This story requires a little bit of context: I was working my way through school at my first coffee job, a part-timer at Starbucks. Like a lot of people, even before working there I figured I had a pretty solid understanding of coffee and its ways and forms. After having worked the morning shift for about six months, as you’d expect, I pretty much knew all there was to know about coffee. The French Press was the best way to really drink coffee, macchiatos are made with vanilla and caramel syrup, soy is extra. What more could there be?
We had one semi-regular customer, a big round gentleman with a neat goatee who would come in to conduct early morning meetings with a rotating cast of characters. He had an unusual accent and always bought an espresso for-here, and always specifically asked for the shot to be adjusted to run as slowly as possible. This seemed very strange at the time – and even in retrospect I’m not totally certain what his ideal endgame was – but I would comply, and we eventually developed a casual friendship, as baristi and customers will. It would turn out that he was Bosnian, and he was opening a creperie right there, in Binghamton, NY. It was to be called ‘Crepe Heaven.’
At that time, I had never had a crepe. However, I did have a girl I wanted to impress, and she had had a crepe, and seemed to think that it was something I ought to be introduced to. Having a little interest in crepes and a lot of interest in her, when Crepe Heaven opened, I put on a pair of long pants and we headed down.
This place was like nowhere I had ever seen. Bear in mind, Binghamton was only the second place I had ever lived, the first being Westernville, NY, a town so small it didn’t even get a proper name, just a noncommittal direction. Crepe Heaven was someone’s vision of a parisian cafe, plopped on Main Street in a rust belt college town in upstate NY. There was a bar, with huge flat cooking plates for crepe-making, what I would some years later realize was a four group La Marzocco Linea, and a neat row of little copper pots with long handles. The whole thing felt very alien to me, but alien in an interesting, continental way. My customer was there, and he greeted us warmly.
We sat; I deferred the food order to her expertise, and she asked for a pair of lemon crepes. From the menu, for no reason I can remember now, I ordered a Turkish Coffee. Having a fair amount of experience with Irish Coffee, I was expecting something along the same lines. What arrived was not just a tiny pot with a bizarre beverage, but a shift in mindset. I never saw it coming.
This stuff was strange. It was abundantly fragrant, but not like what I was used to from the shop, not at all. It smelled heavy, earthy, and floral. Coffee in my life smelled like chocolate and smoke, and never as complicated as all this. Plus, the presentation was completely unfamiliar: what do I do with the all this foam? What do I do with the sugar cube? My Starbucks Coffee Passport had not prepared me for this.
Given that this was a date, after all, I had a certain investment in staying cool. I left the sugar cube where it sat – black coffee was cool. I tasted it. It was hot, it was silty, it was bright and punchy. I felt like I had never had coffee before. It was that odd intersection of familiarity and novelty that came at just the right moment to, just maybe, change the trajectory of my whole professional future.
I finished it before the crepes came – the crepes, too, were very good, but it was the coffee that really stuck with me. The date went well, too. I would later dig into where Crepe Heaven sourced its coffee, and it would turn out that his supplier roasted locally. The roaster in question would end up opening a roaster-retail concept right in downtown Binghamton, where I’d end up spending an awful lot of time…
Currently based in Saratoga Springs, NY, Simon Ouderkirk is working to open cafes for Spot Coffee, as well as blogging at First Crack Media. When not working, he enjoys Battlestar Galactica, playing rugby, and arguing on the internet. This is his first feature for Sprudge.com.