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Memphis Flyer The Ugly Mug

New Memphis venue combines coffee, conversation, and Christianity.

By Mary Allison Cates

JANUARY 24, 2000:  Good coffee is no stranger to good conversation. And what other duo could spawn the surge of laid-back funk and caffeine culture that has swept across America? Churches are no longer the only establishments found on every corner of the Bible Belt. Coffee shops are popping up faster than you can say, “I’ll have a short de-caf cap with skinny milk and a vanilla bean.”

But The Ugly Mug, located at 3445 Poplar Avenue just west of Highland in Dillard Square, is a curious blend of the two. In its ninth week of business, this “coffee studio” is funded and operated by East Memphis’ First Evangelical Church. College pastor and founder of the shop Mark Ottinger explains, “My wife and I love this area and wanted to do something to create a place for college students and young adults to hang out.”

Unlike other area coffee shops, The Ugly Mug is open Monday through Saturday until midnight and sometimes as late as 1 a.m. Area college and grad students occupy its 3,600 square feet nightly, but the regulars range in age from 17 to 50. The ever-popular Seattle’s Best Coffee is served at below-market prices, and the shop’s angular design creates a variety of sitting spaces for groups and individuals. The 20 employees who serve the coffee are volunteers, and any profits or tips go to keep the shop in business or to local charities.

Ottinger has been toying with this idea for nearly two years but a recent mission trip to Romania provided him with a model. There, a restaurant hangout called “Little Texas” founded by a missionary and friend of Ottinger’s has become a safe place for Christians and non-Christians alike. “It’s a much-needed positive force in the community,” says Ottinger. “We want the Ugly Mug to be a positive force in Memphis.”

Sunday evenings at the Ugly Mug are reserved for “Venture,” a contemporary worship service that takes place at 6 p.m. Some 75 coffee fiends sing with the help of a Christian acoustical band and the lyrics on a large video screen. Ottinger or a member of his staff delivers a short scripture-based message and concludes with a prayer.

“There are a lot of people who have been burned by churches,” Ottinger explains. “We are trying to redefine the way folks see church. We have a message to share, but first and foremost we want to earn the respect of the people in the community.”

Regular customers have suggested that The Ugly Mug become a venue for local music and artwork. Ottinger also hopes to host songwriters’ nights and poetry nights. “We are working on adding more specialty drinks and events that will make us unique,” he explains. “I would love for Christians and non-Christians to consider us a good coffee shop.”

Perhaps this is why there’s a certain in-your-face evangelism absent from the Ugly Mug. Books in the bookshelves range from The Great Gatsby to the Chronicles of Narnia. There are no neon crosses on the walls, and servers don’t hand out tracts with your cream and sugar. In fact, customers can study, talk, and play board games without having to ward off pesky pick-up lines for Jesus. But those looking for conversation can find it.

“Some people come in and want to talk,” Ottinger remarks, “Everybody has a story.”

But what about the story of the mega-church and its voyage into modern culture? Its remarkable ability to flourish in new settings and the ready reception it receives from the targeted audience? Is it wrong for the membership of First Evan to try to market the Christian message?

Here is another story, one I know well: the story of the classic churchgoer. Seven days a week the doors are open and she hurries in and out. Worship, sports practice, committee meetings, Bible school, service projects, and the like are the root of interaction with other members. How priceless are the lessons we learn from these human experiences, but how seldom does small talk give way to real, meaningful conversation?

First Evangelical has provided an outlet for sharing our stories. Maybe discussions that take place there will lead its patrons into each other’s lives and insights. Surely The Ugly Mug is not the only way to preserve human relationships, but as long as good coffee is no stranger to good conversation, it has my vote.

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