You might say San Diego-based Coffee & Tea Collective’s East Village expansion was inevitable. “We’ve had our eye on this spot since before we opened in North Park,” says brand manager Michael Spear, lifting an ampersand-emblazoned diner mug to his mouth and taking a meditative sip of coffee. “El Cajon Boulevard was a sketchy place to be when we opened there, but we’ve had the chance to see it change drastically. Now, three years later, it feels great to be opening in East Village.”
Coffee & Tea Collective has been a quiet brand on the march for years, gathering a sizable national following along with a local community that gathers around the earnest young men pouring coffee in the clean white space in a notorious section of the largely modern-coffee-free city of San Diego. “We always give homage to Chuck [Patton] at Bird Rock for doing great things in coffee here,” says Spear, “but as far as [a] Pacific Northwest, Los Angeles-style coffee scene with a small shop, simple bar flow, we were new to San Diego.”
The North Park location is long and narrow, with open seating leading naturally to an ordering station and then along to the espresso and pour-over bar, and past that to a roasting and production area in the back. It’s a flow that has worked well for years, but in East Village, Coffee & Tea Collective looks completely different.
“Our space is about 600 square feet, and the flow of the bar is completely different, with a different purpose,” says Patrick Conley, lead barista and head of quality control for the Collective. He grins. “Here, there’s no funnel to the [point of sale]. People come in from all directions, and it forces us to reach out and welcome them in. Here, we can almost lasso folks in from the sidewalk with a smile, and we’ve set everything up to foster conversation,” says Conley. He added further that, inspired by a talk given by Go Get Em Tiger‘s Kyle Glanville, C&T’s goal “is to create a space where people feel disarmed and vulnerable, more open to exploring the coffee journey with us.”
Easy to say, less easy to execute such a blend of welcome and upset. From the start, the focus at Coffee & Tea Collective has been on the coffee. Owner Daniel Holcombe and roaster Stephen Freese, along with an outstanding team of coffee professionals, have explored the concepts and practical execution of coffee service, tweaking details like pre-dosing espresso, batching and serving teas through a tap, and keeping the menu as simple as the cafe’s signature all-white wall, found in both locations. Spear says that’s made his job easy. “Really, I’m just a fly on the wall, and I try to convey what our coffee guys are doing through the brand.”
Such singular focus manifests in the relationships the company fosters—the new location is a shared space with Juice Saves, a concept of C&T’s longtime wholesale client, restaurant group Consortium Holdings—and in the careful aesthetic choices the team has made for the new spot. Spear says, “We worked with the same guys who designed our last space, SIDEYARD Project, and the centerpiece is our bar. We constructed modular carts made from a tree Daniel found in the woods somewhere that had been taken over by beetles. We used a Japanese sanding and painting technique where we sandblasted away the soft grain of the wood and filled the valleys with paint, under about fifty layers of resin. That, and our iconic white wall, are two of the most central design elements of the new space.”
Coffee & Tea Collective East Village opened at the end of February, and thus far has seen exactly the hoped-for response in the neighborhood. Conley says, “There’s almost a secrecy to the knowledge you learn when you come here as a customer, because you don’t find this approach anywhere else. We see customers bringing their friends in and coaching them through the menu, almost like we’ve created a club.”
East Village, along with San Diego as a whole, is changing rapidly. High-rise condos are being built nearby, there is talk of a stadium moving in, and rumors of a huge boutique mall float. The “Ampersand” is perfectly positioned to participate.