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.

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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 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!

A Secret Lowertown: The Community Before the Rush

A view through a fence of Lowertown's historic buildings.

Not long ago, Lowertown was an abandoned urban center that housed a close-knit community of artists and people who appreciated their work.

When my daughter and I moved to Lowertown seven years ago, we were deeply moved by the amazing sense of community we found here. What many people who come here for park concerts, bar crawls and weddings don’t realize is that , before it became the “hippest” place to move to in the Twin Cities, it was a small, close knit community of artists, and people who appreciated their work.  Before Barrio and the Bull Dog beckoned young suburbanites and peddle pubs to our streets, buildings may have been empty, but our neighborhood  was full of people who knew each other and lived together very well.

Just as little as 10 years ago Lowertown was a neighborhood that had been  ignored by it’s own city government for so long that weeds had taken over a good share of Mears Park, and citizens were taking it upon themselves to prune trees and pick up garbage along the streets.  When I moved here, the city had acquiesed to providing garbage pick up service in the park once a week, but those of us who cared purchased our own plants and maintained the gardens and grass ourselves.

Despite the neglect, our community thrived.  Artists came to live here and put on amazing cultural events.  People who believed in the potential of community built an independent coffee house, called the Black Dog, and provided a wonderful venue for musicians.  And those of us who admired the creativity came here to be next to it all. That’s why we didn’t mind pulling our own weeds, picking up our own garbage and being ignored by the rest of the world.  Most of my friends and coworkers had no idea what I was talking about when I told them that I lived in Lowertown. (Lower..what?)  But those of us who lived here knew we had the best kept secret on earth.

As John and I prepare to leave behind a neighborhood we invested ourselves in, made friends in and even fell in love in (our first date was

Friends having dinner at Lynn and John's Lowertown apartment.

Our community was made up of people who knew each other well and socialized often.

at Loto, now known as Faces on Mears Park), I like to look back and remember that we were a part of a community here.  As the walls of the Gillette building come down, and a youthful bar patron screams at his friends beneath my bedroom window tonight, I want to remember how safe, welcoming and harmonious it felt to live here once.

Neighborhoods and cities aren’t that different than children.  They either grow or they die.  But the growth may not always be something you can live with.   So we move on with the hope that we recapture something of that safe, nurturing community in our next neighborhood.