David Levesque believes in the value of a hand shake.
It’s what landed him the largest of his Brewed Awakenings stores – the one on Route 2 in Warwick in the shadow of Barnes and Noble – and set him on the path to developing a different coffee shop.
“What we do is totally outside the wheelhouse,” Levesque said in a recent interview following a visit by Warwick Mayor Joseph J. Solomon. Solomon hadn’t stopped in for a mid-morning coffee, but rather arranged to meet Levesque as part of his weekly one-on-one business visits where he learns first hand of issues facing the business community.
The visits frequently turn out to be an “only in Rhode Island” experience. As Levesque told his personal story, relating how he bunked high school – he never earned a diploma – and spent his time working at the J&D Restaurant in North Providence where “I got my degree,” Solomon interrupted. Solomon remembers Levesque’s father, Joe, who was a bartender at Capriccio Restaurant in Providence.
“He was the best teacher, mentor,” said Solomon, relating how the senior Levesque always made people feel welcome using their names and knowing exactly their favorite drink.
But Joe Levesque was more than a mentor and father. He also became one of Levesque’s first employees. The other was Levesque’s mother, Kay. Levesque’s mother urged him to open a coffee shop when a storefront at 1395 Atwood Avenue in Johnston became available. At the time, Levesque was running a wholesale coffee and gift basket business. That was 24 years ago. Levesque followed his mother’s advice, divested himself of the two businesses and focused on Brewed Awakenings. The store is still there, only larger. It is part of an enterprise consisting of five Brewed Awakenings in the state employing more than 110.
It’s a handshake that resulted in the Route 2 store that has changed so much.
In 2013 Levesque and his wife, Natalie, who is the chief financial offer of the company, stopped in at the Jake Kaplan-operated Jaguar/Land Rover dealership on Route 2 across from Best Buy. While Natalie test-drove a Range Rover with Elaine Kaplan, Levesque talked with her sister, Sherry. Levesque shared his interest in opening a store on Route 2 with Sherry and she suggested a store at the dealership.
Levesque’s immediate reaction was that the dealership was too small. Sherry understood his confusion and they walked up the hill to the separate building that at one time housed the Land Rover dealership. It had been vacant for several years, but Levesque immediately saw the potential.
It was big with 8,000 square feet and the space to easily seat 200 customers. At the time there were no coffee shops of this size, not even the San Antonio Starbucks with 5,900 square feet and believed to be the biggest in the country.
As he tells the story, Sherry suggested he draft a proposal that became the basis of a lease agreement. It was all put together on not much more than a handshake. Over the next several months, Levesque pumped $1.5 million into transforming an auto showroom and service garage into a new kind of coffee shop.
At the time Levesque told the Beacon, “It’s not my shop; it’s their shop.” It’s an axiom that Levesque lives by today. The showroom once housing shiny new Range Rovers now offers spaces where patrons can find a secluded spot to read a newspaper and work from a laptop or gather with friends for lunch. There’s also a bar – that’s right, a bar in a coffee shop – and a room that is leased out for $50 an hour for business meetings. The room is made available at no charge to community groups and nonprofits.
Levesque has opened a second Brewed Awakenings in Johnston where in addition to having a liquor license, he has an entertainment license. He plans to bring entertainment to the Route 2 store and, as he told Solomon, is looking for a second Warwick store location most likely in the area of Airport Road and Post Road or in the vicinity of Hoxsie Four Corners. Solomon named off a couple of potential locations.
Levesque is also working out an agreement with Carpionato Properties for the vacant Benny’s in Smithfield and is in the process of finishing – at the cost of $2.5 million – and relocating his South County store to the vacant Feet First store on Old Tower Hill Road in Wakefield.
Connections have played an important role in Levesque’s success. As a teenager he was not only learning the restaurant business from the bottom up but was a valet at Capriccio, where he surely met Rhode Island movers and shakers of the time. It’s where he met the Kaplans and the friendship with sisters Sherry and Elaine took root.
Now he is providing an environment for others to also make connections. He doesn’t apply his beliefs on others, which didn’t seem to be the case in the recent kerfuffle over the Trump supporter who asked if he might collect signatures at the Warwick store to put the president on the Rhode Island primary ballot. Levesque thought that was fine and the man sat at a table with a Trump cutout. A patron took offense, snapped a photo and posted it on social media.
It erupted into a storm, with Levesque being deluged with customers threatening to take their business elsewhere as others came to his defense. Levesque said he received 16,000 emails. He estimated 90 percent supported him.
Levesque takes it all in stride. Although he supports Trump, Levesque said he would have granted volunteers for any of the Democratic candidates for president the same opportunity to gather signatures in his stores.
“I don’t come from what party you come from. I’m not in your face,” he said.
But ask him about Brewed Awakenings and Levesque will share his vision for a place that brings people together in these divided times.