When Nolan Hirte travels to the United States, he visits plenty of coffeehouses. The owner of Proud Mary, one of the progenitors of Melbourne’s world-shifting coffee culture, seeks out the shops he’s heard great things about, and he enjoys the drinks, enjoys the décor, respects the baristas abilities. What he rarely does is eat anything. On visits he usually has his breakfast at the hotel. The coffee isn’t so great, but at least he can get a full meal.
It’s a situation he views with the sort of confusion travelers usually reserve for countries with cultural divides greater than the one between the US and Australia. As he talks about the gap in the US, he keeps saying, “I just don’t get it.” Then, with a businessman’s sense for opportunities, he says to his interviewer in Oregon, “If no one does anything in Portland, I’m going to come there and do it myself.”
When specialty coffee carved out its niche in the US food market, it struck a model that treated eats as, let’s face it, an afterthought. Over the years, greater attention has been provided food, mainly in the form of fresher and better pastries, but the criterion most cafés apply to their food offerings is that it should fit in one hand. If Italian coffee culture was the template for early US cafés, where the idea was to grab a drink and bolt, then this model makes sense. But American coffeehouses were never really Italian, and the allure of the café-as-living room, Howard Schultz’ third place, created their niche as much as the Italian vocabulary.
People now had a space to work or lounge in for hours. But when stomachs grumbled, there were two options: leave or have another scone. Why haven’t coffee shops offered their hungry customers more than a pastry case?
When Marina Michelson and her parents, Anya and Yasha, opened Paper or Plastik in Los Angeles in 2010, they sought the ideal of the neighborhood coffeehouse—a socially and intellectually bustling anchor of the local community that neighbors would stay in for hours at a time. They are a family of artists (Marina is an actor and filmmaker, Yasha is a dancer, and Anya is a designer) and this was their first café. They put deep care into developing their coffee program and knew they would offer a great drink menu. And they did, but like a lot of first-time café owners, the expectations of their café’s ambiance met the harsh real life of to-go orders and computer screens and ear buds. Worse than the disengagement, Marina says, was the dead times at lunch and in the evening. Their shop felt like a pitstop rather than a destination.
Only a week in, they knew they needed to tweak their model. Over a few years, it would get overhauled.
Paper or Plastik’s neighborhood, five years ago at least, didn’t have many restaurants, so the Michelsons were confident even a small food program could draw customers. They first contracted with catering companies to bring in simple meals like salads and single-serving lasagna. The lack of control they had over the food never satisfied the Michelsons, and after several years of catering and meetings with food consultants, they decided to start their own food program. “We wanted our food program to be of the same quality as our coffee program. We wanted food to represent us and our taste, just the way our coffee bar did,” Marina says. “And we found that the only way we could do that was if we designed the menu ourselves.” They began with much the same food they had bought before, though done the way they wanted.
They started small, food that could go out on the bar (sandwiches, savory pastries, packaged salads), but this also missed the mark. “We realized, with the packaged salads, it still wasn’t creating the environment we wanted to create. People were eating out of take out containers. So we grew.”
Bringing food into their café was meant to imbue the café with the spirit they had hoped for at the start. So they opened a full kitchen. Rather than attempting to graft an unrelated business onto the existing one, they believed this would complete it.
Even though Hirte of Proud Mary now sees operating a kitchen with a full menu as a profitable way to run a business, maybe even the only way in competitive markets, his first café in Melbourne, Liar Liar, had a decent food menu. “We had a cook, he wasn’t necessarily a chef, but he put out some really good food,” Hirte says. “And at the time, that was one of only, like, three places in Melbourne you could go to get really good breakfast. There wasn’t much focus on that.”
Melbourne’s, and really Australia’s, coffee culture has grown at an explosive rate, unprecedented outside of the developed countries of East Asia. As Hirte tells the story, the café scene was growing and improving fast and in the mid-2000s several restauranteurs from high-end eateries opened cafés. The coffee was good, really good, but the food was a game changer.
“That really raised the friggin’ bar,” says Hirte. It pushed everyone. Then the best place in town wasn’t just the place that had good bacon and eggs and a few interesting dishes, like hotcakes, or whatever else. It had a friggin’ restaurant chef with loads of technique doing café food,” Hirte says. “I had to push my chefs as hard as I could, to the point that, you know what, we have to get someone with some serious restaurant capacity as well.”
Hirte didn’t have food experience, but he trusts his palate and he knows what he wants from a meal. The menu now includes ricotta hotcakes, lamb ribs, and a pork belly sandwich.
Almost as quickly as it was created, Aussies began exporting their version of the café. In London, a city colonized by Australian-style shops, the kitchen staff is as important as the barista corps. But these are still very much coffee shops. The espresso machine remains at the forefront, and the expectations of the coffee are as high as any haute café’s in the US.
Why hasn’t this grabbed hold in the US? Part of it may be the purist or specialization streak that runs through much of the food industry. Think about brew pubs. How many have truly great food? They exist, for sure, but you’re more likely to get under-blended hummus than a seasonally inspired salad. Beer guys do beer, the attitude goes. If you’ve ever eaten at a restaurant with an expansive menu that tries to offer all things to all customers, and executes it all badly, you’ll understand the appeal of focus.
Opening a kitchen, or even having a modest sandwich menu, means expanding the number of variables within a café. And because the clientele for cafés don’t expect food, they don’t miss it when it’s not there.
Then again, that could make its presence that much more indelible.
I don’t see that typical coffee shop model being profitable. Especially for a third-wave shop. It’s the shrinking margins,” says Gregory Ferrari, an owner of Black Eye Coffee in Denver. “At a certain point, there is going to be a price that customers aren’t going to be willing to support. Will people be willing to pay six dollars for a pour-over?”
When Ferrari and his business partners opened Black Eye, they built the space with the expectation that they would expand their food menu. Their neighborhood was heavy with good food, and they wanted to establish their coffee cred first. They made pastries from the start, but after a year they decided to open a kitchen, bringing in a young, local chef, Jordan Quidachay. The kitchen is spare, just an electric oven, hotplates, and a panini press that cooks eggs and bacon along with sandwiches (they went electric because it required fewer fire protection measures). Quidachay spends much of his time making sandwiches, but his menus include items like tamales and coffee-rubbed roast beef. Surprisingly, he makes the pastries and bread, too.
It took a while for the venture to get moving. “When I started, we were so slow,” says Quidachay. Now they may need to hire a food runner to help him get plates out to customers.
Ferrari says that having a person with food experience has been critical to their program. Anyone in the restaurant business will tell you that minding margins and food wastage are critical to success. “If you just wing it, you could have a money pit. Something that should be making you money could be losing a lot of money,” says Ferrari.
At Black Eye, food is ordered at the bar and tickets for plate meals go to the kitchen while grab-and-go items, like tamales, are handled by the baristas. That’s close to the model Marina Michelson landed on at Paper or Plastik. Customers order at the U-shaped bar and baristas cover the drinks and small items while the kitchen staff handles the meals, with runners taking food to customers. A floor manager keeps traffic moving smoothly on busy shifts.
Paper and Plastik’s menu, which shifts with the seasons, is overseen by Marina and her mother, who, while lacking professional cooking experience, know what they want. “I feel confident that the food we are putting out, representing us, derives from our sensibilities.” For breakfast they offer, among other things, croissant french toast, and a polenta bowl with chard, proscuittio, and an egg; for lunch you can have a steak salad or a fried chicken sandwich with jalapeño slaw; and for dinner, roasted chicken or spring vegetable pasta.
Getting to this point, where the café is hopping on weekend brunch and bringing in customers for evening meals and drinks, took those intermittent steps of hiring caterers and doing a small to-go menu (a liquor license didn’t hurt either). They had to learn to work with back-of-house staff, who are more likely to be professionals and full-time. Those employees can still be transient, though, and the shop has gone through several chefs. “No one on our staff will say it was easy,” says Marina. “When we went through the bigger changes we just explained them in very personal ways to the customers.”
Adding food to a menu doesn’t need to go to these lengths. Even a menu of sandwiches and soup might be more than you need if your shop serves, say, office workers on their breaks. But café owners regularly fret over whether their shop offers anything different from the competition. A great meal would be a killer start.
—Cory Eldridge is Fresh Cup’s editor.