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Nowhere Coffee roastery to open in Allentown after Upper Macungie denial

Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden talks to patrons and employees at the Nowhere Coffee Co. during a visit to discuss his economic agenda, Friday, Jan. 12, 2024, in Emmaus, Pa.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A local coffee chain will open its new roastery after all.

But in a different place than originally planned.

Nowhere Coffee Co. co-owners Juan and Lauren Vargas will open their planned roastery in the Allentown area after a permit denial in Upper Macungie, the couple announced in an Instagram post Tuesday.

In a joint interview, the Vargases said they are considering two locations with Allentown ZIP codes but are not sure if they are both within the city borders.

Juan Vargas said he would only announce the location when he has “guarantees that my business isn’t going to be killed through endless appeals.”

“When you see smoke coming out of the smokestack, I’ll announce it,” Juan Vargas said, laughing.

Nowhere Coffee Co. has two coffee shop locations — in Emmaus and South Whitehall Township.

The business recently was in the spotlight because President Joe Biden visited the Emmaus location last month.

Lauren Vargas said she was notified Tuesday about an anonymous complaint to the health department about the business.

“I had reached out to them to let them know that our city would be as helpful as possible in getting them going here, so it was a thrill to see the news."
Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk

The complaints were dismissed, but after that and the intense discussion surrounding the permit denial, the couple decided to move on from fighting the permit denial in Upper Macungie.

“After all of the online discourse, after everything that has happened… we decided that this fight is not worth it,” Laura Vargas said.

“We are still going to keep fighting, but this fight is not worth it.”

Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk said in a statement that he is “really excited” that the Vargases are looking to bring their roastery to the city.

“I had reached out to them to let them know that our city would be as helpful as possible in getting them going here, so it was a thrill to see the news,” Tuerk said.

Upper Macungie Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Sunny Ghai said in an interview Wednesday that the township is looking at how to better accommodate small businesses in its land-use law rewrite.

But he said the problems that small businesses have navigating zoning laws are not unique to Upper Macungie.

"This is common and structural, the way zoning works," Ghai said. And Upper Macungie is just following Pennsylvania law.

"And we have no flexibility in that, because it would be unconstitutional for us not to follow it."

The controversy

The Vargases originally planned to operate their planned roastery at 1115 Trexlertown Road in Upper Macungie, but township Zoning Officer Marvin Walton denied their business use and occupancy permit.

Walton determined that the roastery is classified under “manufactur[ing] and/or bulk processing” of food products, which is not allowed in the neighborhood commercial zoning district of the property.

Lauren Vargas said she and her husband already had signed a lease on the property and spent $50,000 on a roaster. The couple now is working on a transition plan out of their lease with their landlord, she said.

The Vargases had appealed the denial to the township zoning hearing board, but withdrew their appeal Tuesday. Township staff agreed to refund the $800 fee for the appeal.

The couple went to the Upper Macungie Board of Supervisors meeting last week to speak about the situation.

Olivia Marble
Nowhere Coffee Co. owners Juan and Lauren Vargas at the Upper Macungie Board of Supervisors meeting.

They argued the township laws are not set up to accommodate small businesses. Juan Vargas specifically criticized Walton for not asking him and his wife for more information before denying their permit.

“There's a lot of work that went into the permit application that Marv [Walton] so quickly denied with not a single question, site visit or anything along those lines,” Juan Vargas said.

Board Chairman Jeff Fleischaker said the township is working on its customer service and communication with applicants.

Fleischaker said the board of supervisors can't change a zoning decision. It can address complaints about outdated zoning laws through its rewrite of the land-use laws, he said, but that will take time.

“We're listening," Fleischaker said. "We're doing what we can to make sure that we are adapting over time. But this board is not empowered to gavel down and change. It just doesn't work that way."

Expanding business?

Nowhere Coffee Roastery is part of the company’s business plan to phase out buying wholesale, pre-roasted coffee and begin serving — and selling bags of — it own coffee roasts.

Over the past few weeks, Juan Vargas has roasted coffee beans in a small roaster, but has not been able to keep up with the demand, they said.

“We needed to get this right the first time. We didn't. This is going to be our last shot this coming time here as we pivot. So I'm really focused on making it right.”
Juan Vargas

So for now, the Vargases said they will go back to buying pre-roasted coffee until they are able to set up their new, bigger roaster in the Allentown location.

“It’s delicious stuff, and local, but it hurts our bottom line,” Lauren Vargas said.

Once they open the roastery, the next phase of the business plan will be to open a third location. The Vargases said they are looking at spots in East Allentown and other locations in Lehigh County.

Juan Vargas said Nowhere Coffee Co.’s profit margins are small, so the only way it can make the business plan work is to open the roastery as soon as possible.

“We needed to get this right the first time. We didn't,” Juan Vargas said. “This is going to be our last shot this coming time here as we pivot. So I'm really focused on making it right.”