Coffee is Community

  • By:  Lydia Netzer

Tidewater’s coffee culture is expanding. Meet four powerfully caffeinated local ladies.

Your alarm chirps and you groan a protest. You’ll need a spatula to get your eyes open because you sat up half the night with a coughing child, or to finish a work project, or enthralled by a book. Now the sleep you got cannot possibly be categorized as enough, and even falling down the stairs is too much effort. But the cruel earth continues to rotate Virginia toward the sun, no matter how late the party ended.

So you reach for your ally against the morning haze—hot coffee. Sometimes when I’m making coffee in the morning, I imagine my body is mechanically performing these habitual movements while my brain is still asleep, waiting until it gets its first hit of caffeine before it has to emerge and engage with the world. Just knowing that coffee is on its way is enough to grind my eyelids open and order my feet to shuffle.

But did you know that coffee has only been cultivated for the last thousand years or so? Socrates didn’t have it, nor did Julius Caesar. Coffee as a beverage originated in the Middle East and was introduced to the world through trade with the Ottoman Empire. Less than four hundred years ago, the first coffee shops started popping up in London—radical venues of political conversation, multiculturalism, worldliness, and even rebellion. Coffee became the drink of thinkers, doers, change-makers.

Today coffee shops are still an important piece of our culture. They can anchor a busy arts community or be a gathering place for a far-flung community. We come together to talk, to share an experience, and to get a hit of that life-giving liquid. While women weren’t allowed inside the first coffee shops in London, we are lucky to have several local coffee shops operated by women, and this month’s profile will introduce you to a few of these powerfully caffeinated ladies.

Explore the Ritual of Coffee at aLatte Café

Downtown Norfolk Café Roasts its own Beans

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Ever since Melissa Sanders was a little girl, she has wanted to own a coffee shop. She planned to call her shop “The Bean” and imagined it would have a lot of giraffes in it. In 2006, she and her husband, Neil, found a storefront property in downtown Norfolk on Granby Street. It was “a hole” as she described it—no walls, no electricity, and it had been empty for ten years—but they opened in 2007 and have been thriving ever since. The vibe at aLatte is warm, inviting, and artsy, with a piano, a rustic feel, and yes, lots of giraffes!

aLatte serves a varied crowd—students at the Governor’s School for the Arts, businessmen, TCC students, and dancers from Todd Rosenlieb Dance Center. Melissa wants her shop to be a place where everyone can blend. “Norfolk is becoming a rich place for culture, where the arts are alive and thriving,” she said.

Local coffee shops are a harbinger of this growth, and they see each other as allies. “We’re friends with Cafe Stella and Cure Coffeehouse,” she continued. “We each fill different areas of the market.” Even Starbucks has its place in the local coffee scene. “Starbucks made coffee a necessity,” Melissa explained. “It introduced the different coffee drinks to the mainstream and made it OK for people to spend money on a beverage.”

But aLatte offers an individual experience. Melissa and Neil work side by side with their employees, putting their own personalities on the counter as part of the store’s charm and serving original drinks like the Nico—breva, half and half, orange and cinnamon. They started roasting their own beans in 2010, and customers can see big burlap sacks of green coffee beans ready to be roasted and ground in the shop for that fresh-as-possible taste.

For Melissa, coffee is an integral part of life. Beyond the chemicals, the taste, and the physical response, she believes drinking coffee in a coffee shop “gives meaning to a habit, to make the habit a ritual.”

Pour Favor Coffee Shops Offer Coffee Flights

The Inclusive Shop also features Non-Gendered Bathrooms

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Marie DePedro and Tina Smith of Pour Favor Coffee Shops in Virginia Beach and Suffolk see their coffee shops as a meeting place where all are welcome. In fact, that’s how Pour Favor originated. Marie owns World Class Realty, and as a realtor she needed a place to meet clients. The existing local coffee shop felt exclusive, as if only twenty-somethings with laptops in hand were welcome. At Pour Favor, the shop Marie and Tina opened together, you might see fifty-somethings having Bible study, or eighteen-year-old students, or young mothers’ groups, and always a diverse crowd.

Tina says they’re not trying to be Starbucks, but strive for a community focus, even naming drinks after customers who order them repeatedly. They’re famous for their “coffee flights.” Just like wine or beer flights, coffee flights are four or six miniature drinks, and customers can sample many flavors and customize their orders, hot or cold. “Not sure what the more ‘bougie’ coffee drinks are?” Tina said, laughing. “Try a coffee flight and you just might find your new favorite.”

With a knowledgeable staff and a yen for travel, Tina and Marie plan trips based on coffee acquisition. For example, they once brought back thirty pounds of Cuban coffee from Key West, and now get a weekly delivery. They’ve hiked the Blue Mountains in Jamaica to sample a brew and love Puerto Rican flavors as well. Pour Favor offers a menu the locals find irresistible, like their Cuban sandwich and fresh baked quesito, a Puerto-Rican pastry with cream cheese filling.

When Marie expanded her realty business to Suffolk, she and Tina decided to expand the coffee shop there too, so they bought and renovated the 200-year-old Luke House. Local artist Mildred Rosa designed the art in both locations—colorful portraiture with an engaging whimsy.

The pair has founded their business on the concept of inclusivity and making sure everyone is welcome. They are proud of their non-gendered bathroom signs and the fact that once a ten-year-old transgendered child came in and took a photo with their bathroom door. The idea has been so embraced by the community that two more Pour Favors are in the works, including one in Newport News.

Explore Coffee Chemistry at New Brew Bar in Norfolk

Town Center Cold Pressed on 21st St. also Offers Barista Training

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Town Center Cold Pressed (TCCP) is adding a fourth location in March on 21st St. in Norfolk, which will feature a roastery, “brew bar,” and lounge. I talked to Brenda Jolly, part owner of the local chain, who recently merged her roasting business with TCCP and will now be sharing her knowledge of coffee via this new endeavor.

A roastery by day and a brew bar at night, Town Center Cold Pressed on 21st St. will do wholesale trade during the day, educating restaurant owners and baristas, and then open at night to serve customers coffee-inspired cocktails, matcha, cascara, and more.

Brenda says there are plenty of locals seeking coffee roasted nearby in small batches, ethically sourced, and served in a sophisticated presentation.

While I’d heard the phrase “third wave coffee shop” before, it was Brenda who explained what this actually means. The first wave was traditional Italian coffee—latte, macchiato, etc. The second wave was Starbucks, who made this type of coffee global and mainstream.

The third wave is individual locally-owned coffee shops, who bring specificity back to each locality. Brenda predicts a fourth wave, based in technology, where a more scientific and nuanced understanding of the equipment and the chemistry of the beans takes coffee to a whole new level.

She and her husband were inspired by living in Tokyo when they were stationed there with the military and returned to Hampton Roads with a vision for giving customers a coffee experience that rivals a big city.

The Jollys have four children under the age of ten, but while that might seem daunting to some parents who have difficulty balancing work and family, Brenda explains that all the children seem to have that entrepreneurial spirit. They eat around the family dinner table most nights, but often she finds herself working until midnight, after the children are in bed. This is not a hardship for her. In fact, she radiates energy.

Brenda refuses to envision life as a pie, where there are only so many slices to go around, but would rather think of life as a fountain, with limitless possibilities. She loves her job and is never happier than when talking to customers and crafting new beverages.

Melissa, Tina and Marie, and Brenda are women who relentlessly pursue their vision, and through hard work have been able to make it a reality. Their enthusiasm is inspiring. I imagine them bounding out of bed, slapping the alarm off, donning super suits, and leaping into each new day. Maybe it is that vision that drives them, or their love of the community, or of their families. Or maybe it is all the coffee!

Get Your Coffee Fix in Tidewater

From Suffolk to Norfolk You Can Find Your Fave!

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aLatte Café

Try the Nico at aLatte Café: breva, half and half, orange and cinnamon. Yum! Find opening times on aLatte’s Facebook page.https://www.facebook.com/aLatteCafe/

Pour Favor Coffee Shop

Order a coffee flight at Pour Favor and discover your new favorite! Check out their menu and hours on their website.https://pourfavorcoffeeshop.com/

Town Center Cold Pressed

Town Center Cold Pressed has locations in Virginia Beach and Norfolk. Don’t miss the newest location on 21st St. which opens in March 2019 and will feature a Brew Bar. Get details about this local chain on their website. https://tccp.cafe/

Lydia Netzer is the author of Shine Shine Shine, a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. She lives in Norfolk. Find out more at www.lydianetzer.com.

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