Before Brittany lived in Baltimore, her childhood was spent in the back rooms of her family’s delis in New York. Food service as a career was a natural fit, but it’s clear that her early experiences have shaped not just what she does, but how. In a world of antiseptically modern cafe spaces with baristas who don’t seem to have an off-switch for the pedantic over-explanation of your espresso’s tasting notes-origin-roast procedure-extraction process [yawn]-pairing options, Keeper feels like you’ve entered a warm, inviting home in an old world European village.
The low-key homey vibes of the space and people at Keeper coincide with a nonstop press toward quality. The pastries, all made in-house, are unique and on-point, and the beverages? Let’s just say the Keeper baristas know what they’re about.
As you get to know Brittany it becomes clear that this incredibly rare combo of a down-to-earth, old-school, neighborhood cafe mood and the stratospheric stretch toward constant self-improvement and consistent quality on display at Keeper is like a live-action painting of her interior life. Brittany is working harder than just about anyone you’ve ever met, but from the way she smiles and chats like you’re an old friend, you’d never know it.
This unique creativity, as with most authentically free creation, is paradoxically born out of limitation. Brittany didn’t have relatives with deep pockets, or whatever mysterious prereqs are necessary for a small business loan. When she talks about how she scrapped to get first and last month’s rent for the space that would become Keeper, it’s almost breathtaking. This woman is hungry, and she has no room for failure.
This is where the singularity of Brittany sparks. For most people, a lack of safety net can often push them toward the safest route possible. Before opening Keeper, Brittany worked at a marketing firm that ended up shuttering–an event that she had the intuition to see coming. As a brand new mom, working hard to help support her family, Brittany raided Powell’s and devoured every book she could find about opening and running a cafe. Then, when the marketing company closed, she lost her job. You know, the one that was paying for the diapers and the food and the mortgage.
But that’s not even the crazy part. The crazy part is that she’s offered another desk job–the safe route–and she turns it down. Instead of viewing her small personal savings account as a diminishing runway to hopefully keep her and her family afloat until another job presented itself, she used it to buy a coffee cart setup and launched Little Keeper. As she talks about how supportive her husband was in all of this, and how crazy it can feel to follow your passion, she chuckles, ‘Are we delusional?’ Delusional? No. But maybe a little bit crazy?
Oh, and then COVID hit and shut everything down. But Brittany doesn’t stop, it seems like maybe she can’t. A good friend suggests she pivot. So she starts delivering pastries, but it’s close to 100% not what it sounds like. She had taken on some freelance gigs to bring in some cash, all while trying to run a small cafe in the midst of a pandemic. Then she’d rush home, spend some time with her baby, get her to sleep, crash on the couch for a couple of hours before she’d have to get up to start the baking production for the next day. Then it’s another hour or so of sleep before she’s out the door delivering all of her handmade pastries and another full day.
Woven throughout all of these stories is a thread of relationship. Family, spouse, friends who believed in her, and who didn’t tell her to take the safe route or be practical, feature large in Brittany’s life. Some of this support was financial to help with the buildout in a space she’d leased with her last penny. This support only strengthened Brittany’s resolve to make Keeper a success.
But even here, Brittany seems unique. There’s an openness and generosity, a sort of lightness to her that often eludes people who don’t have margin for error. There’s an undeniable intensity, but it’s sung in a key of absolute joy in the beauty of the world.
Frances, Brittany’s daughter, is a huge part of this. Brittany credits Frances with the push to leave the safety of the desk job to go and create a different kind of life in the midst of great uncertainty. Motherhood has propelled her to make Keeper a space that feels like family. Walking in it feels like what you wish going home for Thanksgiving would feel like.
In a world that’s perhaps a bit too obsessed with boundaries and safety and work/life balance, where modern design feels too cold, perhaps too perfect–Brittany’s insistence on coloring outside the lines, her tenacity in making limitations the engine of creativity, her love for her daughter and her desire to build something beautiful for her, it all works together to make something that is beautifully human. Long live Keeper!