Two days. That’s how long Akera Sellers had to learn to be a barista at Brickhouse Gourmet Coffee & Tea Co. The bigger challenge? The longtime financial professional didn’t have a drop of coffeehouse experience. While he’d spent years planning and preparing for the business launch, he’d struck out in one unexpected area just days before opening.
At Brickhouse, Akera wanted to serve the kind of beverages he enjoyed most. Handcrafted, not dispensed by push button from a machine that did all the work. “Here it’s manual. You make sure your dosage is right. Your tamping is right. Everything is measured manually,” says Akera. After a few dismaying interviews with baristas that could not barista without the help of the large Breville machine, he set aside his spread sheets, grabbed a leather apron and became the barista he needed.
That commitment to experience and quality created a short-term nightmare for Akera and his wife and business partner, Alexis Wright-Sellers. “It was a scary patch,” she admits, “but a sink or swim moment. And there was not going to be any sinking!” Akera’s crash course began. “I didn’t know anything, I had no idea where to start,” he laughs. Undeterred, he spent the two days before the grand opening learning and feeling his way around the materials, recipes and tools. “When we opened Monday, I’d probably had an hour and a half of sleep,” he laughs. “I hate to say it, but I think the first three days I served some nasty lattes.” Before long, however, he was a prodigy behind the counter.
Both Akera and Alexis are native New Yorkers who grew up together. “We met when we were nine years old,” says Alexis. “But she really didn’t give me any attention until we were 15 in high school,” Akera points out. Neither has a background in the coffee and tea business other than a love of coffee as a child (Alexis) and homebrewed sweet tea (Akera).
Akera worked on the New York City Stock Exchange and traveled the country as he developed financial estimates for data center infrastructure buildouts. Out on the road, he stumbled upon many memorable hole-in-the-wall coffee shops. That’s when the idea for Brickhouse began percolating. Alexis, who has been in health care IT for more than 20 years, added Brickhouse to her daily to do list. She’s the brawn behind their extensive wholesale distribution business and self-described “errand girl” for the café.
“When Akera told me about his plan to open a café, I was already living in Columbia,” says Alexis. But his plan was based on opening in Atlanta, not Columbia. “She suggested I come to Columbia and then we’d go to Atlanta,” laments Akera. “In the back of my mind, I knew we were not going to make it to Atlanta. But I’m glad we didn’t. Being here is amazing.”
While the original plan started with a brick and mortar location, life dealt the couple a bitter challenge — COVID-19. As soon as they began scouting locations, the world shut down. They shelved the physical location and punted to online sales of their fresh, hand-roasted beans. “Sales were a little slow at first but then during quarantine it took off,” says Akera. “Everyone was at home ordering. Then businesses started asking if we do wholesale. Well, we do now,” he laughs.
What isn’t readily apparent is what happens behind the scenes of the easy-going Meeting Street shop. Brickhouse has thrumming operations for product production, wholesale sales and fulfillment, and retail sales. Alexis notes that Brickhouse packaged coffees, teas and gift sets are now available 84 retail stores in 49 states — “Idaho is like nope, but I’m not giving up.” Another point of pride is that their coffee was selected for inclusion in the boxes for NAACP Image Award nominees in 2022.
While the building they’re in is up for sale, they have big plans for the future and hope to stay at their current location or to at least stay in the West Columbia community they’ve grown to love. They both serve on the board for the WeCo River District Association. “The WECO district is a real gem. There’s such a family feeling here,” says Alexis. “Working together as a community is what makes the community grow.”
While Akera and Alexis might be new to West Columbia, when they saw the WECO sign come down, they were excited to know it’s coming back — better and brighter than ever. “We love being able to say we’re right by the WECO sign,” says Alexis. “It’s a landmark.”
“I never thought I’d find another place that I’d want to call home other than New York,” muses Akera. “But being here feels like home. Man, I’m glad to be a part of it.”
If you’re looking for a place to land just steps off the beaten bath, venture over the river to Alexis and Akera’s. At Brickhouse Gourmet Coffee & Tea Co., there’s more to enjoy than a perfectly brewed Blue Eyes iced tea or a piping hot cup of Mocha Java coffee. Whatever you choose to enjoy, you’ll know it’s made with the highest quality and care by one of the town’s most remarkable — and accidental — baristas.