When Tim and Ellie Harman married, her passion for art and his passion for a good cup of joe were also joined together. And if that wasn’t enough wedded bliss, the couple later became partners in business, pooling their life’s savings to open High On Art & Coffee in Lexington’s Woodland Triangle neighborhood.
The concept behind High On Art & Coffee is simple: to feed people’s bodies and souls by exposing them to “as much beauty as possible,” the Harmans said.
In the cafe, self-described coffee purist Tim uses fresh ground beans and an Italian espresso maker to create cappuccinos, lattes, mochas and other coffee-based drinks. Food choices include the homemade pimiento cheese and chicken salad he’s become known for, as well as traditional sandwiches with added touches such as his own garlic mayonnaise. Ice cream, pastries and specials round out the menu.
Ellie, a Buffalo, New York, native and artist herself, showcases some of her own work but hangs and sells art from 137 other artists – about 126 of whom call Lexington home. Each artist’s work provides something unique, she said. “We have 137 artists and 137 different styles.”
In an attempt to encourage people in their artistic pursuits, Ellie and Tim feature art from anyone who presents work to them. The artists receive 70 percent of the sale price.
In addition, the couple eventually would like to buy the High Street building where the cafe is located and turn the top floor into a working space for artists.
“It’s great for customers to see art in progress,” Ellie said.
Q: How do you market yourself?
A: Ellie: We have a Facebook page and we have a website. We’re big believers in word of mouth; if you treat people well, they’ll tell other people. We also accept UK Plus cards. The university just gave out 5,000 fliers of ours during the incoming freshman orientation. And we are sponsors for Red Barn Radio.
Of course, T-shirts and hats too. Walking around with a T-shirt definitely gets people’s attention. People will ask what High On Art & Coffee is.
We also gave away our coffee for free when the store opened until we had the license to sell it. We served the coffee we sell now, so people kept coming back.
Q: How do you stay involved in the community?
Ellie: I think being aware about what’s going on, not just socially aware but politically aware. Trying to do the right thing for the community is important. We donate all of our tips that come in to 4 Paws For Ability, which helps children and veterans get service dogs.
We also work with Paws for the Cause, which is a local no-kill shelter. We have raffled art for them during Gallery Hop, and all the money for that went to them. We had an adoption awareness event here for them, too.
Another part about being involved in the community is that when someone comes in with a poster for a show, I think it’s the right thing to do to stick it on the door. It’s a big part of being involved. I’m a big believer in karma, and the nicer you treat people, the better your luck will be. Plus you just feel good when you do nice things.
Q: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned for starting a business?
Tim: Patience is a virtue because nothing moves fast. You just have to be patient. It takes time.
Ellie: I think patience all around, not only in starting the business, but also as a couple working together. We’re very lucky because we have a strong relationship. Part of that is knowing when to be quiet and walk away. You have to be able to say, “OK, we need to separate for a minute so that we can think through this and then we can get back together again.” That’s a big part because not every couple can work together. And I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a very strong relationship like we do so that you can laugh in the ugliest times. And we do that. We’ll be having the strongest discussion but then laugh because we’ll know there are more important things in the world to worry about.
Q: What separates you from other similar businesses?
Tim: We’re very hospitable. We know people’s names, what they like. And I’m not saying other places don’t, but we’re very geared to know what they like, what they like to do. We greet everybody.
Ellie: Some people look at us like we’re nuts. But we say hello every time anyone walks through the door.
Tim: Also, our prices are really good.
Ellie: Any of our cold drinks are cheaper than they would be in a gas station. We’re not going to charge you $2 for a bottle of water. We believe it’s better to make a nickel off a customer and get 100 customers than try to make $5 off of one.
Q: What kind of work ethic is required for success?
Ellie: You’ve got to work hard. You have to be dedicated.
Tim: And you have to be smart about it. You’ve got to be honest with people.
Ellie: I had a gentleman look at a piece once, and it was a $65 piece. But I told him, ‘Now you know there’s this one over here, as well.’ And I actually got less of a sale because of it. But because of talking to him, I knew he would like this other piece better. So it wasn’t about the greed, it was about what piece of art this gentleman would enjoy most. We’ve got bills to pay, but it’s not always about the money. You treat people right, make the nickel instead of the $5, and you’ll get more later. It will all come back.
Q: What piece of art was so unique you had to ask ‘What is going on here?’
Tim: I know which one I’m thinking of. It’s this shaman pole. It’s got snakeskin wrapped around it. It’s all hand-carved. There’s a deer skull on top.
Ellie: Now that is a unique and crazy piece. For me, another unique piece we had was called Plague Doctor. It was kind of dark and ominous looking, and personally, despite appreciating the style, it was not my specific taste. Another shop owner or gallery owner probably would have turned that piece away. I took it in and hung it. Many of the customers were like ‘hmm, I don’t know about that.’ Then this one couple came in and fell in love with it. They could not live without that piece of work in their home. And if I had not taken it in, then they would have never found it. To me, I think that’s the most unusual and memorable piece. Again, it’s all based on interpretation.
High on Art & Coffee
523 E. High St., Lexington 40507
Monday – Friday: 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m.-6 p.m.