SPOTLIGHT ON SMALL BUSINESS: The Force, and the Coffee, is Strong at Dark Side Coffee Co.

Mark Whitehead is an avid “Star Wars” fan, having spent much of his time on this planet collecting all manner of action figures, toys, books and other memorabilia related to the legendary film series. But in April 2020, Whitehead took things to a whole new level when he opened the drive-thru location of Dark Side Coffee Co. in an old photo booth business at a Park Hill parking lot in North Little Rock.

That initial location could have been easily overlooked by coffee fanatics, but the Covid-19 pandemic provided Whitehead an unexpected opportunity to succeed. Seventeen months later, in September 2021, he managed to open a brick-and-mortar lounge a few blocks away that’s packed with items from his personal collection along with some of the most comfortable leather couches in the galaxy.

“Covid exploded right as soon as we opened, and the Starbucks across the street from us decided to close for 30 days,” recalled Whitehead, who saw the original “Star Wars” at age 7 at the old Twin City Drive-In in Sherwood before seeing “The Empire Strikes Back” six times at Little Rock’s late great Cinema 150. “People who would have just driven by started coming to us for their caffeine fix and saying we were better. So it’s been great word of mouth and smart social media driving this.”

The lounge is packed with everything from Darth Vader and Boba Fett statues to a Chewbacca mask, numerous character bobbleheads and a life-size replica of a laser rifle from the films. The Empire’s 501st Garrison flag hangs over the center sofa, which has an extremely rare copy of the original film’s soundtrack album on a shelf above it.

Whitehead opted to create the lounge primarily because he needed a larger space of his own where he could roast 200 to 300 pounds of coffee per week, instead of continuing to roast in a warehouse and lugging the beans back and forth across the city to the drive-thru. He also wanted a place for fellow fans to come and hang out, so when Angry Dave’s Bike Shop moved down the street in its own expansion, he accepted the offer to take over its space.

“The name Dark Side is not just a coffee reference but also related to the Force in ‘Star Wars,’ because I just combined my two passions,” explained Whitehead, who now oversees a fast-growing staff of at least 22 employees between the two locations. “I started roasting coffee for myself because I couldn’t find anything I liked in town. I wanted to make whole bean decaf and wanted to grind it and do the pour over it, but every place I went to was already pre-ground or just old beans.

“I started roasting in a hot air popcorn maker, and it took off from there as I kept building bigger contraptions to roast coffee,” he continued. “I hacked up a grill I got for Christmas, put a drum with a spinner motor on it and started selling to farmer’s markets out of a coffee trailer in 2016.”

Whitehead is in the planning stages for a third location, which would be another drive-thru outpost in either Sherwood or Maumelle.

“I’ll keep making more drive-thrus, but this is probably it for lounge location unless I decide to do one far away like in Hot Springs,” explained Whitehead, whose main assistant, his 18-year-old daughter, started working with him when she was 12. “I’ve got five kids, but I don’t know yet if the other knuckleheads will get into this too. For right now, I’m just enjoying the ride.”

Dark Side Coffee Co.’s drive-thru is located at 4621 JFK Blvd., North Little Rock. Hours are 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

The Dark Side Coffee Lounge is located at 3515 JFK Blvd., North Little Rock. Hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mon.-Sat., and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sun. Call (501) 400-8522.

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