Credit the Great Recession for this one. In 2008, Rachel Haughey was a trading analyst at a commodities fund in Greenwich, Connecticut, working with coffee commodities. When the fund downsized that fall, Haughey was out of a job and knew it was time to reinvent her career.
Even before her layoff, Rachel was a dedicated coffee lover. After reading a 2006 New York Times article, “Espresso’s New Wave Hits Town,” Rachel visited the featured shops and was sold on quality coffee. She worked as a barista-in-training at Brooklyn’s Gimme! Coffee that fall, leaving the next spring for her analyst job and moving to Rowayton, a section of Norwalk, Connecticut.
In the new surroundings, Rachel and her husband, Will, found themselves missing the coffee they had grown to love while living in New York. After losing her job, Rachel was looking for opportunities and when the right space opened in neighboring Darien, one of the area’s tonier neighborhoods, Haughey knew it was time to act. Neat, called Espresso Neat at the start, was born in the summer of 2009 and has since grown to a second, grander location in nearby Westport, which launched in September 2014.
The Westport café, positioned across the river, is in a historic building that used to be a fire station. The truck bays are now large windows that span nearly the entire face of the building. One of the many exciting upgrades with the Westport branch: coffee complemented by an expanded dining experience. Having studied in Paris, Rachel has seen that city’s café culture up close, especially its emphasis on coffee as one of the cornerstones of a great culinary experience. “I’m pretty sure it was the pain au chocolat or tarte tatin that made it a great experience for me from a culinary perspective,” Rachel says. “Good food is always a part of the experience of great coffee. And it is coffee that will always be central to our identity and to our place in the community.”
As part of its dining program, Westport Neat offers lunch and dinner options made in-house. The café’s toasts, featuring spreads such as fig and taleggio or avocado and sea salt, on fine breads, are especially popular. A charcuterie and fromage board offers a traditional selection of French, Italian, and American meats and cheeses. Sandwich choices include the Bangin’ Grilled Cheese made with bacon, raclette cheese, and caramelized onions, and the Cuban, which brings together citrus-marinated roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and pressed bread.
Craft cocktails are also a major hit at the Westport Neat, as are the robust selections of bourbons, ryes, and single-malt whiskeys. “Our nitrogenated draft coffee was made possible by the dual nature of the concept and has been a huge hit from the start. It looks like a Guinness, but you can drink it at breakfast,” says Haughey. Neat has a staff of twelve in Darien and eighteen in Westport. “With the exception of culinary, we aim to train everyone to be a barista,” Rachel says. “We have an internal training program with a tiered system of modules and exams, which takes more than a year to work your way through.”
The espresso bar features a two-group La Marzocco Linea PB with Mazzer and Baratza grinders. The pour-over bar and a Fetco batch brewer (hidden under the counter) are supported by a Mahlkönig EK43. A Technivorm is primarily used for evening service. “We brew a lot of our coffee manually using Hario V60s and Clever Coffee Drippers. We exclusively brewed to order when we opened in Darien; that was pretty revolutionary at the time,” Rachel says.
Along with a café featuring food and alcohol, Neat roasts. Part of the Pulley Collective in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Neat roasts on a thirty-five-kilogram Loring Kestrel. Director of coffee, Kyle Bellinger, frequently travels to Honduras to meet with renowned producers Moises Herrera and Marysabel Caballero and has just started to develop a relationship with a producer in Colombia. “The prices we pay are significantly higher than the fair-trade minimum of $1.40; we actually pay two to three times that,” Rachel says. “It is a virtuous and sustainable cycle; they get better prices and we get tastier coffee. Many of our customers are very interested in the sourcing of our beans, and we love to share our philosophy with them.”
Neat reinforces its focus on coffee by offering related classes. Kyle teaches four courses at both outlets: home brewing basics (the most popular), brewing methods, cupping, and production and processing. Typically two classes are offered every month, and around four people attend each.
“We approach everything else the way we approach coffee,” Rachel says. “Use the best possible ingredients and channel the best of our abilities to let them shine.”
—Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor.