I remember my mom drinking Swiss Mocha coffee when I was very little. I remember the metal tab on the Swiss Mocha container – like the lid to a can of tuna fish or Fancy Feast – the peeled-back opening to fake flavor swirling in hot water. I grew up with a coffee pot in the kitchen that was always on. I remember knowing the day was officially over when my dad took the innards out to wash — the metal cup for the grounds, the slitted lid that allows coffee to burst forth, the spring and shaft that never look like they fit inside the contraption. A good rinse for each and a quick rinse for the inside of the pot and then fresh water and grounds, set to percolate first thing the following morning. I don’t remember the first time I tried coffee. I probably just went from nursing to drinking coffee. Or, with the amount my mom consumed, perhaps it was all one and the same… I definitely entered high school with the taste already strongly acquired, although in definite moderation. I remember sneaking a splash of coffee in one of our small purple ceramic mugs or having a few sips of my dad’s re-re-warmed coffee after school, still sitting in his morning mug.
I spent high school working part-time at a 3-floor candy shop that preyed on addicts and their inevitable weaknesses. We catered to addicts of: bulk candies (from chocolate covered almonds to jaw breakers to Swedish fish); dime candies (Bazooka bubble gum, Pop Rocks, and the like); homemade fudges and artisan chocolates; jelly beans (an entire wall of flavors); hand scooped ice creams (16 bicep-building varieties, the biceps of the server… not the served); pies to die for; and a plethora of non-edible yet fascinatingly addictive collectibles (Beanie Babies – it was the 90s, Willow Tree figurines, way too much Christmas, Disney, Elvis… the list winds on – did I mention the 3 floors?).My junior year the owners, in their attempt to take over the entire downtown with a case of middle age spread (in merchandise – not waistline), opened a cafe across the street from their candy store. A cafe? What WAS this new-fangled thing? My 16-year old self was decidedly curious, spending my days off from the candy store over at the cafe. It was an entire building dedicated to coffee. That… that was a new concept entirely, and I loved it! I remember finding cappuccinos and lattes and discovering mochas. A taste palate reminiscent of my youth and yet, decidedly, different. The barista who ushered me into this new realm – both of flavor and of culture – did so with joyful abandon. Better said… she gave us all our drinks for free. Needless to say, the cafe didn’t last long. I’m sure the free drinks contributed to the demise but, also, I don’t think our small town was ready yet – for such a posh and polished place. It was too… timely, for our small town. But it didn’t disappear entirely. It was just folded into the multi-layer concept of our candy store. All of a sudden, in the summer before my senior year, I was learning myself how to pull an espresso shot and foam a cappuccino. I could make my own coffee and that changed everything.
Fast forward a few years and a few cafes… Green Street Coffeehouse. 3 1/2 years at university in a dream of a coffeehouse, run by Bohemian scholars with a penchant for truth and dark, creamy espresso set to Norah Jones against a backdrop of early mornings, flirty days and late night mopping. Then Cafe lo Cubano. A year in the life of a Cuban cafe, tucked into a corner of an upscale neighborhood in San Francisco. We were recent adults with an angsty desire to make a difference, funneling our energy into Cuban-inspired drinks and pressed sandwiches. We didn’t speak Spanish but we made it an authentic experience for anyone who was listening. Most recently, Cafe Corbas. Hayes Valley, San Francisco. A hallway-style diner with squeaky clean counters, a black-and-white tile floor and a simple, sad ending. I wound up with my lucky milk pitcher, the left-over tea, and the bar stools. They wound up bankrupt and in Iowa.Actually, come to think of it, all four of these cafes are now out of business. Perhaps they represent failed attempts at idealized entrepreneurial glory or perhaps the desire just ran its course. I don’t think anyone necessarily opens a cafe “for the money.” It’s the experience and the addiction that drive cafes forward… and then into the ‘grounds’.
So, with all of that being said, guess what?! I want to open a cafe! Fitz and I have a grand, idealized vision for this entrepreneurial venture, complete with high expectations and stringent opinions on what will (and won’t) work. Recently, we folded my sister into the mix. I bring specific guidelines for cappuccinos and lattes. Fitz covers the cafe au laits. My sister, americanos. And if we can just get my brother involved we’ll have hot chocolate “with whip” to round out the beverages on tap.
In an effort to better shape our already opinionated minds, we’re visiting cafes around the world for inspiration (and to stay warm). It seems a bit of a let down to review what doesn’t work so I’ll focus on the positives, creating a reservoir from which we’ll pull when we’re ready to create this monster. I hope this catalogue of creative cafe ideas inspires you, a Pinterest (another recent addiction…) of cafes perhaps!