Strategic Adagio: Gray Squirrel’s Dance with World-Class Coffee

Like a surfer seeking the perfect wave, I am on an international quest for the consummate cup of joe. One of my favorite things to write about is specialty coffee—a wonderful metaphor for life that when done right adds an extra bit of joy to the world. Coffee’s magic that way.

My first visit to Gray Squirrel in Carrboro catapulted me to coffee nirvana. It became my new standard of caffeinated excellence. It also became home away from home.

It was a bonus to learn that Gray Squirrel pays staff a living wage. And double bonus that they don’t accept tips—they believe it’s an unnecessary and worn-out service industry tactic.

Another fun fact: Gray Squirrel is named for North Carolina’s state mammal. Who knew?

Fortunately for Chapel Hillians, Gray Squirrel is about to open a permanent satellite location in the Chapel Hill Library. It’ll soon be possible for all patrons to sip world class espresso drinks while checking out books. Seriously, could life get any better?

More than two years after my first visit, no café has come close to the quality level of Gray Squirrel’s product or service. I regularly tell this to the Squirrel’s owner, Shaw Sturton, and he expresses humble appreciation.

Shaw can’t help but do everything with heartfelt dedication and intentionality. With passion. A high-quality outcome is simply the result of him being him.

Blame it on his previous career as a professional ballet dancer. Where the smallest details matter.

At age 13, Shaw accepted a scholarship from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet private dance school and left his home in Detroit, Michigan. Upon graduation, he worked for ballet companies in Tennessee, Canada, and Wisconsin, and eventually went on to dance as a company member of Ballet Arizona.

But when an injury brought his career to an abrupt stop, he was suddenly forced to get a non-dancing job for the first time in his life.

Shaw accepted a part-time position at La Grande Orange, a Phoenix restaurant with an outdoor espresso bar.

“It wasn’t about loving work, it was just about working,” Shaw said.

Little did he know that this stint would be the first step of his next career. His next passion.

Shaw learned the ropes, then mastered them. As he grew more competent, he sought additional challenges and opportunities. He later took a job with Coffee Reserve Brands (now Cult Coffee) where he learned to roast beans, fix coffee roasters, and taste coffee blends for quality and nuance (known as “cupping”).

He later accepted a position with world-renowned Blue Bottle coffee back when they were still operating in a garage in Emeryville, California. Shaw expressed an interest in the buying process, and before long was tasked with just that.

He traveled to Latin America and visited farmers who grew raw beans.

“I loved the relationship I had with roasting,” Shaw said. “But as a buyer, the relationship transformed. One that extended to an even deeper connection with people.”

This new relationship with importers and producers allowed Shaw to put names to faces, and faces to specific coffee beans.

“This is an amazing thing,” he said. “Wasn’t long before I realized I wanted to create this sort of relationship back home.”

It was serendipitous that Shaw’s wife was offered a faculty position at UNC. Shaw saw the surrounding area as a perfect place for a café. He liked the small town feel of Carrboro and Chapel Hill. He also appreciated being able to walk to work.

He never expected the Gray Squirrel to evolve into a meeting place for the community.

“While writing my business plan, I was thinking more about the employee and the customer, not so much the customer and the customer.”

Shaw calls the outcome a “fun surprise.”

“It’s pretty cool when we’re busy and nobody’s on their computer,” he said. “We are connecting here. It’s a really neat thing.”

Back in Shaw’s dancing days, it was a big deal when dancers got their image on advertising billboards. This happened to him once. Ironically, on the day of the photoshoot, he was asked to wear a large mask.

“There I was on the billboard, but with a mask on,” he said laughing. “I wanted this moment so bad—but I was totally anonymous.”

These days Shaw finds himself happy to be in the background.

“I want to see my team in the front,” he says. “I love it when they are doing something amazing, when they are excited, when they really nail it.”

And trust me, they nail it every time.

Thinking about opening or relocating a business to Chapel Hill?

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