Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Hold The Coffee continues... Just on hiatus at the moment

Some of you may know this by now, but my last day as a reporter at the News-Herald was Aug. 23. Since then, I've started graduate school at Cleveland State University. I am studying urban planning--no shocker considering my loath for front parking lots.

Friend and News-Herald colleague Doug Vehovec accepted my News-Herald gear Sunday night, Aug. 23. It was my last day as a reporter after a career of a little more than 2.5 years.

Despite starting this coffee shop blog as a fun off-shoot to my News-Herald reporter beat in November 2013, I am intent on keeping the blog going. Sadly, it will have to be at a slower pace because at the moment I don't have a source of income to travel and spend money at new coffee shop. Graduate school is also more demanding than I thought.

I am sure I will be sneaking in some posts throughout my two years at Cleveland State University though.

Over the next few weeks, I will also need to fix a glitch to the website. A couple weeks ago, I moved the blog to a personal hosting site and personal e-mail. When my News-Herald e-mail got discontinued, I sadly lost all of the images posted on each entry. I reconnected images to four of my latest posts today and will try tackling the rest by the end of next week. I'll also need to do the same thing for the Hold The Coffee Google Map.

Again, if you have suggestions of a coffee shop for a future entry, send it to me via email--shusted13@gmail.com--or on Twitter at @SimonGH_Says.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

@ Nervous Dog Coffee Bar on Akron's west side

Hold The Coffee returns to the Rubber City this week with a new post about one of its signature coffee shops.

This is Nicole's second time being featured in my blog, and
she told me she came prepared this time.
Nervous Dog Coffee Bar has been on my radar for a long time as a place to visit--partly because there really just aren't that many independent coffee shops in Akron to visit. As I've mentioned before, Akron's smaller sister to the south, Canton, has measurably more shops.

Another reason it's been on my radar is because the owners have taken on a local humanitarian cause to feed the hungry since a local man was caught on camera stealing cash from their shops' tip jar. Instead of pressing charges, the owners helped the man as well as other people in need of food.

My friend from Kent State University, Nicole Stempak, invited me for an afternoon chit-chat-after-church Wednesday, July 8, down at Nervous Dog Coffee Bar's original shop at 1530 West Market St. (Nervous Dog also has a shop in the suburb of Stow.) It was my first-ever visit to the place.

It should also be noted that I later in the day visited two more coffee shops (Angel Falls in Akron's Highland Square neighborhood and Phoenix in Cleveland Height's Conventry neighborhood) because that is what I do when I have a day off.

Nicole took a big fancy at Thirsty Dog's shelves of books
near its massive window.
One thing to be clear about Nervous Dog: it has no relation to the famous Akron-based brewery, Thirsty Dog, or the equally famous Cleveland-based hot-dog joint and concert venue, Happy Dog.  I eagerly asked a barista about the shop's name, hoping to learn if Akron had some sort of history with dogs. Apparently, the shop was previously a different coffee shop that centered around the then-owner's dog, Cocoa. When Nervous Dog's owners came in, they held onto that theme, according to the barista.

Location: Nicole warned me ahead of time: the shop has a frontal parking lot. As anyone who knows me knows: front-sided parking lots are sometimes my biggest pet peeve of any business because it subscribes to the lifestyle that cars come before pedestrians.)  I wasn't bothered here though because it had only two short rows of parking in front with a far larger share in the alley and back of this particular building. (Nicole was calling it a shopping plaza, but I don't think that is quite accurate given the type of office-like tenants.)

Nicole later told me that the place does offer coffee in mugs.
We just failed to explicitly ask for mugs.
Nervous Dog's shop sits nearby a very good mix of retail, residential and office. Its definitely a place I feel like I can walk or bike to without the risk of a crashing into a car. I do not know all too much about Akron, but given the houses, I think it is safe to say that Akron's west side along West Market Street is the more affluent neighborhood in the city. The neighborhood is also near the city of Fairlawn, home of the affluent Summit Mall,

Food and Beverage: I did the unusual thing again that Wednesday and ordered a custom latte. Despite my hard-line tradition of buying nothing more expensive than an iced coffee or cold brew beverage, I ordered a large Maple Cupcake Latte as well as a real chocolate cupcake for $6 and change. The shop's chalkboard list of 14 signature lattes and mochas made me curious. I didn't regret my decision.

Nicole took a similar route and ordered a Bumbleberry Latte with a cupcake of her own.

It's a small, lovely space.
Space and Atmosphere:  I was amazed at how packed the shop was on a Wednesday afternoon. Granted, I visited around 2 p.m. or the caffiene-pick-me-up-hour. I was worried that Nicole and I wouldn't have anywhere to sit, but luckily some space opened up near the shop's beautiful wooden bar counter area.

When Nicole arrived 15 minutes later, the crowd was still pretty tight packed in Nervous Dog's shop. She said she's seen the place a lot worse on weekend visits, sometimes with a line that stretches to the door. (This is just simply another indication that Akron needs more coffee shops.) I kind of wished the place had more bar seating areas, considering that most of its patrons that day were armed with laptops hooked up to the shop's Wi-Fi.

Although it was a beautiful cloudy day and Nervous Dog had seating out in the front of its shop, I was glad the two of us were able to sit indoors.

I should've bought some Thirsty Dog apparel. Maybe next
As Nicole quickly points out, the shop resembles a European coffee shop. Despite that I've never been to Europe, I have to somehow agree. With the traffic they get, I hope Nervous opens a third location in downtown Akron--a place that really needs a great independent coffee shop.

Again, if you have suggestions of a coffee shop for a future entry, send it to me via email--shusted13@gmail.com--or on Twitter at @SimonGH_Says.

Monday, July 6, 2015

@ Public Espresso + Coffee in Downtown Buffalo

NOTE: I apologize for the drought of posts lately. I've been managing a few adjustments in my life, including moving to a new apartment in Cleveland Height's Coventry neighborhood. I hope to post my next entries in a more timely fashion.

Hold The Coffee returns to Buffalo this week to feature my first visit of a downtown coffee shop, and the first that is trying very hard to bring third-wave coffee to the city.

My mom is too modest to model in my blog post so I
took on the role.
My visit home dates back to Friday, May 15, to see my brother, Adam, graduate from Hilbert College with a Bachelor's in accounting. Being late spring as it was, I was eager to see what progress Buffalo's Main Street has been making since a multi-modal streetscape makeover had wrapped up late last year on the 600 block. (The project has now moved to the 500 block with a goal of getting the remaining blocks finished at a later date.) 

I forced my mom to tag along with me on my adventure through downtown Buffalo. Without question, we had to visit a coffee shop. Lucky for us, Public Espresso + Coffee opened its first of two shops this past March inside a restored 110-year-old hotel in the middle of downtown. The seven-story Hotel @ The Lafayette also took a pretty stunning turnaround as a multi-use building with hotel rooms, apartments, retail, pubs and a coffee shop. (Watch a short video feature on the project here.)

My cousin, Tracie, and her husband, Matt, even hosted their wedding reception at the hotel's Greenhouse Room this past June.

The redeveloped 600 block of Main Street. I dragged my
mom through a handful more blocks of Main Street.
To get a sneak peek on the reception venue (and learn more about parking in the area,) my mom gladly agreed to tag along with me Friday, May 15.

Location: Similar to Cleveland, it seems like coffee shops take a longer time to make their splash in a downtown area, (at least ones with weekend hours,) but with more housing being constructed downtown, we're seeing that change dramatically. In addition to Public's opening in March, another coffee shop, Buzz, opened this past September in the Theatre District. In addition, a local mother and son are opening their own coffee shop in downtown's Genesee Gateway District called Rust Espresso Bar.

For a long time, SPoT Coffee has held its roasting headquarters and cafe in downtown's Chippewa Strip, and just a little north in the Allentown neighborhood, sits a newly opened vegan + coffee spot, Grindhaus Cafe. I am not keeping a score card of what is and isn't apart of the third-wave coffee movement, but lets just say coffee-options in downtown have definitely exploded over the years and will continue doing so in the near future.

A great bar counter area and city mural behind it.
Breaking the tradition of so many downtown coffee shops before it, Public has pretty stellar hours--staying open as late as 6 p.m. on Sundays and 8 p.m., all other days.

As my mom and I learned, finding available street parking on a Friday afternoon can be hard, but there are quite a bit of public transit and bike-friendly routes to take as well to the shop. The Metro-Rail is in fact just a block off from the shop. (Now if only the rail line could be extended to South Buffalo.)

The one thing that could improve about Public's location is signage. A sign standing along the sidewalk was the only thing my mom and I could find to indicate that we were going into the right place.

Food and Beverage: Like most third-wave coffee shops, Public doesn't have much to offer for lunch and dinner, but that doesn't mean there isn't anything good to eat.

I think the muffin might've had cranberries in it and the
pop tart had cinnamon in it. These are the uncertainties I face
when I lose my notes and wait this long to write a post.
Public contracts a lot of its pastries with local bakeries--we're talking Elm Street Bakery in the village of East Aurora, BreadHive Cooperative on Buffalo's upper west side, Fairy Cakes in Buffalo's Parkside neighborhood, and the pop-up shop Butter Block.

All of them are great, but what sticks out most is Butter Block's lovely pop tarts. My childhood heart has always held a special place for the pop tart, and I would love to see more coffee shops selling these type of pastries.

I sadly lost my notes from the day, and I can't remember what my mom and I precisely ordered or how much it cost. (I do know she paid for it though--hehehe.) I know I ordered a glass of Kold Brew (there's an accent in the spelling), and my mom--who was introduced to pour-over only a year ago--had some trouble deciphering Public's menu. She eventually ordered a glass of The Revolution Espresso Blend. I remembered this because she was worried it had a shots of espresso in it. I also later bought a bag of this blend's beans and a sealed glass bottle of Public's Kold Brew. My siblings thought the bottle was some unusual craft beer at first.

Wonderful space to relax. My mom, who is a professionally
certified people watcher if such a thing existed, especially
loved watching all of the folks walking through the lobby.
Space and Atmosphere: One thing you have to know about Public Espresso's downtown shop is that it is physically in Hotel @ The Lafeyette's lobby. It shares space on the floor lobby with a small wall dividing the shop from the hotel's front desk. At first, I thought this was crazy unusual, and I remember asking staff on its Facebook page whether the shop was truly opened to the public or served only apartment users and hotel patrons--similar to a coffee kiosk.

Despite my concerns, the shop's interior is actually very awe-inspiring. I love the high ceilings, huge white columns and unusual furniture. I never watched or read "The Great Gatsby," but the lobby/shop certainly reminds me of it.

About a week after our visit, Public's staff posted on social media that they plan to extend their lease three more years at the hotel. I was super excited over that piece of news, even though I am most excited about them opening their flagship shop in Buffalo's upper west side later this year.

It may look like a bean bag chair--that's what I thought, certainly--
but this leather rounded piece of furniture is far from it.
Again, if you have suggestions of a coffee shop for a future entry, send it to me via email--shusted13@gmail.com--or on Twitter at @SimonGH_Says.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

@ Phoenix Coffee in Cleveland's Ohio City

Hold The Coffee stops this week at Cleveland's historic west side neighborhood, Ohio City, to review another Phoenix Coffee shop.

Brilliant! Those two just know how to model a photo.
It's the third Phoenix I've featured in this blog, and in my opinion, all of them deserve their own post because they are all so very different. But out of them all, the Ohio City shop stands most distinct.

I often brush my shoulder every time I see a blog or news website post a "Top # coffeehouses in Cleveland." Part of my angst is tied to what is often a failed effort at naming each coffee shop within Cleveland's urban foot print. More importantly, however, I am tired of seeing authors grouping different shops together under the shared brand--namely Pheonix's four locations, Erie Island's two shops and Rising Star's two shops. Sure, all of those locations serve the same branded coffee, but they often have different baristas, roasters, furniture, space design, and menu offerings. To me, they're more like independent coffee shops that share a license with the same roaster.

The most hideous offense is when a writer tries to group an unclear number of local coffee shops under the "Arabica" name. Yes, it is a Euclid-based company that roasts beans and licenses coffee shops (seemingly across the globe), but the existing Arabica shops I know between Parma Heights, Downtown Willoughby and Chester Township are thinly tied to one another and have enormous differences. It's a mystery of what really is an Arabica Coffee House because the business' corporate website doesn't even list the locations.

In the third hour of our visit, a large group of period-dressed
cyclists called "Cleveland Tweed Ride," visited. It was pretty
sweet, but at that point, we knew it was time to wrap up our
Anyway, enough throwing shade at click-bait listicles. Lets talk about the Ohio City shop and my latest visit, Saturday, April 25, with my boyfriend and blog editor, Matt, and our dear friend and News-Herald reporter, Andrew Cass.

Opened this past August, I had only been to the shop once before with Matt and our friend Kristen soon after it opened. Not too much had changed since then--which is a very good thing.

Location: I'll be quick about what makes Ohio City such a great place to visit: It has its own Red Line rail station; it's a quick bike ride away from downtown; it has historic homes that date back to when the neighborhood was its own municipality, and housing and business are densely packed with few parking lots and even few private driveways--making it ideal for a live-work-play vibrancy. But there's also downsides. The neighborhood, specifically West 25th Street, is noisy and congested with cars and tourists visiting the West Side Market and Great Lakes Brewing Company.

The baristas pour the Nitro Toddy in the tall, beer-style glass.
That's another attractive feature of ordering a Nitro Toddy
I know, it must be ironic to see me celebrate density and call congestion a "downside," but that's why I like Phoenix's location so very much. Located at 3000 Bridge Ave., it's four blocks away from West 25th Street, and it is surrounded mostly by homes and apartments. It's quiet, but still vibrant--perfect for outdoor coffee drinking.

Food and Beverage: Thinking strategically ahead, Andrew, Matt and I filled up on Ohio City Burrito before we visited Phoenix. Andrew still ordered a chocolate-chip cookie when we got there though. (The baristas do on-site baking, so it was a yummy decision on Andrew's part.)

Matt and I ordered a cup of pour-over coffee (the shop is exclusively pour-over, unlike its sister shops) and a Nitro Toddy for $6 and change. The Nitro Toddy is their cold brew coffee infused with liquid nitrogen or something I am clearly not qualified to explain. All that matters is that we absolutely loved the Nitro Toddy. Matt and I ordered two more throughout our visit.

I have to say, Phoenix coffee shops have some of the best
bar stool areas I have ever seen.
While shooting photos of our coffees, Matt outed me as a "coffee blogger" to a female barista. (Matt explains, "If you don't tell her what you're doing, she's just going to think you're an Instagramming white person and that is so basic,")

Since I got outed, I gave a true effort in being a real coffee connoisseur. That means I held off on mixing any milk or creamer in my mug and I only used raw sugar as sweetener. Surprisingly, I drank the coffee with no problem. (I am still a ways off from drinking coffee black though.)

Space and Atmosphere: Like all Phoenixes, the Ohio City shop has a great bar stool area, terrific community art, and uses an eclectic mixture of colors and materials throughout the space.

Matthew and Andrew burned through topics like how to deal
with ISIS to the distinction between muffins and cupcakes.
Most importantly, the shop has the best outdoor patio area I've seen among any coffee shop I've visited. It even marginally beats Coshocton's Uncorked Wine and Coffee Bar, and that's in Coshocton's historically scenic Roscoe Village neighborhood. Phoenix's front and back patio are raised a good story above the sidewalk, offering patron's a nice scenic view of the historic neighborhood, as well crisp soft sounds of nature, chatter and very little car traffic. I also approve of the amount of exposed brick outside.

Despite the chilly temperatures, that Saturday was a great day to drink some Nitro Toddies outside. The patio is enough to persuade someone to move to the attached apartment building. Not surprisingly, they're all leased out.

Again, if you have suggestions of a coffee shop for a future entry, send it to me via email--shusted13@gmail.com--or on Twitter at @SimonGH_Says.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

@ Muggswigz in Downtown Canton

Hold the Coffee this week is featuring a nationally recognized coffee shop in a city with plenty of post-industrial and wild artistic flare.

Kelly is making her debut in my blog. awwwww...
I don't often have the time to drive an hour south to Downtown Canton, but when I do, It's like I've stepped into a whole new continent. The first few noticeable things about Canton versus any city I've visited is all of the small square blocks, the overwhelming presence of one-way streets, and the obnoxious need to type a "NW," "NE," "SW" or "SE" after every street name in my GPS. And when I thought I've seen it all, Canton decides to shake things up again and add something called reverse angle parking. It's not just on one street either. Its all over downtown Canton, and mostly along its one-way streets. When I first saw it, I thought I was driving in the wrong direction. On Saturday, March 14, I parked in one of them for the first time so I could visit Canton's most highlighted coffee shop, Muggswigz Coffee & Tea. (It's also the toughest name to spell I've seen among coffee shops.)

Canton has a high concentration of coffee shops for its size (in fact, it has more than Akron, a significantly bigger city), but saying Muggswigz is only the most highlighted shop in the city might be understating things. Muggswiz is a repeating finalist in Coffee Fest's America's Best Coffee House competition. And in 2014, USA Today listed the shop at 137 Walnut Ave. NE, as one of the nation's top 10 coffee shops. I remembered my eyes popping out as I read it being compared to coffee shops in Portland, Chicago and Seattle. I had been to Muggswigz once before in 2011 to watch my friend Katy perform a guitar and singing gig on-stage, and I remember being pretty impressed with the place, but I didn't think anything more of it than a neighborhood coffee shop.

It took a good seven minutes, but I successfully kept my
car between the two marked parking lines. I can't remember
the last time I reversed parked somewhere, much less
reverse-angle parked on a one-way street.
It's taken a year for me to make a second trip down there, but I did it last month, inviting Kent State friend and Canton Repository reporter Kelly Byer for a morning chit-chat and a tour of what is making Canton cool these days. (Kelly spent a couple years in Casper, Wyo., so I take her opinions about up-and-coming urban trends very seriously.)

Location: Like all rust belt cities, downtown Canton has suffered plenty of urban renewal and abandonment over recent decades, but it's turning that ill-fortune into the most exciting arts district I have ever seen. (I think that's saying a lot considering I am a big fan of Cleveland's Gordon Square and Waterloo arts districts.)

Muggswigz isn't per-se inside the Canton Arts District, but it's literately only a few minutes of a walk to it and all of its attractions. The arts district, which is centered around the Palace Theatre, includes some incredible pieces of public art like a life-size rhino made of rubber tires, a three-story building infested by a man-made octopus and a series of wood-panel murals giving the side of a parking garage more life. The district also includes six art galleries with regular hours and 21 studios.

This piece of public art is just unreal.
Kelly and I stopped by a few of them and the one that really blew my mind was a two-story warehouse-like gallery called Second April. It features many rooms filled with art and crafts from different local artists who don't have their own galleries. Very little art catches my attention, and that's why Second April and it's diversity of work has something to see (or buy) for everyone.

Art isn't the only thing making Downtown Canton attractive. It's also ahead of most cities its size on embracing bicycle culture, according to me.

Almost like its one-way streets, Downtown Canton is inundated with marked bike lanes. The street Muggswigz sits along, Walnut Avenue, has two bike lanes on each direction despite that car traffic is restricted to one way. The street it believed to be the first of its kind in the state.

Sadly, I forgot what Kelly ordered that Saturday. This is
what happens when I am behind on posts for a month.
Although Downtown Canton is making a comeback, the outskirt area Muggswigz was founded around is a bit depressive. When I visited, I couldn't help but wish the McDonalds across the street was built to the sidewalk, and the empty lot catty-corner to the coffee shop was infilled with apartments.

Food and Beverage: Muggwigz sticks to the pastry, tea and coffee menu that works best in a dense downtown-area like its own.

I got a little adventurous that Saturday morning and ordered a large spiced latte and a chocolate muffin with cream cheese filling. I hate destroying my diet, but I did drive a little more than an hour to a coffee shop, so I thought it was appropriate to indulge. Besides, the latte was DELISH.

After my downtown expedition with Kelly, I drove around Canton for a while, visiting the President McKinley Memorial, and then decided to return to Muggswigz to get some work done and drink some actual coffee. I got a large cup light roast like always, and it definitely had a distinctive taste. Was it better? I couldn't say because I just quite frankly don't care about the taste of coffee. It's all good as long as it is diluted with sweetener and milk.

What's not pictured here to the left of the frame is a big 
polished conference  table with big leather desk chairs. 
I guess Canton's hipsters need to hold their business meetings 
Space and Atmosphere: Modest. That's the best word to sum up my impression of Muggswigz's interior. It's not underwhelming or disappointing, it's just modest and different from the typical conventions of a coffee shop.

There's truthfully nothing wrong with Muggswigz space, but I expected by now with all of the success they've earned, the owners would've replaced their carpet flooring with hard tile or wood panel and updated their light fixtures to cast an ambiance that goes beyond a 1970s feel.

But like any good hipster would say: if its not broken, don't fix it.

Okay, that's not a hipster saying, but I think the idea is still conveyed. There are plenty of hipsters who order coffee and work at Muggswigz, and it's pretty impressive considering that all of the college campuses are on the outskirts of the city or in North Canton. (and another reason why the Canton Arts District's success is so impressive as well.)

Muggswigz does its roasting in the same building of its
Walnut Avenue store. I was meaning to buy a bag of grinds, 
but sadly forgot.
I know I have a bad record when it comes to discerning hipsters from typical coffee shop patrons, but I think I am right about Muggswigz. Consider this: when I asked the barista whether their Wi-Fi password used only lower case letters, she subtly smirked and casually responded "always."

I rest my case.

Again, if you have suggestions of a coffee shop for a future entry, send it to me via email--shusted13@gmail.com--or on Twitter at @SimonGH_Says.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

@ Civilization in Cleveland's Tremont

Hold The Coffee returns to Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood this week to highlight a coffee shop with vintage flare.

This shoot was actually staged because I forgot to take 
the signature storefront photo when we left Civilization 
that afternoon. Doug was on his way back to work when I 
realized we still had to shoot this.
Civilization at 2366 W 11th St., has been staple of Tremont's dining and hangout scene for 25 years, and truthfully I am surprised I hadn't visited the place up until this year.

I've only been to Civilization twice. Once with Andrew Cass on a journey this past fall to expose ourselves to more of Cleveland's west side neighborhoods, and then recently Sunday, March 8, with Doug Vehovec to purposely feature the shop to this blog.

On both occasions, my coffee companion and I not only visited Civilization, but stopped by Loop, Tremont a coffee shop and record store. (The shop is only few blocks north of Civilization and it's a favorite spot for Andrew and I. Kinda of weird to see two coffee shops so close together, but as I tell most friends, there's never too many.)

This small garbage can on top of the bar counter is the
only one I found at the coffee shop both times I visited. You
can imagine it was full every time I needed it.
Location: Civilization is positioned as the classical, European-inspired, neighborhood coffee shop. It contracts its coffee from locally owned roaster City Roast Coffee, it's located inside a two-story building at the corner of two streets' filled with houses, apartments, businesses and retail, and most importantly, it sits away from public parking lots. Only a few coffee shops have their own parking lots, most have a municipal lot nearby, and some have at least diagonal street parking to accommodate drivers. None of this is true in the section of Tremont around Civilization.

Some may say it is hard to find free parking in Tremont--in fact I know plenty of people who say that. Unless Taste of Tremont is going on, I don't feel like I've had that problem. But I am also a type of person who parks first and then looks for my destination later, even if that means walking a mile away and passing through endless parking spaces closer by.

Like all city neighborhoods, Tremont is meant to be walked and cycled around--not driven and parked around. It's best that businesses like Civilization embrace that environment because it encourages denser housing and better transit. And besides, free parking is not really free and instead trickles down to the consumer or taxpayer.

Sigh, it would've looked so much better if we had mugs.
Food and Beverage: On my most recent visit earlier this month, I arrived to Civilization about 15 minutes before Doug, finding only one table for two available. That was no surprise. I've always known Civilization was a crowded hangout for neighbors living around Lincoln Park (The boy rock band has really tainted that name, I must say.)

Civilization offers some cold-cut sandwiches and baked goods, but I was interested only in coffee that day. I ordered a large coffee and a coffee-cake muffin for $3 and change.

As always, I ordered coffee "for here"--meaning poured in some sort of glassware, but I think the message was lost in loud environment because the barista returned with my coffee in a paper cup. The same happened to Doug 15 minutes later. I saw plenty of people around the cafe with mugs, and the paper cups did irk both of us a bit, despite how silly that might sound. Not so much because I care about environmental sustainability, but mostly because I knew my photo wasn't going to look nearly as glamorous without mugs.

I know nothing about decorating, but I would this a very
vintage interior, filled wooden surfaces and wooden furniture.
Space and Atmosphere: As I mentioned earlier, Civilization can get pretty busy in the morning and afternoon hours. But the crowd is more social and neighborly than what's seen at most coffee shops. The place carries Wi-Fi, but on both times I visited, the chit-chat-after-church crowds outnumbered laptop carriers easily 2-to-1. It's a place where stories and ideas are shared more between mouths and less by text displays and videos.

I think part of that is because Civilization has only a few bar counter seats, a very small amount compared to a Phoenix coffee shop, or most urban coffee shops I've visited. Although I love bar counters for their accommodation toward workers, I don't think they're needed at every coffee shop. Just like how some coffee shops are better working and reading environments than others, the same is true for picking a place to catch up over coffee with one or a few friends. Civilization is among that list of places, for sure.

Again, if you have suggestions of a coffee shop for a future entry, send it to me via email--shusted@news-herald.com--or on Twitter at @SimonSaysNH.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

@ Slow Train Cafe in Downtown Oberlin

This week, Hold The Coffee highlights my long-awaited visit to one of Northeast Ohio's coolest college towns and one of its coffee shops.

Matt and Andrew are pictured here waiting for me to
walk inside with them.
I've always had a strong attraction to college towns--partly because their coffee shops have expansive weekend hours, terrific public art, and thoughtful community spaces. Evidently the coffee shops are so nice that patrons typically need to fight for a table or seat--which is just what happened when my boyfriend / blog editor Matt, a team of friends and I visited Oberlin--home to Oberlin College--Sunday, Feb. 15, to check out Slow Train Cafe.

I've often told myself that the best time to visit college towns is during the summer, and for two reasons: the college campus and its thousands of dollars worth of landscaping are at its prime, and the student population impeding upon that beauty is at its lowest.

Friends and colleagues, Amy Popik and Andrew Cass, have discussed making the hour-long trip to Oberlin, but our schedules have presented many restrictions. Either one of us is working a weekend shift, I am in Mount Vernon for the weekend hanging out with Matt or Amy is working her second job.  With all of that in mind, we agreed Sunday, Feb. 15, would have to work. Amy's lifelong friend, Oberlin graduate and Akron's new urbanist poster child, Hannah Scott, joined us in our adventure. (She's also the daughter of our photo editor, Duncan Scott. The woman clearly wears many, many hats.)

Pictured here is Amy, Hannah and Matt ordering their coffees
to go. Well actually, Hannah ordered a Chai Latte to go, not 
a coffee.
Like so many college towns, Downtown Oberlin doesn't just have one independent coffee shop, it has two: The Local Coffee & Tea and The Slow Train Cafe. (It actually has three when we consider Treehuggers Cafe in Oberlin.)  It took me a few days to decide which coffee shop to feature in my first visit to Oberlin. I chose Slow Train mostly because it doesn't close until 11 p.m. on Sundays and The Local closes at 5 p.m. (Do not fear. I will gladly make another trip to Oberlin sometime to feature The Local.)

Location: I expected a busy crowd, but I wasn't expecting standing-room-only busy when we all arrived at Slow Train a little past 1 p.m., that Sunday. I mean, even if it was just Matt and I, there still wouldn't have been anywhere to sit.

A good three-fourths of the patrons I saw were students on laptops presumably working on school projects. As frustrating as the situation was, it did remind me of the times when I was a Kent State University student looking for somewhere to camp out to work hours on a weekend. I still camp out, but I have since realized it's not worth keeping your fort up at a table if it means you're hindering someone else's coffee shop experience.
You couldn't throw a rock without hitting a humanities' major. 
With that said, I wouldn't recommend throwing any rocks.

Not having much of a choice, my friends, Matt and I ordered coffees to go--an unheard of thing for me to do on a weekend.  We spent a few hours touring around downtown Oberlin, checking if The Local was equally packed--it was, and eating lunch at Agave Burrito Bar. We were also tallying how many college friends Hannah can run into on one day. It was too many to count.

My friends, Matt and I visited Slow Train again near the end of our adventure, and, to no surprise, it was still busy. However this time, there was one small table open with a handful of chairs in the middle of the room. We quickly hooked our jackets around the chairs and ordered Amy and Hannah to stand guard while Andrew, Matt and I ordered coffee and cookies at the counter. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but nevertheless, I've never felt so much relief and gratification as I did that day winning a table at a coffee shop.

Obviously, a big part of the shop's traffic is its close proximity to the academic halls and other such campus things.

Oberlin College's campus is weaved into the city's downtown more than almost any college town I've visited. Located at 55 W College St., Slow Train is a stone-throw away from its nearest campus building.

These cookies are going to be the eventual cause of my 
Type II Diabetes. I just know it.
What's most important about Slow Train's thriving location is that it's part of a remarkable story of three college graduates who were focused on building environmentally and socially sustainable mixed-use housing on a former Buick dealership lot. (Steven Litt's 2010 Cleveland.com story on the project is a terrific read.) It would be amazing if more of these projects were replicated in other cities like Painesville, Ashland, and Youngstown.

Food and Beverage: Like a few other coffee shops I've visited, Slow Train blurs the line a bit between coffee shop and bar--something Matt and I completely welcome. The shop serves wine, beer and cocktails, but sadly their alcohol is off limits on Sunday because of liquor license restrictions. (Lack of expansive liquor licenses is a common problem in Ohio college towns, however, Andrew reminds me often it is an even worse situation in his home state of Pennsylvania and his alma mater's town, State College, Pa.)

Slow Train's milk, coffee and pastries are provided by a handful of Cleveland-area vendors. That's good because Matt, Andrew and I need to find out where we can pick up more of the delicious cookies we ate--especially the salted chocolate chip ones. Andrew was compelled in ordering one during each of our two visits.

This is me shooting more photos from the fort we secured
in our second visit to Slow Train.
I am disqualifying everything I ordered in the first visit because I couldn't take nice photos of it. On our second visit, however, Matt and I ordered a cranberry-oatmeal cookie, a salted chocolate-chip cookie and two eight-ounce cups of coffee for $6 and change. I got a Columbian roast and he got a Brazilian roast. Don't ask me what the difference was.

Space and Atmosphere: Another big reason why I chose Slow Train to feature before visiting Oberlin is because the coffee shop had a band scheduled to play on their small stage that Sunday evening. I love live music at coffee shops and Slow Train's event looked like it would be a pretty fun in the off chance that everyone and I stayed in Oberlin past 7 p.m. (We obviously didn't. Like the post-college graduates we are, we called it a night by 5 p.m.)

Slow Train still had some neat music playing on its pretty expansive speaker system. The music ranged from The Eagles to Kanye West, and from Timbaland to Justin Timberlake.

I loved the shop's mixture of earthy colored walls, concrete flooring, wooden furniture and mounted photos and art. And just like any progressive college town, the shop's two single-occupancy restrooms are gender neutral.

The experience reminded me so much of my glorious time as a college student, and as of writing this blog post March 3, I noticed the coffee shop's event page has a trivia game and wine night scheduled for later in the day. They do it every Tuesday night.

... I think graduate school might be calling me. What's another $40,000 of college debt going to do to me anyway?

Again, if you have suggestions of a coffee shop for a future entry, send it to me via email--shusted@news-herald.com--or on Twitter at @SimonSaysNH.