It took a major leap of faith for Larry Billing to leave the West Coast, where he taught high school, and open a coffee store in northeast Arkansas in 2004.
But, Billing, who had no business experience starting out, has seen his Shadrachs Coffee franchise become a successful venture. He has six shops in Jonesboro, one in Paragould and plans to open four more across Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.
The name of the business, after all, comes from a Bible story of faith, in the book of Daniel.
In the story, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego refused to worship a golden idol created by Babylon king, Nebuchadnezzar. The king threw the three men in a furnace for their refusal to bow to the idol, but then saw them walking among the blaze unharmed because of their faith. Nebuchadnezzar, reads Daniel 6, brought the three out and claimed that the God of Israel be worshipped instead of his idol.
“We’ve infused faith in this business,” Billing said.
Billing, 48, who grew up near Sacramento, had planned to be a high school math teacher. He moved to Horseshoe Bend, Arkansas, with his family after completing high school in Elk Grove, California, and attended Harding University in Searcy. He graduated in 1997 and taught two years at a West Memphis junior high before returning to California to teach at his home school district.
Billing met his wife in Medford, Oregon, and, because she didn’t want to move four hours to California, Billing moved to Oregon instead. The couple married in 2002.
It was tough finding a teaching job in Oregon, Billing said. He did substitute teaching, but there were no full-time jobs available in Medford.
“My childhood friend had just started his own coffee business in California, and we decided to make the jump into the coffee world,” Billing said.
In 2004, Billing and his wife moved to Jonesboro to open Shadrachs. His sister and family lived in the Craighead County town, and he was familiar with the area.
“If in 2002 you told me I would move 2,000 miles and be selling coffee in Jonesboro, I’d have thought you were crazy,” he said. “I had no intention of owning a business.”
The first five years were “painful,” Billing admitted. He said he had no business experience, but felt led by God to continue selling coffee.
His wife began teaching in Jonesboro schools which, he said, “was a good thing.”
“We lived off of her work,” he said. “At that time, coffee was a hobby. If I wasn’t making anything, it was a just a hobby.”
Billing worked long hours, going to his store on East Nettleton Avenue next to a Sonic Drive-In from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. There were long days, long weeks, and at times, he wondered what he was doing. But, his faith helped him through.
In 2007, he and Risa were expecting their first child.
“It was a make-or-break season,” Billing said of that year. “I said if we can’t make this work in six months, I’ll go back to teaching.”
He slowly began seeing success. Shadrachs Coffee opened a second shop on Southwest Drive in western Jonesboro in 2010, and in 2016, Billing opened his third shop on Red Wolf Drive, a major thoroughfare in the city.
Three years later, Billing opened a shop on Caraway Road, near its intersection with Interstate 555, and one in Paragould. In 2020, he refurbished the basement of a downtown Jonesboro building on Union and Washington avenues – across from the Craighead County Courthouse – and opened a walk-in coffee store.
The downtown shop may be his crowning achievement. The three-story building formerly housed a farming operation, an architect’s office and a lawyer. The basement was used for storing old furniture and desks and was used by the building’s tenants as a storm shelter. Because of the dust, cobwebs, spiders and its dank, dark recesses, some thought it was safer to brave the storm rather than go to the basement.
Architects designed the basement and visitors are now treated to a cheery atmosphere with a mosaic tiled floor, featuring the Shadrachs logo. Tables line one wall and are frequented by downtown businesspeople and students,” Billing said.
The shop opened in March 2021. Then, the second COVID wave hit, causing confusion and concern.
“We had multiple employees in a confined area,” Billing said. “With the first incident [of an employee infected by the virus], we had to quarantine for 10 days.
Billing said he had to shut down four times between all his locations in town because of the virus. He was one of the first business owners to close his doors because of the pandemic and because of city recommendations.
“We had to reconfigure our shops then,” he said. “You can’t make a small shop bigger. We dealt with a lot of stresses.”
While many restaurants in the state went out of business because of the pandemic, Shadrachs Coffee ended up thriving overall. All but the downtown shop were drive-thru businesses, so the required social distancing mandates were easily met.
“It was a challenge,” Billing said. “When it was reasonable to be open, we followed guidelines. You don’t want to cheat. You want to do it right. That’s all you can do.
“When the next [variant] came, I thought, ‘What? This again?’”
The company survived, and now, Billing has 125 employees at his various shops.
He plans to open one in Oxford, Mississippi, by the end of the year and another on Prince Street in Conway. He also intends to put in a Shadrachs Coffee in Lakeland, Tennessee, a suburb of Memphis.
Billing said he also wants to help his employees if they eventually want to manage a Shadrachs Coffee shop.
“We want to give people a chance,” he said. “We want to give them an opportunity that they may not have had.”
One of the attractions for customers is that Billing roasts his own coffee beans. Called “green beans,” the beans arrive in 150 pound sacks and are roasted in 25 and 50 pound roasters at the East Nettleton shop. It takes between 10 and 16 minutes to roast the beans, and he has about 15 different types of roasting flavors.
“There’s so much science to coffee,” Billing noted.
Only a small percentage of coffee shops roast their own beans, he said. A unique aspect of Shadrachs, Billing explained, is that they create their own flavor profile and roast beans darker than most shops.
In addition to coffees, Shadrachs offers fruit smoothies, pastries, milkshakes, Red Bull-infused iced drinks, muffins and other breakfast foods.
The most popular drink is the White Mocha, but the downtown Jonesboro shop manager, Kelli Vining, says she sells a lot of the White Snickers drink.
Vining, like Billing, taught school before getting into the coffee business. She was raised in North Carolina and taught English in Memphis schools before moving to Jonesboro and becoming the manager of the East Nettleton shop five years ago.
Faith plays a big part in her life, too. Vining encourages customers to send prayer requests to their business website and, while not really touting “religion” to her customers, she does present an atmosphere of kindness and love.
“Our customers are like family,” she said. “We try to be kind; we don’t have many angry customers.”
Vining and other managers are urged to help employees learn about conflict resolution when dealing with customers.
“We deal with people of all [walks of] life,” she said. “You don’t know what they’re going through. We want to help them.”
“Faith is a big thing for us,” Vining added. “We have the ability to talk to people about our faith if they want to hear it.”
Since the COVID pandemic abated some, customers have returned to the downtown location. Vining said a group of four Jonesboro high school students hold 6:30 a.m. bible study sessions there weekly before going to school. Others flock in for lunch, sitting at the row of tables inside, or at the tables set up outside on Union Avenue.
“I hate coffee, but there are so many other options,” said Ashlyne Carner, a Craighead County Treasurer’s office deputy clerk who frequents the shop. Her office is less than half a block away.
She prefers the iced chai with caramel drizzle that Shadrachs makes.
“They know how to do it,” she said. “I get a Shadrachs gift card every birthday, and I spend it quickly. I used to go to the one on Southwest Drive when I worked there. They knew my order every time I came in.”
When he first opened his shops, Billing said he was worried about the number of customers he’d see daily. In the summer months, he may have gone two or three hours before someone bought a drink.
He was also first concerned about going up against Starbucks, the coffee empire, which has a shop in Jonesboro.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no, Starbucks would hurt me,’” Billing said. “But instead, it brought awareness to coffee. The coffee culture was still new then. I think they helped us.”
Now, he said, people “drink coffee all year round.”
Looking back, Billing still finds it hard to believe he left his teaching job to grind coffee beans. He is humble, maintaining that he has little business sense and credits those around him for “filling in the gaps” and making Shadrachs Coffee successful.
“There’s always going to be fine-tuning franchise developments,” he said. “There’s always going to be the next level of growth.
“Am I content where I am? “Yes. But do I want to open more stores? Yes.
“This has been exciting. Patience has been a theme through the years. Our growth strategies probably do not follow conventional wisdom. Whenever faith is involved, the word ‘conventional’ goes out the door.”