The smell of Columbian coffee wafts through the air as three men gather around pristine, white counter tops to compete in a game of Rummy. A customer approaches the counter, and one of the men steps away from the game, asking the customer, “How can I help?” He begins to hand brew coffee over a v60 while the card game ensues. Two more men enter the game in the barista’s place as he continues brewing coffee and crafting lattes for a developing line.
David Bizilia, a 20-year-old barista and entrepreneur, opened Side Track Coffee in historic downtown Opelika on April 20, 2016. At the time, the coffee shop was in a store front to the left of its current location. Side Track was, and still is, characterized by its bright blue couches, which invite conversation among strangers.
The people who “come in and fill the seats and the conversations that they have” is what Bizilia says makes Side Track stand out from competing coffee shops in the Auburn-Opelika area. To Bizilia, Side Track Coffee isn’t about coffee at all. “It’s a ministry,” he said.
Bizilia was working as a barista at Salud, a coffee shop in downtown Opelika that replaced The Overall Company, when it suddenly closed its doors for renovations. Wade Preston, owner of Prevail Union in downtown Auburn, called Bizilia a couple of days later and asked if he was interested in opening a coffee shop. He doesn’t know why he did, but Bizilia said “sure.”
Bizilia said he takes pride in knowing Side Track’s regulars – their faces, their drinks and their stories. He fills orders as the customers he knows by name fill the stools at the counter almost fully surrounding the barista station.
The crowded tables and long lines don’t faze him. As a rush ensues, Bizilia maintains his easy-going persona while intentionally engaging in conversation with those camping around his work space.
Side Track is no longer located in the closet-sized space in which it began. It has since overtaken the facility next door, multiplying in square footage, tables and bar stools. Side Track’s expansion saw the growth of those who gathered amidst the welcoming atmosphere to do homework, philosophize or play cards.
Bizilia’s relaxed nature radiates throughout the environment of his coffee shop. Customers aren’t in a hurry, and discussions are open between friends and strangers.
Carli Tyer, a 19-year-old regular, often retreats to Side Track to sketch in her notebook. As an architecture student at Auburn University, Tyer said she needs a creative space where she feels safe. Side Track is that for her.
The shop is a large, bright and airy space defined by a large front window and raw, wooden floors drenched in imperfections. A rustic yet modern chandelier hangs near the front door as slow, even-tempered music fills the air and the scent coffee tickles the nostrils. Despite Side Track’s modern flair, Tyer says its uniqueness lies in its inviting nature. “Everyone feels welcome when they come in,” she said.
Harrison Lott, a 20-year-old sophomore at Auburn University, quickly became a Side Track regular and best friend to the owner, Bizilia. During his first visit, he fell in love with the “chill” atmosphere. “Even if someone’s busy, they’ll take the time to talk to you,” he said.
He and Bizilia hit it off immediately and adventured to Atlanta together two days later. He now spends between two to seven days a week at the coffee shop.
Bizilia pours most of his time into his business. Weekdays are characterized by shifts from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and weekend hours only vary slightly. But throughout the 60 to 70 hours a week Bizilia is at the shop, his primary focus remains on the people who fill it.
“He’s a servant,” Lott said. More than once, Lott has seen Bizilia bring curious customers behind the counter to teach them how to properly brew a pour over, coffee that is hand brewed because “that’s who he is.”
The art of coffee is the furthest thing from Bizilia’s mind during hours of operation. Bizilia said he sees the coffee as a tool to connect to the person he’s serving and the space he provides as a place for fellowship. Side Track uses a pay-what-you-want model because making a profit isn’t the most important thing – it’s about relationships. Customers have the freedom to pay what they want for drinks. Bizilia said most people pay a fair price.
When the shop is busy, Bizilia almost considers it to be a pain because he is unable to connect with people the way he loves. “When I hand someone a cup of coffee, I get to talk to them,” Bizilia said. He said he sees Side Track as a fun place to start conversations that matter with people who matter.
“Side Track is not me. Side Track is not our drink. Side Track is not our look,” Bizilia said. “It’s the people that sit down and talk and get to know each other.”