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Is Coffee Hound the brew that launched a thousand Rivian R1Ts?

A latte at The Coffee Hound
A latte at The Coffee Hound.

Coffee Hound first set up shop in Bloomington-Normal in 2002. And for just about as long, co-owner April Fritzen has been trying to establish a Coffee Hound outpost in a location like State Farm or an area campus.

But time and time again, Fritzen said, the local shop has been beat out by a national brand.

“They always take the big-name chain. They're always what gets the opportunity,” she said.

Fritzen was especially disappointed when Illinois State University decided to install a Starbucks in the Bone Student Center when it renovated the space a couple years ago.

“When you’re trying to provide a great experience for students who come and go, what they look back on is not going to be a big chain as a fond memory. Because they can get that anywhere,” Fritzen said.

Coffee Hound, however, is distinctly local. Its location in Uptown Normal has long been a popular spot for students and locals alike. And when Rivian started scouting Normal as a potential site for its first EV manufacturing plant, Coffee Hound became popular with someone else: RJ Scaringe.

Rivian’s founder and CEO conducted a lot of business in the coffee shop that became a favorite stop as he was evaluating the community and the former Mitsubishi auto plant. Fritzen said she first learned her shop got Scaringe's attention while on a research trip in Colombia, when Normal Mayor Chris Koos sent her an article in the Chicago Tribune.

“Then after they opened up Rivian, there was in the Tribune again, saying the same thing — that it was one of their deciding factors to open up in Normal,” Fritzen said. “They just liked the atmosphere and conducted all their business meetings at Coffee Hound.”

Steve and April Fritzen
Steve and April Fritzen from the Coffee Hound.

And if Fritzen had any residual doubt as to Scaringe’s affinity for her coffee, it was dashed when the company approached her to open a fourth Coffee Hound location in the Rivian lobby.

The bustling location now serves Rivian’s more than 4,400 workers as well as the public and visiting executives from around the world. Fritzen said that’s given Coffee Hound the opportunity to prove its bona fides to a wide swath of coffee connoisseurs. Fritzen said she hears regularly from employees visiting from Rivian’s California offices that Coffee Hound is their favorite coffee shop in the country.

”And that is just like, wow, really exciting,” she said.

Fritzen has been surprised by the demand for certain products at the Rivian location. Blended coffee drinks — what Coffee Hound calls a Coffee Freeze — are by far the most popular item. “And our other locations, it’s probably one of our least popular drinks,” Fritzen said.

There’s also a high demand for tea, including Kombucha, a kind of fermented tea. Fritzen said they initially looked into providing a locally brewed Kombucha on tap but ran into problems with the health department. Fritzen said she’s been exploring collaborations with local Kombucha brewers.

One thing that is most certainly offered at Coffee Hound is … coffee. And it’s all locally roasted by Coffee Hound co-owner and head roaster Steve Fritzen. Despite all the specialty drinks Coffee Hound offers, some people just like it straight.

People like RJ Scaringe, in fact, who now only has to come down to the Rivian’s lobby to get a daily fix of the coffee that helped sell him on Normal.

“RJ does come down every day,” Fritzen said. “He's (a) black coffee drinker, keeps it simple.”

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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