Gallery Espresso Keeps on Brewing

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The mother-daughter team behind the city’s oldest coffee shop reflects on 30-plus years as a staple for locals and stars alike

Photography by MICHAEL SCHALK

WHETHER SOMEONE has been in Savannah a lifetime or just a few days, chances are they know of Gallery Espresso and its reputation as one of the Historic District’s coziest coffee hot spots. 

Not only has the art-filled cafe helped launch the careers of popular local artists while keeping Savannahians and visitors caffeinated for more than three decades, but the current location on Chippewa Square has also served as a staple for major Hollywood stars.

Lesser known, however, is the mother-daughter pair, Judy Davis and Jessica Barnhill, who are behind the cafe’s continued success.

Davis didn’t begin her career in food and beverage — far from it. Rather, she worked nearly four decades in Florida, breeding and training Thoroughbred racehorses, while Barnhill had a penchant for making art.

People sitting inside a coffee shop
Inside Gallery Espresso, the walls display rotating exhibitions of works by local artists.

“Working with horses is hard on the body. It’s something you can only do for so long before aging out,” reflects Davis, who is now an octogenarian. She pivoted to coffee shortly after Barnhill landed at Savannah College of Art and Design, and they saw ripe potential to open a coffee shop to serve students and neighbors in the Historic District. It was late 1993, and the women took a chance and opened the doors to their first location at 6 E. Liberty St. (now home to The Book Lady Bookstore). In 2001, they expanded with a secondary location in the Starland District before consolidating in their current location in 2003.

Today, the line to order often extends out the door at the corner of Bull and East Perry streets. The cafe stocks more than 100 varieties of teas and a rotating repertoire of coffee beans from around the world. The timeworn tables and armchairs fill up quickly, and baristas know regulars by name. But, in the beginning, Barnhill remembers struggling. 

Back then, modern coffeehouse culture as we know it was just taking off in bigger cities, popularized by television shows like “Friends” and “Frazier.” While it would be nearly seven years before corporate Starbucks arrived in Savannah, six other independent coffee shops debuted the same year as Gallery Espresso.

Two red-haired women standing in front of the doors to a coffee shop
Jessica Barnhill Judy Davis have owned and run Gallery Espresso for 30 years.

“We are one of the few iconic businesses surviving this long, with the likes of Crystal Beer Parlor and The Olde Pink House. Us being here every day, I think, is partly why Gallery Espresso is successful. Our customers depend on us.”

— Judy Davis, co-owner, Gallery Espresso

“We were always at the store, every day, to make sure it flowed as it should,” Barnhill recalls of the early days. But, she says their continued dedication made Gallery Espresso the destination it is today — an important meeting space for the community and a place where people can connect with each other.

Among those connections include some famous A-listers. Tom Hanks became a regular while filming “Forrest Gump,” and Dennis Quaid frequented during the production of “Something to Talk About.” Demi Moore and Melanie Griffith became fans after Gallery Espresso provided tea and coffee on the set of “Now and Then.” More recently, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck have stopped in while visiting the Hostess City, and the cafe served as a filming location for Netflix’s “May December,” starring Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman.

“Once I got a phone call at 10 p.m. from a barista saying ZZ Top was there and that I needed to get down to the shop ASAP,” beams Barnhill. At the time, the cafe stayed open until midnight, and that night, Barnhill was already asleep at home. “Billy Gibbons was one of the nicest, funniest people and definitely worth waking up for.”

An expressionist painting of a woman wearing a black hat and black shirt
A portrait of Jessica Barnhill by artist Sandra Dutton

The cafe also attracts local celebrities, particularly from the art scene. Established artists like Marcus Kenney, Adam Kuehl, Monica Cook and Juliana “Julu” Lupacchino — to name a few — had some of their first shows at Gallery Espresso. 

Looking back, Davis and Barnhill say a key factor in the cafe’s longevity is how well the two work together. Barnhill works as the general manager as well as the art and special events curator, while Davis tackles the finances and paperwork. The separation of duties — along with the support of their staff — keeps them focused, yet collaborative, and always moving forward.

As the duo looks to the next decade or so, they contemplate rest and relaxation.

“Usually, our vacations are going to trade shows in Atlanta, Chicago or New York,” confesses Davis. After serving locals and visitors for 30 years, she says it would be nice to be a tourist somewhere for a while. But, she couldn’t stay away too long. 

“We are one of the few iconic businesses surviving this long, with the likes of Crystal Beer Parlor and The Olde Pink House. Us being here every day, I think, is partly why Gallery Espresso is successful,” she says. “Our customers depend on us.” 

Emily McCarthy Savannah magazine cover

Find this feature and so much more in Savannah magazine’s May/June 2024 “Leading Ladies” issue.