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Art AND: Kris Fulton

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Kris Fulton knows your coffee order. Three minutes into our March interview, while he’s outlining for me how he learned to emulate the vibe of Cheers at his Old Goucher coffee shop, Sophomore Coffee, Fulton casually drops into the conversation that my order is obviously a small mocha. He says when he sees me (or any of his regulars) coming, he starts to make it for me before I’ve even made it to the counter. What’s especially notable about this is that I haven’t been able to be a regular at Sophomore (or anywhere besides my couch) for more than a year. 

Nonetheless, Fulton still remembers my default drink. Knowing this, it has the intended effect: Like the narrator in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, I’m suddenly transported to the last time I took that first sip of a mocha, standing maskless in his cafe back in February 2020. I remember it was unseasonably warm, so I was sweating in my black sweater, and that I was already five minutes late for a meeting. I was the only person in the shop at that moment, and even though I was late, I wanted to continue standing there talking to Fulton about how many different kinds of milk he keeps on hand.

Hospitality is meant to embody the warmth and familiarity of a good friendship, to make us feel comfortable and known. That describes Fulton to the letter: His natural warmth is built into the cafe he started with business partner Ann Travers Fortune. Fulton wants Sophomore to be a place for people to have experiences—some of them hopefully a little more profound than my remembrance of being sweaty and late—a place where friends can gather and conversations can be sparked. He sees the cafe as an important third space between work and home where people are free to enjoy themselves and the company of friends and strangers alike.

Alongside neighbors Fadensonnen and Larder, Sophomore has achieved national press and accolades, which is additionally impressive for a small basement space you could easily walk by if you didn’t know to look out for the blue sign. A born and bred Marylander who attended UMBC to study photography, Fulton’s first coffee job was at City Dock Cafe in Annapolis back when he was still in college. He explains he wanted to work somewhere “more relaxing than Starbucks,” which he had heard was fast-paced, but what he got instead was his first lesson in the Cheers philosophy of learning customers’ names and drinks and making them feel at home. Since then, his coffee résumé has grown to be as impressive as it is lengthy, with stops all over the world while working for esteemed Los Angeles-based coffee company Lamill. He eventually resettled in Baltimore in 2016 to work at a few restaurant spots around town before opening Sophomore with Travers Fortune in 2019. 

Unlike others in the artisanal coffee industry, Fulton gives Starbucks a lot of credit, first for establishing the American coffee demand that makes small cafes like his viable businesses and also for their innovation in drink design which made consumers want more than just drip coffee. He also points to Starbucks’ massive franchising in the early aughts and their retraction in 2008 with the recession as having created “a lot of space for other concepts to open up, to provide a much more elevated experience than the quick in and out.” As a high schooler, Fulton’s go-to Starbucks order was a caramel macchiato, but he has since weaned himself off “the syrups,” as he refers to them, moving first to lattes and now consistently drinking espresso and the occasional cappuccino when he’s feeling decadent. Still, about the caramel macchiato, Fulton has only fond memories, looking slightly away from the webcam as he sips from his mug, filled likely with espresso, saying, “They’re good. Really good. Yeah. They figured it out.”

SUBJECT: Kris Fulton, 35
WEARING: J. Crew cotton fleece sweatshirt, custom brass Sophomore pin by Erica Bello, J. Crew jeans, Blundstone Chelsea boots
PLACE: Zoom

 

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Kris Fulton: Setting the Table by Danny Meyer was a pivotal read for me once I decided to take my work within the food and beverage industry more seriously. That book really gave me the framework for how to approach service and hospitality with more intention and also what great outcomes can happen when all of the elements of service line up. 

I also think about the book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff on a weekly basis. It’s a quick reminder that our actions always have consequences even if we are not aware of them. I also think of it in relation to service for its message of anticipating the needs of others and the perils that can happen with trying to meet them without first setting proper expectations.

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

Worst: “Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.” For me, this sentiment blurs the line between that work/life balance that I feel in constant pursuit of. I feel like I’ve led a very work-focused life without considering much else around me with this statement/advice in the back of my mind to justify the sacrifices to family, friends, and life in general along the way. Even though I love it, work is work and should be considered as such.

Best: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

You’ve traveled a number of places around the world for coffee and lived on the west coast for a time. Baltimore is your home, but if you couldn’t live in Baltimore, where in the world would you want to live and why? Where’s the most exciting coffee scene for you? What are your top travel destinations?

Philadelphia has been one of my favorite cities for a long time, so I would likely be located there, if not in Baltimore. There’s so much about it that feels familiar to what I love about Baltimore (unique neighborhoods, diverse communities, access to amazing restaurants, great museums) and it’s very close to New York which is a favorite destination of mine. 

I haven’t been in a while, but the coffee scene in San Francisco was one of the most exciting coffee scenes I’ve had the opportunity to visit. There’s such a long and rich history of cafe culture in that city and everyone there takes coffee very seriously which is great for a coffee nerd like me. The Sightglass Coffee location in the SoMA District of SF is still one of the most amazing coffee shops that I’ve been able to visit. I’ve been there a couple of times and each time I just sit and revel in all the sights and sounds of that space. Truly a Willy Wonka Factory-esque experience there.

One of the last trips that I took before the pandemic hit was to New Orleans and I loved it there. I would love to make that a yearly destination, especially during the winter. Funny enough, I haven’t made it to Europe yet and that is a huge travel destination for me. Paris and the south of France have both been very high on my destination list for a long time, but there are countless other places like Copenhagen, Florence, Stockholm, etc., that I would love to see one day. 

 

How would you describe your relationship with failure? You had a successful career working for others in the coffee industry before striking out with your business partner on your own. Did it ever occur to you that Sophomore Coffee might not succeed or did you have a “failure is not an option” mentality about it?

I think that I’ve always held a “fake it until you make it” mentality when it comes to my career and I am generally okay with failure as long as it results in growth afterward. I like to problem solve and to be presented with challenges in the workplace and I think that my willingness to take on new tasks and learn on the fly has gotten me to where I am now. 

With opening Sophomore, I was confident enough in my experience to believe that it could succeed, but also aware that operating a food business is a risky and often fruitless endeavor. However, once we started the project, there was a noticeable shift into a “failure is not an option” mentality because that is what you need to push through on any given day.

What made you decide you wanted to open your own cafe? What was your childhood introduction to coffee like?

It took me a while to get to the point to decide that I wanted to own a cafe, but I first started drinking coffee with my dad. I started drinking coffee as a kid, though I don’t know how old I was exactly. I think it was between the seven- and ten-year-old range—old enough to have well-formed opinions and to be annoying enough to get my dad to let me drink coffee with him. Whenever I’d ride home [from church] with him, we would always stop by 7-Eleven. He’d grab the paper, he’d get a coffee and I’d get a coffee. It was our thing. My older brother didn’t drink coffee and my mom didn’t drink coffee either, so it was very much a bonding experience for the two of us and that memory has really stuck with me. 

Part of the inspiration for opening a cafe was to create a space where more of those interactions can happen. When we have kids coming into the shop with their parents, it always gives me that same feeling of connection like what I had [with my dad] growing up, and I love running a space that facilitates that.

The impetus for eventually deciding to pursue opening a cafe was from my love of working in the coffee industry, my time spent in cafes, and wanting to try my hand at creating a space using my learned experiences.

What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for? 

Being an efficient dishwasher loader.

Everyone thinks they load the dishwasher correctly (and typically that their partner does it wrong, lol)—what is the Kris Fulton method?

I try my best to focus on all of the like-sized things (cups, plates, bowls) and then slide in all the odd-shaped things around it. I try to stay flexible with my method though and am sure to make sure all the little pieces are in a safe and secure place.

 

What do you predict is going to be the next big trend and when are we all going to catch on to it? 

It’s so hard to say coming out of last year, but it feels like there will be a continued push towards replicating experiences at home or online that we used to only be able to have with going out to a place. Though I’m sure there will be a huge return to travel, going out to eat, going to the movies, etc. I also feel like the convenience we experienced being able to do those things from home, along with the innovation from companies in trying to emulate their previous services, has cemented that need for us moving forward. I’m looking forward to an increased accessibility of goods and services through this new trend.

Has there been anything in particular you’ve been able to enjoy at home this year for the first time?

At the beginning of this year, my partner and I just bought our first home and this will be the first place that I have lived in for over a year since moving out of my parents’ house after high school. Having a space to come home to that feels comfortable, and even more so a space where I feel ownership has been a long-standing goal of mine and I feel fortunate to have finally achieved this. Now I really enjoy just being at home and doing domestic chores like cooking and cleaning, as boring as that sounds. 

What’s a favorite local restaurant and what is your go-to order? 

I’m a big fan of our friends and neighbors [and my former employers], Clavel. Back during their brunch days, a Molletes with Frijoles Puercos and Chorizo was a mainstay for me, but now I’m likely to order their cochinita pibil taco kit or a burrito the size of my head. I am very much looking forward to their upcoming nixtamalería!

 

Is there anything you think potential customers should know about how cafe owners and workers are coping in what we widely call the “service industry” right now as we hopefully enter the later stages of the pandemic? In what ways can we support small businesses like yours in addition to spending dollars? 

I think that folks just need to keep in mind that there are people behind their goods and services. It seems like that has been a bigger focus over the last year, mainly because we all have had to consider it more given our current situation caused by the pandemic. I’m really hoping that we can all continue to apply the lessons we’ve learned over the past year and move forward with a better understanding of how to treat each other.

What do you do just for yourself? Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What do you do just for fun and how did you get into it?

A lot of people don’t believe me when I say that I’m super introverted, but I really am. When I’m at work, there is an aspect of performance and I get to assume a role in order to do well at my job and to make sure people have a good time. When I’m out of work, I’d much rather be alone or with my partner or in a small group setting. I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of great people around me here in the city that I am always behind on catching up with. So, before [the pandemic], a lot of my time outside of work, whatever time I had, was spent trying to catch up with folks or going out to eat with my partner as we are both very food-motivated. I used to climb a bunch at Earth Treks also, something that I picked up as a hobby when I moved back to Baltimore in 2016.

Climbing ended up being something that conditioned me to get ready to open up Sophomore, which ended up being incredibly physically and mentally draining. It’s a physical sport that also requires a lot of focus and problem solving, so your concentration has to be all on that task at that time. We had a pretty long build-out, so I had the stress of that in the back of my head constantly. I could go climbing and not have to think about that at all which was a much-needed break and useful escape throughout the process.

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing?

My daily uniform is pretty much what I was photographed wearing! Blundstones have been a staple item for me over the last several years as I am constantly on my feet and they have great support and comfort. I also love functional clothing, so one of my favorite things to wear are pocket T-shirts for both their comfort and utility.

 

As a self-proclaimed workaholic, during the pandemic you’ve been trying to get better about establishing boundaries between your work life and your personal life. What insights can you share about boundaries? How do you protect your personal time and prevent running a successful business from encapsulating your whole life?

The fact is when you own a business, especially one that operates every single day, there is no definitive line between work and personal life. You just have to find a way to balance the two things together and remain flexible to the changes and unpredictability that are inherent in both. I am constantly in search of that balance on any particular day with an understanding that I might not actually achieve it. I’m learning to be easier on myself by setting more tangible daily goals, being willing to update them throughout the course of a day, and also being okay if they are not achieved for whatever reason.

It’s important to set boundaries with yourself and what you can accomplish in a day and also boundaries with people in your life in terms of when you’re available and how much access to you they’ll have. Finding a way to prioritize the professional and personal responsibilities that I have really helps me to work towards that balance. Inherently there are people and things in my personal life that I care equally as much (or more) about as the success of Sophomore, so I use them as my motivation for seeking that balance each day.

What are the last three emojis you used?

😅🙃🤘🏾

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get involved in the Baltimore food and beverage scene?

Find a space that you love and then ask the people who work there where they like to go to eat and drink, and then visit those places and do the same. There are so many ways to be involved in the scene these days that once you find what moves you to want to be involved, all you have to do is determine in what way you want to do it. For some folks just being a regular patron is enough, while others may want to be more hands-on. I believe there’s a lot of space for everyone to contribute in whatever way they see best for themselves.

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

I don’t follow astrology much, but I have been told by many folks who do that my personality is a dead ringer for my sign (Libra). With my constant desire to find balance within my life, it seems easy to admit that I’m very much a Libra. 

 

Who are your business heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee or a beer with? Why are they the coolest?

My business heroes are all of my contemporaries here in Baltimore running small businesses and serving their communities. Living in Baltimore and experiencing the DIY and entrepreneurial nature of this city has been one of the biggest inspirations for what I’m doing with Sophomore. I’ve always wanted to add to that energy and be a person who was working towards making our city a little better.

What would your teenage self think of how you turned out?

My teenage self would be pretty impressed with the amount of tattoos that I have but would also think that I was lame for not skateboarding anymore. I think he would be pretty excited about the amount of life experiences that I’ve been fortunate enough to have had so far and would be pumped that I chose living in the city over living in the suburbs.

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

Definitely formative! It was at a local skating rink adjacent to the town that I grew up in. I was 15 and worked there throughout high school and a little bit after graduation. It was a small business run by a family who practically raised their kids there, even my boss’s mother worked there part-time.

There I got an opportunity to work in various different parts of the business and was eventually tasked with managing shifts and a team of co-workers. Having responsibilities and seeing behind the scenes how a business was run definitely helped to give me the framework of what it could be like to run my own business someday.

What have you learned recently that kind of blew your mind?

I recently learned that the early aughts hit “Thong Song” by native Baltimorean Sisqó was derived from a sample of “Eleanor Rigby” covered by jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery—something which I don’t think I ever would’ve picked up on if not for being told so.

You had lots of managerial experience prior to opening Sophomore and professed to love spreadsheets so I know you’re organized, but do you feel like you had training in being a boss? What makes a strong leader in your opinion?

I’ve had some training but I’ve mostly learned from just doing the job. I think a strong leader is someone who leads by example and is willing to do (and has done) any task that they are asking someone else to do. Being knowledgeable but also willing to learn and accept criticism are key, as well as possessing humility and openness.

 

Photography by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt Issue 11: Comfort.

This story is from Issue 11: Comfort,

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