Urban Deluxe Readers Tell us: Five Things That Make a Coffee House Great

Colored sketch of musicians with instruments playing on the Black Dog stage.

Coffee houses are vital to an urban life on so many levels.  They get us up in the morning and ready for braving the trek to work. We meet at them to do business, maintain friendships and meet new people.  Coffee houses can also be a place where we stay in touch with local art, writers  and musicians.

Some people consider the only real coffee houses to be the indies.  Others feel that the local Starbuck’s or Caribou around the corner, or next to the office, qualifies for them.  Regardless of your view, these caffeinated watering holes bind our neighborhoods together, gives us a way to connect with coworkers outside of the office and so much more.

Personally, I view the neighborhood coffee house as the primary way to get to know what my community cares about and who lives in it.  Having had the incredible good fortune to live within blocks of a true community coffee house with top notch brew, The Black Dog Cafe, in Lowertown St. Paul, I believe I’ve been a bit spoiled when it comes to my view what makes a great coffee establishment. As noted in earlier UD entries, The Black Dog was one of the things we missed most about leaving our Lowertown neighborhood in 2013.

What The Black Dog so successfully embodied was a sense of community, through a welcoming atmosphere for everyone who lived and wandered into the neighborhood, and a strong identity we all shared in supporting our local artist in residents in

Lap top computer open on a table with a cup of coffee next to it.

My virtual office view in our beloved Black Dog Café, Lowertown, downtown St. Paul, before we moved to Minneapolis in 2013.

the surrounding lofts.  John and I still talk about The Black Dog as having the finest coffee and espresso we’ve ever tasted in the Twin Cities and lament that, while we’ve found some great coffee spots in Minneapolis, after two years we still can’t find anything to match the BD’s roast.

But there are more experiences and opinions out there than ours, so we thought it would be fun to hear from people in the Urban Deluxe community about what they think makes a great coffee house.  All the feedback we received boiled down to five traits and everyone pretty much agreed on the order of importance.  So here’s the five things that UD readers feel are important to making a good coffee house a great one.

URBAN DELUXE READERS:
TOP FIVE TRAITS OF GREAT COFFEE HOUSES

#5 / Great Music: Number five on our list is great music. A mix of live and recorded was mentioned, with an emphasis of local artists featured for both. The standout genre mentioned was jazz, though eclectic bands came in a close second.

#4 / Support for the Arts: Though music was included in this suggestion, also sited were coffee houses that supported visual arts through rotating displays of photography, paint and sculpture as well as those who feature locally made jewelry and gifts.  Many UD readers felt that their local coffee house should give them access to local artists and support their work.

#3 / Good Food: Pastries in particular were mentioned, though others felt that soups, salads and sandwiches should be on the menu.  All agreed that the small bites needed to be quality, homemade if possible, fresh and delicious.

#2 / Friendly Staff: Having a place where everyone knows your name isn’t just for bar patrons on Cheers. UD readers felt strongly that coffee house baristas who knew them and served up Joe with a smile was almost as important as the quality of their brew.

# 1 / Good Coffee/Espresso Drinks: Whether they preferred dark or light roast, espresso, Latte or cappuccino, UD readers all agreed that good coffee and espresso were essentials to any great coffee house.  Nothing, it seems, can trump the perfect cup of brew for coffee house connoisseurs.

NAME YOUR FAVORITE COFFEE HOUSE! EARN A $15 GIFT CARD

An illustration of a coffee cup and saucer.  Steam is coming from the contents inside of the cup.Urban Deluxe would love to know where you’re sipping coffee and why.  Comment on this post and tell us about your favorite coffee house! We’ll send you a $15 gift card to that coffee house IF you write the most interesting entry!   No geographical restrictions apply–just be sure to tell us what gives your coffee shop top bragging rights.

Please respond by no later than December 1, 2015 to be eligible for the gift card contest.

The North Loop Move: Our Transition to a Simpler Life

A lap top computer open on a table in a community living room.
A lap top computer open on a table in a community living room.

Lynn’s  new virtual office in the Solhavn Living Room.

Six weeks has passed since John and I loaded up our remaining downsized possessions, left our beloved Lowertown apartment in the Cosmopolitan and migrated to Solhavn, a new residential building located in the emerging Minneapolis North Loop neighborhood.  Exciting, adventurous, exhausting and scary, we’ve learned a few things by making the transition to a simpler, more streamlined existence.

1. It’s easier to see what matters. As our sporty Mazda 3 rolled away and the leather sofa was carted off, what remained were the positive impressions of the people we had sold them to and the fact that we had each other.  No matter how difficult we thought it might have felt to let go of our “stuff” we realized that waking up together was the most important thing.

2. Life is easier with less.  Coming from good German stock, and having the subsequent “everything-must-be-spotless gene” in spades, owning less furniture (we purged 13 pieces) means that I have less dusting to torment myself over each weekend.  Our home is furnished with comfortable essentials, minus the fussy surfaces that really didn’t serve us well and soaked up precious time in upkeep.  There are also far less under utilized sporting goods, clothing and housewares to store, dialing down the “my stuff/your junk” tension in our marriage.

3. Living close to work and interests and having good telecommute options, enhances daily life immeasurably. Traveling less between work, hobbies and home has made the stress level go down significantly in both our lives.  Even without  car ownership, I have a number of options available to me to travel the less than one mile to my company’s new office. On some of the dangerously cold days this winter, it’s been easy to set up my virtual office in the Solhavn living room.  John walks to the downtown studios to record commercials and we both hop the city bus with our skis in tow to take a quick 10 minute ride to the Wirth Park Chalet.  When summer arrives, our options will only increase with the Cedar Lake Bike Trail and Mississippi River Parkway at our doorstep and three Farmer’s Markets at which to shop.

4. People think we’re cool. One of the unexpected boons of downsizing, going carless and moving into a building and neighborhood that supports green living is that a number of people, from our friends and acquaintances, to my daughter and future son-in-law,  fawn over our choices.  Our building’s general manager shared with me last week that she told her mom the story  about our downsizing move to the building with the hope of inspiring her to do something similar.  Liv and her betrothed, both confirmed carless Chicago urbanites, revel in the idea of having less in order to live in a new building with cool, eco-amenities. They quiz us about our carsharing options and the building’s composting system when they visit.  All these kudos have us feeling like rock-star level urban hippies! (And we’re liking it!)

5. Doing something different is fun and inspiring!  Without a doubt, moving is an extremely stressful process.  But to John and I,  living a life devoid of adventure would be worse. Though we’ve only moved across town, the North Loop feels like a

A man and woman seated at a counter smiling.

Our first weekend in the North Loop we made friends at the counter of Mill City Cafe over Sunday brunch.

totally different planet than our old neighborhood.  People dress different, have different hobbies and interests (there are many more like-minded athletes in our new building) making the new friendships we’re forging interesting and exciting.  We’ve been so inspired by the change that we’ve volunteered to start a Yoga Club and an Urban Gardening Club in our residential building!

Change is hard, but has its rewards. Let the new adventure begin!

The Black Dog Coffee House: What We’ll Miss Most About Lowertown

Photo of Sara Remke, Black Dog owner.

Without a doubt, Sara’s smile and warm welcome will be missed when we move to the North Loop next week.

With only a week remaining until our move on the Urban Deluxe countdown calendar, the last pieces of sale furniture making their way to new homes, donation-making and packing in its last stages, John and I are taking a last look around our Lowertown St. Paul neighborhood to say our goodbyes.  One of the most difficult parts of our life to let go of will be our second home at the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar.  Nestled on what was once an obscure backstreet, but will soon contain the maintenance hub of the Central Corridor Light Rail system, the Black Dog has been where we have met friends, listened to great music, enjoyed a constant rotation of innovative and local art as well as gotten to know friendly baristas and proprietress, Sarah  Remke.

After leaving a secure job to dive into start-up, mission-based entrepreneurship, the Black Dog was my office. Sarah and her crew know the story of how I started my company, and all about my staff, many of whom live with disabilities.  They have supported and encouraged my work, evening donating gift cards to our first company picnic.  They have become a part of the story of our life here in many ways and it will be an adjustment not to have them be a part of our daily routine.

John and my weekly Sunday ritual of attending meditation and the dharma talk at the Clouds in Water Zen Center, then migrating down the hall for a leisurely dark roast (for me) and triple shot espresso (for John) at the Black Dog, will be over after this weekend.  It is with tears in my eyes that I think of that and write this blog entry.

What can make a place that special in the hearts and minds of a neighborhood? That could be difficult to say, but I’ve got to try.

First, we’re certain that the Black Dog has, hands down, the best coffee in the city.  They’ve got an amazing cup of standard brew and unparalleled espresso.  This has been perfect for us as a couple because both of our signature drinks are covered.

Colored sketch of musicians with instruments playing on the Black Dog stage.

An artist’s view of the Black Dog, where great music, wonderful art and friends always greet you.

My daughter, Liv, is a formally trained barista in Chicago where her place of employment sent her to a “coffee college” to learn how to roast beans and create what she calls “real” coffee beverages. (Timed-frothing and all the technical trimmings.)  “There are very few coffee houses I’ve been to where I feel that they probably know more about making good coffee than I and my coworkers do,” Liv said just last month when she was visiting us, “and one of those is the Black Dog.”

Second, local art and music abounds here; that kind of atmosphere takes you out of yourself and calls you to be something better every time you’re around it.  Part of the reason we moved to Lowertown was to support the arts community and immerse ourselves in it.  However, I don’t think we’ve always understood how much being around local art and music has prompted us to discuss and think about things we might have otherwise ignored in the world around us. That experience has made us grow as people and happens every time we walk through the Black Dog’s door.

Third is that the Black Dog truly is the place where everyone knows your name, or at least acknowledges that you are part of the community.  There are neighbors we only interact with at the Black Dog, many of whom we never exchange names with, but whom we greet weekly and speak with often.   That type of feeling is something you can’t force or manufacture; it comes from an atmosphere where people are welcomed and respected.  Whether the day has been bad, or good, the Black Dog is a place you can go to relax and, with the nod of a head from a neighbor or barista, know you’re accepted.

Lap top computer open on a table with a cup of coffee next to it.

A view from my Black Dog virtual office, stationed at  a familiar table near the window.

Fourth is that the Lowertown artist community holds court at the Black Dog every day of the week.  To those of us who work jobs that are far less creative and live lifestyles not quite as avant-garde, you value being able to eaves drop on stimulating conversations about who sold one of their pieces and who just got an exhibit somewhere. I’ll admit it. I live vicariously through these folks when managing staff  issues and trying to pay the bills for a struggling little startup seems overwhelming.  Drifting away on their conversation, I can imagine myself living in the Tilsner, throwing a pot on a wheel or boldly placing paint strokes on a canvas while preparing for the next Art Crawl.

There will be no replacing the Black Dog Cafe in our new neighborhood, but we look forward to keeping the people, and the coffee, we’ve enjoyed in Lowertown deep in our memories into the future.  We also gently remind ourselves that, despite that fact that we are now carless, the rail line just outside the Black Dog’s door will connect our new Minneapolis North Loop home to Sarah, the baristas and the coffee in just a few short months.

Downsizing the Final Chapter: Going Carless

John seated in the Mazada 3 passenger side, with Diana in the driver's seat.

John riding back from the bank with Diana, the really cool person who bought our Mazda 3 last Saturday.

As the Urban Deluxe blog page count down calendar ticks away with less than a month remaining until our migration from Lowertown to the North Loop, we realized that it was time to engage in the ultimate act of downsizing: selling our car.  Our beloved Mazda 3 was something we had purchased a few months prior to our wedding two and a half years ago and, in many ways, it felt like a part of our family.  With John’s cool Thule rack fitted to the roof, it had whisked us off on a romantic ski honeymoon to the kettle moraine’s of southern Wisconsin and on many other trips and adventures.

Daily life was also going to be vastly different.   The transition was less pronounced for me, given the years prior to our marriage that I lived with transit and car sharing as my primary means of transportation. However, with John’s agent’s office, Moore Create Talent,  located on the west edge of Uptown, and the studios he often works with, like Audio Ruckus, being located in downtown Minneapolis, getting to voice auditions and recording sessions was going to be a new experience for him.  But, with carsharing stations near our home in downtown St. Paul and additional options, like Car2Go, now available in the North Loop, we knew that we’d still have the option to use a car for errands difficult to execute on foot or by bike now, and after our move.

John valiantly posted the car on Craig’s List and we waited for inquiries.  It took only a week before received a solid “bite” and, within two, the car’s new owner, Diana, was driving us back from signing papers at our neighborhood credit union and dropping us off at our door, on her way back to her home in Rochester.  A little stunned by how quickly we had been able to divest ourselves of our only vehicle, we watched our beautiful black Mazda drive into the sunset.  “We need to get groceries this weekend,” John commented when got back upstairs to our apartment, so we reserved the local HourCar for our trip to Mississippi Market for later that afternoon.

The morning following our first carless shopping trip, John looked up from his espresso and said, “I feel lighter this morning.”   What do you mean, I queried, “I just mean it’s so nice to not have to think about taking care of that car.  We don’t have to think about gas, insurance or getting the snow tires on.  It’s amazing how much mental energy that takes.”

Our first official carless trip to the grocery store had gone smoothly and before long the week progressed and we found ourselves running a number of errands on the bus as well.  Planning our transportation had become a little more involved, but John was

John driving a car.

John driving the HourCar Toyota Prius on our inaugural “carless” trip to Mississippi Market.

especially surprised by how relaxed he felt at the end of our first carless week.

Then we began finding research about the subject. Citing an article John had located in the Huffington Post, we talked about how studies are beginning to show that people can improve their well-being when they exchange their cars for biking, walking and transit, simply because they’re not sitting in traffic anymore. (The absence of the stress caused by the inconsistencies we encounter in traffic situations, is offered as one potential explanation.)

“I just felt happy today,” John explained to me over dinner this evening.  “Even when I was riding on the bus with people I wasn’t necessarily comfortable around, I was more relaxed.”  When I inquired as to why that might be he paused, and then answered, “I think it’s because I didn’t have to face the traffic on 6th Street trying to get on the to highway.  I just got on the bus, turned on my IPod, listened to Stevie Ray Vaughn and relaxed until I got to my appointment.”

When you take into account that these words came from a man who has been a car owner his entire adult life, and is also an avid car buff–one who can give you make, model and year of any classic car by spotting the flash of a tail light in the dark–you can begin to comprehend the power of what going carless can mean.  Though our decision to go carless was a necessary step we needed to take  to sustain my ability to keep working in a mission-based startup business, it’s incredible to see how much both of our lives have already been enriched by letting go of our car, in just one week’s time.

Downsizing Part Two: A DIY Guide for Saying Goodbye and Moving Small Items

Wall hooks with a leather coat and two handbags.

Our sale was casual but effective:           using our hallway coat hooks to display coats and handbags.

Going on month two of our downsizing efforts, John and I are discovering a number of ways in which we can divest ourselves of our belongings.  Craig’s List and our building’s bulletin board served to empty our apartment of a number of key furniture pieces such as our leather sofa,  two dressers John owned and my dinning room set.  But, after diving head first into the storage compartments outside of our apartment last weekend (don’t ask how many) we realized we had a number of smaller items that could probably be moved along to our fellow residents via tag sale.

Being in the same building for 7 years means that you accumulate a few things, memories being the chief among them, so we took the time and effort to invite the entire building to a combination “Goodbye Open House/Tag Sale,” which was executed yesterday morning.  Due to some careful planning and well-timed promotion, it was highly successful.  We were able to share coffee and conversation with a number of our neighbors, and the apartment was emptier, and our pockets fuller, at its conclusion.

Running a start-up company that is developing a strong social media presence gave me some insight into how to market our little event to the building, the neighborhood and friends.  Even a few soon-to-be-downsizers stopped by to see how we were structuring our sale, so we thought we’d share how we did it and what we felt made it work so well.

  1. Include an “Open House” in your Tag Sale: Our neighbors, those we knew well and those we were only “head nod” acquainted with, meant something to us.  We had lived with each of them for part, or all, of the seven years we had been in the building.  We felt it was important to invite them into our home, offer them some quality coffee (purchased from the Black Dog, our neighborhood coffee house) and thank them for being part of our lives.  Acknowledging neighbors is an important part of any community, whether you’re entering or leaving it.  All of our posters and invitations to our event made it clear that people could stop by to chat, even if they weren’t interested in shopping.
  2. Allow Two-Weeks for Promotion:  Heard the phrase that buying  12 place-settings of china is too many and 8 is too few?  Any more than two weeks of promotion for an event that will be primarily attended by your neighbors, is too far out on the calendar for them to remember.  Any less, then they may have already made weekend plans.  We banked on people having short-term memories and planted the seeds just two week prior.  We felt it was a time span that was pretty easy to keep top-of-mind but yet might also enable people to plan a bit.
  3. Use Your Building or Neighborhood’s Social Media Pages: Our building and neighborhood associations and clubs have Facebook pages that many of our  building’s residents, and individuals living in the neighborhood, are hooked up to.  We implemented a lead-up campaign for our Open House/Tag Sale by posting an initial announcement on these pages, with our photo attached, leaning more heavily on the “open house” aspect rather than the “come buy our stuff” part.  We included information about day, time and refreshments in that initial post.Then, each time we referenced the sale in our personal Facebook page posts, we linked the post back to these pages either by mentioning them in the post, or posting directly on the page.  Also, in the few days prior, and during the sale, we posted photos and descriptors of specific items we knew residents might be interested in.  For example, we have a number of athletes in our neighborhood, so we did a few posts with pictures of our skis, running and biking gear.  It was really effective at pulling these people to our sale.
  4. Use Your Building or Area Business’ Bulletin Boards: This sounds like a no-brainer and it is, but you also need to keep the bulletin
    People looking through items at John and Lynn's tag sale.

    One of our neighbors chats with John while another prepares to take home our chess set.  In the back are some friends who stopped to take advantage of cycling wear, bike parts and a coffee maker we had on the sale.

    board posts fresh.  We put up a flyer in our building’s mail room at the two-week mark, the same day the Facebook announcement went up, and then put up “this weekend” and “tomorrow” flyers to draw fresh attention to the board.  Remember, you’re not the only one using it and if you don’t monitor it, your flyers will likely get covered up or taking down during that two week time period.

  5. Invite Everyone Personally: Of all the things we did to promote our Open House/Tag Sale, the thing we heard from our guests as being the most effective and appreciated, was the personal invitation everyone in our building received.  “It was so nice of you to invite the whole building,”  many of our neighbors told us.Our building has 250 units, so while it wasn’t possible for us to get personal invitations delivered to every door, we did print out small, quarter page invites and got them to about half of the building the night prior to the event.  Simple notes that said, “Thank you for being our neighbor for all or part of the 7 great years we’ve lived here,” and invited them to have coffee with us between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. the next day.  No sales push.  Just a thank you invitation.  To cover the remainder of the building, we posted a flyer-version of the “thank you/coffee” invite at each elevator bank, just above the buttons, early the morning of our open house.
  6. Post Signs to Help Them Find You: Depending on the building or neighborhood you live in, you may or may not need this, but we felt it was essential to post good “arrow” signs at the elevator and down the corridor  to direct people down our cavernous hallway.  We also posted a “door entry” flyer above the security phone in our lobby’s entry way to enable neighbors from outside the building to contact us to be admitted.

Keeping the day fun, personal and focused on connecting with our neighbors furnished us with a great opportunity to say goodbye to some great people while we watched them take home things we knew they would enjoy as much as we did.  We recommend this approach to anyone who is downsizing!

Autumnal Goodbye to Lowertown Landing

Sunny skies over the Queen of the Mississippi riverboard; viewing it's paddlewheel from the back.

Autumn, and the Queen of the Mississippi, arrive at Lowertown Landing.

Autumn seemed to be calling us this morning,  coaxing us to put off sifting through our storage to prepare for a tag sale/farewell open house John and I are planning for next weekend.  So we donned warm coats, hats, running shoes and answered the summons of the sunshine, and the season, by taking a walk down the riverfront path along Shepherd Road.

Trees touched with the breath of autumn greeted us in modest hues of gold and red.

One of the treats of Lowertown life has been the surprises the riverfront can yield on a morning stroll.  Today did not disappoint.  The majesty of the Queen of the Mississippi riverboat, taking on a load of travelers, also awaited us at the end of Sibley Street.

Enjoy the images we captured, on one of our dwindling weekend mornings in this lovely place we’ve called home, Lowertown Landing.

The side of the Queen of the Mississippi showing it's staterooms.St. Paul riverfront pedestrian path with trees turning to gold.

The front of the Queen of the Mississippi

Downsizing: The Gains of Letting Go

Couple removing drawers from the dresser they're moving and smiling.

The awesome couple that purchased our dresser and sent us a photo thank you note the next day!

With five weeks left before our move to the Minneapolis North Loop, the sorting, listing, selling and packing efforts have escalated in our Lowertown St. Paul apartment.  Craig’s List has become a repository  for the abundant quality furniture and sporting goods John and I brought into our marriage 3 years ago.  As a result, exchanging emails and texts with a wide variety of strangers as far away as Wisconsin, has become part of our daily routine.

Before we entered this process, we talked about how painful it was going to be to not have the things we loved around us.  We speculated feelings of loss and sadness would accompany these days leading up to our move,

But letting go of our possession has yielded some unexpected gains.  We’re learning that the lives we have led in the past and plan to lead in the future, are really much more centered around the people we’re meeting than the things we possess. This wisdom has been an immeasurable discovery for us both:

  • As John parted with a much-loved sofa last week and we helped the young family from south Minneapolis who purchased it load it into their truck, I gave their 6 year-old daughter a ride up and down the sidewalk on the furniture cart.  The simplicity of the moment was topped off when we heard the couple express their joy at finding a beautiful leather couch at a price they could afford.
  • A young woman moving to a new apartment was giddy about finding my black iron four-poster bed.  Without reservation, she gave us the cash payment in full when we told her we’d be happy to hold on to it for her for 3 weeks, demonstrating a trust in us that took us totally by surprise.
  • Photo of a living room with leather sofa, and dining table and chairs.

    Our beloved leather sofa, and living room, prior to this month’s downsizing via Craig’s List.

    An affable couple from Eden Prairie purchased John’s IKEA dresser for their son’s bedroom and didn’t bat an eye when we showed them that one drawer was losing its bottom. “We’ll just reinforce that,” they told us and happily, without any mention of paying us less for the piece.  They were flattered to  pose for a picture I told them I’d like to use in Urban Deluxe and,  the next morning, my phone contained a text from them.  It was a photo of the dresser in its new home with a “we’ll take good care of it for you” notation.

  • The DVD towers that no one seemed interested in finally walked out the door when a woman from Eau Claire Wisconsin connected with me. “The timing is perfect,” she gushed, “I’m coming to the Twin Cities tomorrow with a Uhaul to pick up some other things.  I’ll swing by on my way out of town.”  As I helped her load the towers she too said, “I’ll give them a good home.”

With every sale and each pick-up, we met someone who not only appreciated our taste in home furnishings, but also seemed to understand that we were saying goodbye to a part of our lives.  The fact that they were aware of this and wanted to reassure us that they knew the value of what they were taking home, was extremely touching and heart warming.

But perhaps the most significant moment of our downsizing journey occurred in relation to the pieces of handcrafted furniture my dad had made for me and some items that belonged to my mother.  I knew we couldn’t continue to hang on to these pieces in a smaller apartment and hiding them away in storage didn’t seem right.  So I got in touch with a niece, who also happens to be my Godchild.  She and her family live about an hour away and had just purchased a home, so it was possible that the might welcome the chance to have some additional furniture.

It had been several years since we had spoken and I wasn’t certain how my desire to contact her would be received.  When she was young,

A pretty young woman smiling.

My niece today with the same beautiful smile I remember.

I had been very involved in her life, even bringing her to live with me for a summer.  But circumstances, including my estrangement from her mom (my older sister) and time had taken their toll and I wasn’t certain if I would be welcomed into her life again.

Now a wife, mother of three and a nurse, I was glad to know that she was doing well.  I decided to reach out to her and inquired if she would like to have some of her grandparent’s things.  Without hesitation she replied that she’d be glad to have them and, last weekend, she and her husband stopped by our home to pick up the heirlooms.

There was no discomfort, no shyness and no regrets.  All I saw before me was a beautiful young woman who knew what she wanted from life and seemed OK with the idea that I was in it.   We laughed and she told us about her kids, her job and plans for the holidays.  She issued an invitation to John and I to join in the festivities and paused to reminisce about the family photos we had hanging in the hallway.

On her way out, she paused at our front door, hugging me for the fourth time and said, “I’m up here all of the time for work.  Let’s do coffee soon.” That’s when I realized what I had gained by letting go.