SUDBURY — Taking up shop in the parking lot of Sudbury Crossing on Boston Post Road (Route 20), Debby’s Drive-Thru Coffee gives a whole new definition to the term “small business.”
“I don’t know exactly the square footage of the building, but I can tell you that if I stand in the middle of the shop, I can stick both arms out the window on either side,” Debby Johnston, who has owned the shop for the past 10 years, told the Daily News.
The coffee shop is inside a former Fotomat kiosk, which developed film for customers in 24 hours during the 1960s and ’70s. Customers would drive by, drop off photos, then pick them up the next day. However, the advent of hourlong photography development and, later, digital cameras rendered Fotomat obsolete, and left thousands of kiosks empty in parking lots throughout the country.
While many such kiosks were demolished, those that remained created an opportunity for entrepreneurs. Sandy DeMille converted the former Sudbury Fotomat into The Coffee Hut in the mid-1990s.
“At the time, there was only one place you could get coffee in Sudbury — it was Maroni’s Bake Shop on Route 20 and the line was always out the door,” Johnston said. “So there was a real opportunity back then for a new coffee shop in town, especially a drive-through location.”
The Coffee Hut was eventually sold, and was later briefly known as the Little Green Coffee Shop. When it came up for sale again, Johnston jumped at the opportunity.
“I was working up the street as an office manager, and I was looking for something different to do,” she said. “I was a frequent customer of the coffee shop, and I saw it was up for sale. It’s kind of silly, but I’m terrible at job interviews and I figured that if I bought the coffee shop, I wouldn’t have to interview anywhere.”
Little shop packs a big punch
Johnston, who lives in Hudson, said she didn’t know much about running a small food service business when she first bought the shop.
“I really didn’t know anything. I just knew what good coffee was, and I loved feeding people, and so I started immediately adding baked goods,” she said.
When The Coffee Hut first opened in the 1990s, there was just one other coffee shop in Sudbury. More competition has since moved in, including massive chains Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks. Johnston said in order to compete, she has worked hard to expand the menu.
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“I wanted to be able to compete,” Johnston said. “I served high-quality coffee, but I didn’t serve lattes, so I had to figure out how to do that. In order to compete with Dunkin’, I had to bring in breakfast sandwiches. I realized you can do almost everything with a microwave and a toaster.”
Being able to provide all of that with minimal space has taken some creative thinking and planning.
“I wanted to be able to have lattes, and you have to think how can you fit a latte machine in such a small space? I found a little machine that fits in the little bit of counter-space,” Johnston said. “At Starbucks, they use chai latte that comes in a carton that has to be refrigerated after you open it. I can’t do that because I don’t have a refrigerated space to fit it, so I found a chai latte that is powder-based. I’ve been told it competes very favorably with Starbucks.”
Debby’s Drive-Thru is named chamber’s Business of the Year
Johnston’s success has been recognized. The Sudbury Chamber of Commerce Business recently selected Debby’s Drive-Thru as its Business of the Year for 2023.
“It’s this little coffee place, to be honored like that when there are all these other businesses that gross much more than mine, it’s very humbling,” Johnston said.
The award is give out annually, with members of the public nominating different businesses and a selection committee determining the winner.
“The committee is looking for a business that has a great positive impact on the community,” Martha Welsh, president of the Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, told the Daily News. “Debby’s business has been a great resource for the community — supplying summer jobs for high school students over the years, and bringing a unique service to Sudbury. Her breakfast sandwiches, which are really good, are even named after different members of the community who have frequented her shop.”
Johnston credited her business’ success to her dedicated customers, who continue to support a small business in an old photo kiosk.
“I have the best customers, and I think the reason why is for somebody that is willing to take a chance and spend their money on a coffee or breakfast that is coming from a place like mine, that is a complete unknown and it looks different, they have to be very open-minded people that wanted to support a small business,” Johnston said. “They are so unique, they arrive with big smiles and want to know what is going on here, and then they enjoy the product so much that they keep coming back.”