Micah Dempsey started Belltower Coffeehouse and Studio with his best friend Christopher Galbreath when they were just 18 and 19 years old. Belltower, which has become a popular coffee shop in the Memphis area, particularly among local college students, will open its second location in Shelby Farms Park on Sept. 23.
The visionary duo came up with the idea for Belltower in high school, while in a driver’s ed class. “We were just in driver’s ed for the insurance discount, so we just sat in the back of the class and talked the whole time,” Dempsey said. It was there that they discovered their mutual love for making pottery. Both were selling pottery on the side as well as giving it to family and friends as gifts. This was the start of a passion project to bridge pottery and coffee, two loves that both men share.
As luck would have it, both men ended up going to Lipscomb University in Nashville. However, the summer after Galbreath’s freshman year, he had “all but decided to drop out of engineering school to become a potter.” Galbreath was in the process of buying a kiln off of Craig’s List, when Dempsey mentioned he already owned a wheel, and the dream of making and selling pottery full time started to become a reality.
A month into Galbreath’s sophomore and Dempsey’s freshman year in college, Galbreath started renting a small storage unit, about 50 square feet in total. “I went and hung out with him on a Saturday morning, and he was like, ‘You should do this with me. You should get back into this.” That same day, the duo decided to upgrade to a 100 square foot unit and start the pottery business, starting out as “Life is Okay Pottery.”
“We had definitely joked back and forth in high school that one day we would hit our mid-life crisis and quit whatever corporate job we got bored at and open up a coffee shop and pottery studio where everything was handmade: all the tables, all the chairs, all the mugs, all the plates. But that was a total pipeline dream.”
Dempsey and Galbreath soon became known around the Lipscomb campus as “The Pottery Guys.” “And all of a sudden, we were selling things to people we had never met before, which was one of the first phases of realizing that people actually want this stuff.”
Inspired by their small business success, the entire spring semester of Dempsey’s freshman year and Galbreath’s sophomore year was spent planning how to open up a pop-up coffee and retail shop, only for the summer, in Minglewood Hall. After the summer, they planned to return to school and build on the business later. They called a real estate agent, an insurance agent, and like sponges, tried to absorb everything there was to know about business.
“We had started a coffee shop in a room with very little electricity and no plumbing. And all of our staff we hired were our friends. It was a disaster,” Dempsey said. But, through trial and error, the men devised a business model, and by halfway through the summer, they both felt ready to pursue a business full time.
“We’re not making money, but we know this is something worth pursuing.” Dempsey and Galbreath dropped out of Lipscomb to open up the first store on the Highland, where the Bad Timing store is now. They spent a few months working to open up the store, and finally, on Nov. 17, 2017, Belltower Coffeehouse and Studio had its grand opening.
In between closing in Midtown and opening the store on Highland, officials at the University of Memphis reached out and asked Dempsey and Galbreath to lunch with an offer to complete their higher education.
“At that point, we weren’t really entertaining the idea of staying in school, but they made it clear that it was financially possible. We didn’t have a dollar to our name at that point in our life, and we were eating one meal a day because that’s all we could afford,” Dempsey said. “Mike Hoffmeyer from the Crews Center asked us why we weren’t staying in school, and we said we have no money and no time. And he said, ‘No problem.’ And so, we ended up staying in school online with a really flexible online course program.”
They also received a modest living stipend from the University of Memphis, and the Crews Center seed fund helped Belltower pay their first payroll.
“Life is Okay Pottery” was a brand that Galbreath and Dempsey loved, but it wasn’t something that was maintainable as swamped business owners. Still, the duo’s passion for pottery never wavered, and rather than make the pottery exclusively themselves, they came up with the idea of giving customers the opportunity to work with clay.
“We live in a world that is so much more technology based, for all the right reasons. But every single weekend I teach people that have never touched clay before. It’s so fun to operate a business that lets people come back in touch with creativity.”
Unfortunately, this success took a pause during a time when many business owners experienced hardship – the COVID-19 pandemic. Dempsey and Galbreath decided to permanently close Belltower. They started selling their business belongings and closing everything.
However, when an offer came up to move farther down on Highland to its current location, the two decided to go with it. They spent time getting the store ready and at the beginning of 2021, Belltower Coffeehouse and Studio opened on Highland with a full coffee bar and a new wine bar feature.
Dempsey started expanding the pottery studio by sending out mass email lists to potential buyers in the retail industry, such as local bookstores and gift shops. Belltower also started making custom mugs for charities, fundraisers, non-profits, and corporate gifts.
Local schools, such as Harding School of Theology, used pottery for fundraisers and for several years, the University of Memphis asked Belltower to make pottery for faculty and donors as gifts for their service and donations to the school.
On the business side, Belltower works to create a unique experience. Instead of going to a nice restaurant, date night could instead be taking a pottery class. Belltower competes with other companies for more than the attention of pottery – it’s the attention to create a unique experience that people will never forget.
“It’s providing an experience that is unforgettable -that’s something that is really hard to do. Being able to provide something that people don’t forget is something I am proud we do in the studio,” Dempsey said. “On the community side, it is just about making sure people have an awesome time.”