It’s more than a little ironic that the Oregon Coast is a coffee desert. But visit and you’ll be hard pressed to find many examples of excellent cafes along the completely gorgeous coastline, with a happy exception: Sea Level, a year-old cafe and bakeshop in Cannon Beach.
Sea Level owners Jason and Liz Menke used to visit friends who lived near a little bakery called Waves of Grain several blocks off the main retail drag in the touristy town. During a trip in the summer of 2013, the couple learned that after seven years that bakery was relocating less than two hours inland to Portland (it's now closed).
Neither of the Menkes had formal coffee experience, but they decided to sign the lease for the space, move from further down the coast to Cannon Beach with their three kids, and begin the buildout. “We were living in Lincoln City and had been dreaming of doing something coffee-related down there,” says Jason Menke, who was a marketing and membership professional at the Oregon Environmental Council before getting into coffee.
They had to learn the business as they went along, but what they did have from day one was a pretty great commute: situate yourself at the dead end street where the cafe sits and you’ll meet the beach; at low tide, you can walk on the sand for ten minutes after leaving the cafe’s front door and touch the base of the enormous Haystack Rock.
Beautiful country aside, with one notable exception Cannon Beach and its surrounding oceanside towns house small local roasters serving what Jason Menke describes as not relationship coffee but “dark, oily french-roast coffee from a different era.” Their offerings tend towards mass-market syrups, tons of milk, whipped cream, and, says Menke, “probably sprinkles.” But a growing demand from tourists and locals for better food and drink options is starting to create a new standard for quality restaurants and cafes, says Menke. “There is a missing segment of the market, to put it nicely,” he says.
Like other coastal towns, the restaurants and shops in Cannon Beach are built around the summer tourist rush, a rhythm the Menkes are beginning to get used to. “It gets so busy in the summer that a lot of locals don’t come [to restaurants] till fall comes around,” Jason Menke says. “In the winter, locals start showing up out of the woodwork.” To prep for the seasonal slowdown in their first winter, the couple took time to reset and define Sea Level’s personality. After a full-on sprint to open in time for the summer season, they were able to refine training and implement efficiencies to the coffee and bakery, headed up by Liz Menke.
Baking starts at 5 a.m., with the cafe opening at 7. a.m.. A small staff produces biscuits and scones in a traditional Southern style and pastries from laminated dough including maple-bourbon sticky buns and pains de chasseur. Plus, hearty country loaves and demi- and batard-sized baguettes in the fashion of Tartine Bakery. Liz Menke is a self-taught baker, calling Tartine owner Chad Robertson “a distance mentor who doesn’t know it.”
The couple liken the first days of starting Sea Level to having kids—you have an intense experience bringing them into the world and then magically forget about how intense it was. After the first adjustments to starting a new business, Sea Level is past the early first year and is finding its stride.
Jason Menke is behind the bar on most mornings, and he’s quick to admit that the first time he worked as a barista was on opening day and is a fast learner. That’s part of the reason the cafe chose to serve Stumptown Coffee Roasters. A Portland native, Jason Menke wanted a partner who could form a “real partnership” with proximity, name recognition, and solid training. On opening day Stumptown sent its head trainer: “We were like ‘slash his tires and don’t let him leave!’” Jason says. “It would have been a disaster without him.” Clearly the training worked: a skilled set of baristas serve a classic drink menu to a line that touches the door on busy weekends.
The couple’s daughters are dropped off in front of the bakery after school every weekday. The two oldest know how to break down an espresso machine, and how to fetch orders for bread on the bus. This works well for their folks, both of whom put in beyond full-time hours at the shop, and say figuring out how to balance their “completely all-consuming” work life while having three kids has been a process.
“It’s been challenging, but I love it at the same time,” Liz Menke says. “It’s been a really heavy lift getting it going but it’s beginning to find its rhythm.”
Photography by Cabell Tice and Sara Billups.