By Donna Cornelius
At first glance, The Abbey may seem like just a cool community coffee bar. You may see a young professional type of fellow sitting at a table with a mug beside his laptop, or women gathered for conversation and chicken salad sandwiches.
But if you drop into the Avondale establishment late on a Sunday afternoon, you’ll notice a different crowd. That’s when coffee drinkers gather to form a church congregation.
The Abbey, which opened Feb. 14, has a dual personality because it’s a nonprofit project of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama.
The Rev. Katie Rengers, associate rector for young adults at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Mountain Brook, said the coffee shop is the result of the diocese’s desire to establish a new Episcopal church in Avondale.
“We got the idea that a traditional church model wasn’t going to work there,” she said. “You have lots of young adults there who are un-churched or de-churched. This was a way to reach younger people.”
Rengers also is the vicar of The Abbey, leading services there on Sundays at 4 p.m.
“Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights aren’t sacred times for everyone anymore,” she said. “The coffee shop is open every day. You can just get a coffee or you can engage. You can just drop in.”
Besides the Sunday service, The Abbey offers space for other meetings.
“We have a really comfortable small group room that can be reserved,” Rengers said. “It can be used for Bible studies or for clergy to meet with parishioners.”
While Rengers takes care of the church side of The Abbey, manager Carrie Black oversees the shop’s day-to-day operations. The South Carolina native originally came to Birmingham to attend Samford University.
“I got married, and we decided to settle here,” she said. “I joined Cathedral Church of the Advent and heard about the plans for this place. It opened earlier this year on Valentine’s Day, which was fun.”
Black said she, assistant manager Janie Logan and baker Leslie Teardo enjoy coming up with menu items. The Abbey serves sandwiches, soups and baked goods as well as coffee and other drinks.
“Janie has great recipes,” Black said. “She does the soup selections and makes a great tomato pie.”
The Abbey makes an effort to buy products from the Birmingham area and other places in Alabama, Black said. The coffee shop serves Red Bike Coffee that’s made in Irondale, Piper & Leaf Artisan Tea from Huntsville, and bagels and bread from Crestline Bagel Co.
“Our Craisins scones sell really, really well,” she said. “So do our biscuits with bacon jam. Our breakfast sandwich has bacon jam, cheddar cheese and scrambled eggs. We often run out of those.”
Popular lunch choices are sandwiches and simple crockpot soups, Black said.
“We make our BLTs with bacon jam,” she said. “We also have traditional Southern sandwiches like pimiento cheese and chicken salad from my own recipe. We’ve tried roasted jalapeno gazpacho, which is Janie’s recipe, cream of asparagus soup and loaded baked potato soup. We all have input about the menu.”
The Abbey is dog-friendly, Black said, so house-made dog treats usually are available.
Logan said she had been working at another coffee shop when she joined the staff at The Abbey.
“I had a lunch with my high school Latin teacher, who is a member at St. Luke’s, and she told me about this place,” said Logan, who grew up in Mountain Brook. “I love to cook. I’ve come up with most of the soup recipes and adapted some. I make roasted garlic aioli to make sandwiches more interesting. I’ve made pesto.”
Logan said she lives just a few blocks away from The Abbey.
“I bought a bike and can ride to Railroad Park and to friends’ houses,” she said.
Having a connection to the Avondale community is important to everyone involved with The Abbey, Black said.
“We know most of the other people at other places here – the guys from 41st Street Pub, from Rowe’s, Saw’s and Post Office Pies,” she said. “Saturn is another coffee place here, and we visit and see each other’s goods. Knowing most of the other people in management is such a fun part of this neighborhood.”
The Abbey often supports charitable organizations and events by donating food, she said. It supports its community in other ways, too.
“Every month, we have a new art display and spotlight a local artist,” Black said.
The artwork is for sale, as are pottery pieces and a selection of well-loved books.
“We have Prodigal Pottery made at King’s Home as therapy for abused and battered women who are escaping that lifestyle,” Black said. “We sell out – we may expand our pottery line.”
The Abbey is housed in a building owned by Beloved Community Church at 131A 41st St. S.
“It wasn’t as expensive to renovate this building as it would have been for several other locations,” Black said. “We have foot traffic and are able to access the neighborhood.”
Rengers said that, while the long-term goal is for The Abbey to become financially self-supporting, the diocese is committed to supporting it.
“The vision is evolving all the time,” she said. “At first, we didn’t imagine having worship here at all but more of religious programming. But young people were coming in and asking, ‘When do we start?’ We want to get across the point that it’s a religious place but open to everybody.
“It’s a coffee shop, but you kind of know you’re in a holy place,” she said
The Abbey is open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Sundays.
For more information, visit www.theabbeybham.com or follow The Abbey on Facebook.