Sunday, September 21, 2014

@ Harbor Perk at Ashtabula City Harbor

There was no hiding my excitement when I learned two weeks ago I would be working on this year's Good Living in Ashtabula County section for the News-Herald. (Many of my colleagues could probably recite just how loud I gasped and screamed in the newsroom.)

John Hutchison, another up-and-coming model. We were so 
fortunate to be leaving Harbor Perk at a time when no one was
siting at outdoor tables.
I love any new excuse to visit the covered bridges, the farms, vineyards, the western reserve-era homes and buildings, the lakefront parks and the river valleys in Ashtabula County. Of course, you can find plenty of that around Ohio, but you know what you can't find? My favorite neighborhood and tourist destination between Cleveland and Buffalo--the historic Ashtabula Harbor, and its commercial slip along Bridge Street.

It has everything a 24-year-old new urbanist and Rust Belt-enthusiast loves. A nearby industrial riverfront open for recreation, preserved century-old homes and brick buildings, an organized business community, majestic overhead views and a compelling turnaround story of bringing a neighborhood from a rust-belt blight to a destination deserving of the the extra eight minute drive between Interstate 90 and state Route 11.

It was very awkward trying to sneak in photos like this one 
when the place was packed in the morning and early 
It's no wonder the Bridge Street area won nearly $700,000 in state grants last summer to progress with more infrastructure improvements and restoration work. That's big money for a small city of a little more than 18,000 residents.

It goes without saying that Bridge Street must have an amazing neighborhood coffee shop. It does, and it's called Harbor Perk Coffeehouse.

Because I live an hour west, I've only visited Ashtabula Harbor once before September--and that was when I worked on last year's Good Living in Ashtabula County section.

With another section coming up, I endured the hour-long commute to Harbor Perk, Saturday, Sept. 20, meeting up with News-Herald reporter John Hutchison for coffee. He lives in Conneaut and might just be an even larger enthusiast of Bridge Street and Harbor Perk than I. 

Location: Harbor Perk, at 1003 Bridge St., is nestled in the middle of all of the action at Bridge Street. It's neighbors are a newly opened burger and ice cream shop, Loading Dox, and a long-time home decorative gift store, Carlisles Home in the Harbor. Across the street is a popular wine bar and grille, Bascule. And in the three-story brick building behind Harbor Perk, an upcoming restaurant is building an outdoor patio.

I thought of going a little exotic that Saturday morning with
a mocha. It tasted great, but I would hate to learn just how 
much sugar was inside.
I've never had trouble finding nearby parking in my two visits to Bridge Street, but I am sure it can be challenging sometimes, especially during one of the street's big annual weekend events like the Wine and Walleye Festival and Beach Glass Festival. (Never bothers me though. I avoid congested festivals like the plague.)

One thing Bridge Street needs more of though are bike racks and public art (preferably built together as one.)

Food and Beverage: It's pretty obvious by the menu that Harbor Perk focuses its attention on its caffeinated beverages and smoothies. They do offer bagels and pastries, but its nothing that is going to satisfy an empty stomach. I prefer the scaled back menu, however, because it allows visitors like me to venture somewhere else for a filling lunch.

Anyway, throughout my 8.5-hour visit to Ashtabula, I bought two large ice coffees, a bagel and a medium-size mug of mocha. (I had trouble sleeping later that night, you can imagine.) I had to look back at my bank statement to find out I spent approximately $15 there--not counting tips.

By 5 p.m., Harbor Perk hosted three guitarists who played
random 90 musical hits for two hours.
In case you're wondering, I did not spend my entire time at the coffee shop. My trip also included venturing downtown, the city's Walnut Beach, the local YMCA, eating lunch at Loading Dox and hunting down a birthday gift for my boyfriend, Matt. My apartment's ceiling bathroom was also leaking water so I wanted to stay out as long as I could.

Space and Atmosphere: Maybe it was because last Saturday was full of sun and warm temperatures, but according to my colleague John, Harbor Perk is always packed with people every weekend. And it's packed with a very diverse crowd--from the chit-chat-after-church groups, to the lonesome workers camping out at a table, to the nuclear families grabbing their smoothie to runners like Hutch refueling after their half-marathons or whatever they like doing. I even saw a small group of high-school aged kids seemingly dressed up for prom or homecoming. (Whichever one makes more sense.)

Harbor Perk, where retail meets back office.
Harbor Perk's narrow, gallery-like interior is as vibrant as the people walking through it. If I were to produce an interior designer's guidebook to what makes a swinging coffee shop, Harbor Perk would probably be the front cover. The place has high wooden ceilings with small light fixtures, an almost all glass window facade, wood-panel flooring in the front and a small section of concrete flooring in the back, and finally two sides of exposed brick walls with community art mounted every where. (Not to spin off into a rant, but I noticed at my Saturday visit that Harbor Perk staff don't bother labeling their two single-stall restrooms with genders designations. Some may call that progressive, but truthfully, why should any business owner care to designate separate gender restrooms when only one person can be using them at a time?)

The thing I appreciate the most at Harbor Perk is that everything is visible. Their coffee roaster, their office desks, their storage of coffee beans--it is all out in front. I've seen other coffee shops do the same, but in Harbor Perk's case, the design adds to the industrial flare that is present all around Ashtabula Harbor and Bridge Street.

A high view of Ashtabula's Harbor from Point Park.
Harbor Perk, as well as Ashtabula Harbor, is one of those few special gems a person like myself wants to expose and share with every new friend I meet. In the one year I've known about the neighborhood, I've seen so much growth in new investment and vibrancy. And it's important momentum for a city with only 60 percent of the state's median household income. If strong enough, maybe the momentum can initiate investment in other parts of the city like Walnut Beach and downtown Ashtabula. This is one success story I will keep watching year after year.

Again, if you have suggestions of a coffee shop for a future entry, send it to me via on Twitter at @SimonSaysNH.

P.S.: You can find this blog post printed in this year's edition of the News-Herald's Good Living in Ashtabula County section running Thursday Sept. 25.

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