by Sherry Lucas | Photos by Frank Farmer

Afternoon sunlight floods the back room at Cups in Fondren, where sippers inhabit their own personal pools in a space both intimate and communal. It’s a fine balance, and not the only one at work here.

Cups co-founder/owner Janice Cameron strikes one, too, between big-picture vision and brass-tacks sustainability, the cafe’s manager Cody Cox says.

Cameron, with a chuckle, concedes, “The bottom-line reality is something that has been an education for me.” Vision? That’s long been strong “and the rest of it just comes with it – learning how to balance your vision and to be able to stay in business and create jobs.”

Cups An Espresso Cafe opened its flagship store in Fondren in 1993, when Janice and Dennis Cameron purchased a year-old coffee shop and capitalized on its central location’s proximity to the community, churches, hospitals and schools.

“The community has grown, and we along with it,” she says, with progress in community involvement, the arts and more. “We’ll continue to always look to the community for what they need as far as Cups goes.”

Since opening, Cups has expanded with four company stores and six franchises in the state, most in the Jackson metro area. They started a roasting business in 1994 to roast their own coffees. In a two-part expansion, the flagship Cups in Fondren has more than doubled its original size with more intimate spaces for customers, more walls for art, more room around the bar for baristas.

Involvement with young people and making a difference have long been hallmarks for Cameron, who grew up in Chicago and worked for years as a youth leader in Quincy, Illinois. An art major, printmaking was her medium of choice. After moving to Jackson, she continued to work with young people as a docent at the Mississippi Museum of Art’s then-Impressions Gallery for children.

That background filtered into signature characteristics of Cups, beyond its great coffee/great service priorities.

“I decided it was a great outlet to do more with and for young people in the arts,” she says. It’s a space for emerging artists to hang works and have receptions, a venue for budding musicians and a place for young people to have a job where they (and she) could learn more about art and music. “It seems to go hand in hand because baristas are artists in their own right.”

That mix, grounded in community and savored daily, proved strong enough to weather threats from even the biggest competitors. “When the eagles landed, as I call them,” Cameron says, referring to coffee giant Starbucks, “I decided to keep my feet to the ground, to do what I do and that is, provide great service, great people behind the counter and to stand tall. I really do believe that’s what worked.

“The other factor, of course, is that the community was loyal to us.”

Cameron’s strengths are steeped in the ups and downs of life experience. “My daughter once said, not long ago to me, ‘When there are hard decisions, you make them.’ And I think that’s part of my strength. I’m able to make that decision for the best of the circumstances. That’s something that you have to do in business all the time and it’s very difficult.”

Additional strengths: “I like to be silly. I love to listen to people’s stories. And I definitely, always want to grow and change. I love change.”

Cameron sipped the hot tea, Snow White blend, that’s her afternoon favorite, tucked cozily in-between brewed coffee in the morning and French press coffee at night.

Her advice to women strikes a balance between a reassuring pat and an encouraging push: “Everything out there is available to you, to do what you want. All you have to do is put one step in front of the other, ask questions and use your instincts, and it will lead you where you want to go.”

“I really do believe that’s what I did. I didn’t let anything stop me.”

Asked about future plans, she’ll only reveal a teaser, “There’s more to come.” Stop by and ask, she says.

Or maybe just listen. “I always go … ’Oh! I have this idea!” A sheepish grin sneaks up. That’s an intro her staff has heard many a time. Their reaction? “It’s greeted with excitement and trepidation,” she allows, with a little laugh.

“But as a woman, I don’t let it stop me.”