A town of less than 3,000 in northern Wisconsin might seem an unlikely place for top-notch coffee and barista know-how, but at the Dock Coffee, that’s exactly what you’ll find. Located in the heart of downtown Spooner, Wisconsin, the Dock embraces casual coffee drinkers and connoisseurs with its cozy, cabin atmosphere.
Customers are welcomed by two towering barnyard doors, refurbished for the shop’s entryway. Wood floors and paneling enhance the café’s rustic feel, while antique water skis and a canoe housing the shop’s bus tubs hearken to summer days whiled away at the lake.
The quest for coffee perfection began with Rochester, Minnesota, natives Sue and Jeff Churchill. The Churchills had been spending their summers in Spooner for many years, and the town became a second home for their family. “Spooner was always it. We knew that we would retire here and that in our next career we wanted to own our own business in Spooner,” Sue Churchill says.
The Dock is truly a family affair—part of the rustic decor even includes family antiques. Jeff works for the local company that provided the steel for the bar top and the Churchill’s son Blain, a local artist, drew up the giant guide to coffee drinks featured in the shop.
Initially, Sue Churchill and her daughter Xan Nelson—the shop’s manager—knew very little about coffee, except that they loved to drink it. They gleaned management and coffee education from a local shop before opening the Dock, mastering the basics while in the development stages of their own business venture.
“In the planning stages,” Sue Churchill says, “we talked about how many cups of coffee we would need to sell every day to make this work.”
The Dock has come a long way since forecasting cups of coffee. Their extensive food menu includes flat bread pizzas, hot and cold sandwiches, salads, and soups from scratch. Scones, rolls, cookies, and croissants are all made in-house (the scones are always the first to go), and warm summer weather brings rotating, hand-dipped ice cream flavors.
Coffee is prepared using a french press or the shop’s red, two-group La Spaziale S5. The Churchills considered a pour-over bar, but opted to focus on espresso and staff training for the time being.
To help develop the Dock’s staff training program and act as lead barista, the Churchills brought on Michelle Carlson. Carlson earned her barista certification through the Specialty Coffee Association, and has been integral to the Dock’s pursuit of perfection. “Before I started here I was a coffee nerd,” she says, “but I just scratched the surface. The training I was a part of has totally changed my perspective.”
Carlson credits the Churchills with giving her the autonomy necessary to help the shop grow. “Working with Sue and Jeff and their inspiration to try new things, be creative, keep learning, and not be afraid to push comfort zones, has been amazing. The directions we’ve been able to take are because of the trust of the Churchills,” she says.
Carlson, Nelson, and the Churchills have worked hard to incorporate a training program that educates both employees and the community. Carlson explains that they face a different set of circumstances compared to bigger city coffee shops. Whereas a shop owner might expect to hire baristas with at least basic qualifications in a metropolitan area, but most of the Dock’s employees are hired without any coffee or serving experience.
The Dock has implemented innovative training techniques to bring new hires up to speed, including an interactive touch screen tablet with a complete recipe guide and step-by-step pictures. The tablet adds another level of checks and balances and allows more hands-on training once the basics have been learned.
Educating employees is first priority, but the Dock also seeks to teach the community about coffee and tea (they’ve been known to surprise big city vendors with their love of learning and desire to raise the bar). Latte art throwdowns have become a routine part of training, and staff members regularly offer coffee tastings to customers to encourage conversation around the coffee served in store.
The Dock, despite being only two years old, has fast become a local favorite. Nelson says getting out of the café and into the community has helped establish the Dock as a serious coffee business. The staff has turned up at events around town, making frappes and smoothies at the high school basketball games and serving hot cocoa and coffee during the Jack Frost Winter Festival. Nelson says, “There’s always something new going on, whether it’s brainstorming house-made syrups, creating drink specials, hosting a monthly open mic night, or catering a party.”
The Dock proves that no matter your size, location, staff experience, or community, it is possible to pursue excellence and keep up with the ever-evolving coffee industry.
—Kay Vandette is a former barista and freelance travel writer.