By Abby Bittner
St. Augustine has plenty of coffee shops to go around, but the new Sweetwater Coffee Bar and Gallery has quickly made a sweet mark on the city.
Sweetwater is a family-run breakfast and lunch café owned by Mike and Sloane Keats, with their children Hannah and Cameron working alongside them.
After frequently visiting St. Augustine from Fernandina, the Keats family decided to make the move. “We all agreed that we liked St. Augustine, so we started looking for places to open a business here. Swillerbees became available in March, and we signed the lease on March 14,” said Sloane Keats, referencing the donut shop that previously occupied the space.
However, there were some major hurdles for them shortly after opening.
“Two days later, everything shut down from the pandemic. We didn’t think it would last as long as it has, and we didn’t think it would be like this at all,” said Keats who, along with her husband, has owned numerous delis and bagel shops. “We’re so excited to be here, but in the same respect it’s such a strange time.”
When Sweetwater opened on May 15, Keats recalled the challenges the pandemic presented them with.
“It was a ghost town when the college shut down, there were no cars or people,” she said. “It’s very hard with the pandemic to get the word out there that we opened.”
Towards the back of the shop, Keats has a gallery of both her and her daughter’s artwork, which customers can both admire and purchase.
The painter loves incorporating her passion for art into the shop and seeks to get customers involved in art workshops as well.
“I plan on having paint parties if it’s feasible once the pandemic is better. I teach art classes now in my back studio, and we try to have guest artists in here besides just me and Hannah’s art,” said Keats, who teaches six
–week sessions in the gallery.
Keats loves being her own boss – she’s been self-employed since 21, and 30 years later has no plans of slowing down her busy lifestyle.
With their coffee and baked goods locally sourced, Keats seeks to support other small businesses and spread the wealth.
“I have wonderful local people that do specific tasks that have very good products that aren’t from a freezer. It’s all fresh products that come in on a daily basis. It’s a small menu, but it has a lot of range from sweet things to very healthy things,” said Keats, who plans on adding beer and wine to the menu for Nights of Lights.
Flagler College student Cameron Gurgainus finds the combination of an art gallery and coffee shop to be a hit.
“With the art being in the shop, it makes it more of a fun place to hang out,” Gurgainus said. “The atmosphere is a huge part of a successful coffee shop.”
While she enjoys everything on the menu, Gurgainus’ go-to is the bagels.
“Everything is great, but the cream cheese on the bagels is some of the best I’ve ever had,” Gurgainus said.
Gurgainus, who is a junior majoring in journalism at Flagler, loves how welcoming Sweetwater is with college students.
The shop commonly gives out free goodies for customers to try, and Gurgainus has noticed their generosity.
“The people who own and work there are so kind to students and anyone in the community who goes in,” Gurgainus said. “My friend and I even got a free piece of artwork since they noticed us looking at the back gallery. They’re very personal and take time to ask about your day.”
As an optimist, Keats sees the challenges of the pandemic and the new shop environment as a chance to get to know customers even more.
“Each person that comes in is different, so we just try to take care of everybody and make them happy,” the owner said. “It’s a hard thing to achieve, but that’s our goal.”
Follow Sweetwater on Instagram at @sweetwatercoffeebarandgallery, and on Facebook under the same name. If you’re interested in taking art classes with Sloane, you can pre-register in the shop and get more information.