Perseverance through community: How High on Art & Coffee is giving back

Ellie Harman, co-owner of High on Art & Coffee, poses for a portrait in front of her art on Tuesday, November 30, 2021, in Lexington, KY.

Corrie McCroskey

Affectionately known as “Grandma” and “Pappy,” Ellie and Tim Harman own the inventive High on Art & Coffee, a shop that combines a passion for creatives and homemade cuisine.

“Our vision before we even opened was that people were going to talk together … about the community, about everything,” Ellie Harman said. “We wanted a community spot for people to come on a Saturday afternoon and do a backgammon tournament or open mic or poetry nights … good food and good coffee.”

Nestled on the side of High Street in Lexington, the store offers over 30 flavors of ethically sourced coffee.

“It’s all fair trade and organic. We get it from Mountanos Family out of San Francisco. They’re the same people that supply Trader Joe’s coffee,” Ellie said. “That we’re aware of, we’re the only people east of the Mississippi that carry this coffee other than Trader Joe’s.”

They also offer a variety of other items including smoothies, ice cream and food, ranging from their own “womelets” (omelets on a waffle iron) to the bestselling crangerine turkey club sandwich.

Inside, the walls and tables are covered with artwork ranging from pottery to earrings. Over 100 artists currently consign their work within the store.

Following the initial idea to start the business, the Harmans left their white-collar jobs in 2015 and have been all in ever since.

The two met on and have been married for 17 years. They said they work at their shop six days a week, 10 hours a day. While Tim focuses on the kitchen managing the extensive menu, Ellie takes orders from customers, files paperwork and oversees artwork sales.

“We love each other, and we are very blessed to be able to work together and not kill each other,” Ellie said. “I wouldn’t recommend it for every couple; you have to have a special relationship.”

Many small businesses have faced challenges throughout the pandemic to maintain enough income to stay open, but the Harmans have risen to the challenge.

Though the inside of the store is still closed to the public, coffee, food and art is sold through a sliding window on the side of the building.

“We’re high risk. Although we’re fully vaccinated … we don’t want to die. I have COPD and other health issues, my husband as well. If I was to get it, even vaccinated, I don’t know that I would make it,” Ellie said. “Rather than risk my life we’re doing it this way. Thankfully it’s working. We’re not selling as much art and jewelry as we used to, but the food is always what paid the bills anyways.”

Luckily, Ellie says that sales are now back to where they were before the pandemic.

“We had a big drop off for a while, but we’re back up to about pre-COVID numbers, even just through the window … We just adapt; we had no choice.”

The couple feels responsibility to care for their community and says it is a part of their success.

“In the spring we will be holding some Narcan training, because unfortunately, we have quite a few homeless people in the area, and we’ve had quite a few ODs in the last few months, and it’s heartbreaking,” Ellie said. “We want to have Narcan available here and make sure people know how to use it to help to stop all of this … Taking care of people and [the] community in general, I’ve been very passionate about.”

Having personally dealt with addiction in her family, Ellie feels a pull to help those who cannot help themselves.

“My husband says I’m too soft-hearted, because I tend to give out a lot of free food to these people but they’re hungry and they’re cold. I’ve got to give back. I couldn’t live with myself if we didn’t. I think the community gives back to us in return,” Ellie said.

In the future, Ellie says that she would like to run the shop for as long as she can and eventually pass it down to her daughter.

“I hope I’m still alive in 10 years; the women in my family don’t make it past 70,” Ellie said. “I’ve got 10 years, and then I have to beat them all.”

For now, the Harmans are focused on maintaining their business, helping those around them and, of course, selling fantastic coffee.

“I can give you a very good example of what happened today. A customer came to the window who works at another coffee shop in town. She’d never had our coffee,” Ellie said. “She ordered a black, hot coffee. She took a sip and came back to the window and said, ‘This is the best coffee I’ve ever had.’ … That’s an indication that we’re doing something right.”