Photo by Tom Henell
A Coffee Community
Providence, Rhode Island, sits about 50 miles south of Boston and 185 miles north of New York City. From summer strolls at WaterFire to fine Italian dining on Federal Hill, this New England city has much to offer visitors and residents alike.
Coffee may not be the first thing one tends to associate with Providence. Nevertheless, there are numerous places tucked all throughout the city where one can find a quality cup.
This piece highlights three such places: Bolt Coffee Company, Borealis Coffee Company, and The Shop. I spoke with the owners of each business about their origins, café environments and coffee products, and relationships to Providence. While each location has a distinct feel and approach to coffee, what they all have in common is a commitment to cultivating community with those who enter their spaces.
Bolt Coffee Company
When Bolt Coffee Company originated in 2012 as a cart and catering company, Providence was not home to any third-wave coffee shops that were putting cup quality first.
“There was less focus on the science of extraction,” says coffee director and lead roaster Justin Enis, who became involved early on with Bolt, seeing it as a real opportunity to grow a local coffee fan base. In 2014, Bolt opened their first physical location in downtown’s Dean Hotel. Shortly after, Enis developed a multi-roaster program, which involved working with a variety of roasters on short-term contracts to bring different coffees to the Providence community.
The company soon launched additional locations, including at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum in 2016, a new roastery space in 2017, and another café within the Jewelry District in 2019. In 2020, Bolt opened their first stand-alone space on Washington Street in downtown Providence, one week before COVID-19 disrupted the world.
Following a period of significant expansion, says Enis, “it has really been a chance to start anew.” Bolt has used this time to give staff opportunities to grow and focus on providing spaces where customers feel welcome, safe, and supported—feelings that the Providence community reciprocates, particularly in this time of COVID.
“There is a real safety net within the community for businesses that are intentional about facilitating that community,” says Enis.
Borealis Coffee Company
In 2016, Brian Dwiggins opened Borealis Coffee in Riverside, Rhode Island, as “a way to connect with as many people as possible over a cup of coffee.”
After roasting and selling at farmers markets for a few years, while balancing work on movie sets, Dwiggins came across what is now the current Borealis location, situated conveniently along the East Bay Bike Path. At the time, there were not many specialty coffee options available outside of Providence; opening a café presented a more sustainable approach to operating a coffee business.
A roaster first, Dwiggins says, “I don’t claim to have the best coffee, but I want to be a local coffee shop people are excited about.”
As a third-wave café, initially those passing by in their cars, on the sidewalk, or along the bike path might misread the space as “too fancy” or at an unreasonable price point, but Borealis strives to cultivate an approachable atmosphere where customers are able to transform their relationship to coffee.
“It is exciting when people can’t drink what they used to drink after having your product,” says Dwiggins.
Borealis has fondly evolved into the “East Bay roaster,” providing a specialty coffee option for commuters during the week and users of the bike path on the weekends. Though not located in the city, Borealis has maintained close ties to the coffee community in Providence, which Dwiggins characterizes as tight.
“You don’t necessarily see that in other cities, which are way more competitive,” he says.
For JP and Diana Murton, The Shop was created keeping in mind the ability for them to have a family.
JP Murton describes the space, located in the Fox Point neighborhood, as “a small coffee shop on purpose, a way to enter into people’s daily lives and participate in real ways.” He hopes that those interacting with The Shop feel welcome to ask questions, rather than feel dictated to about what the space is and who it is intended for.
When The Shop first opened in 2014, the goal was to consistently provide quality espresso drinks to members of the community. Over time, the team has developed its skill set in various ways, expanding into single-origin drip coffee and espresso. This has been made possible through partnerships with various roasters such as Stumptown Coffee and Parlor Coffee.
While not intending to be everything to everyone, the team at The Shop is committed to ensuring the customers who enter the space are seen as people first, much like family. Trust, says Murton, is at the center of The Shop’s ethos, from their relationships with those who stop by for a coffee to those who make decisions about sourcing on their behalf. Ultimately, for the Murtons, coffee provides a means of expressing core values such as responsibility, sustainability, and community engagement.
Make Yourself at Home
Whether through hospitality, accessibility, or family, each of these businesses illustrates how retailers in Providence are using coffee to cultivate community. Bolt, Borealis, and The Shop all rigorously consider what good coffee can taste like and how it can be experienced. It was exciting to talk with the owners and learn more about how each company has been able to make a home for themselves.
If you find yourself in Providence and are searching for a welcoming place to make yourself at home, consider stopping by one of these cafés for a beverage. Take a walk through downtown or the RISD Museum and visit Bolt, hop on the East Bay Bike Path and re-energize at Borealis, or check out The Shop before you head over to India Point Park. No matter what adventure you choose, both your palate and your spirit will be left satisfied.