Everything in New Orleans has a story, and French Truck Coffee's cafe and roasting space in the Lower Garden District is no different. Owner Geoffrey Meeker waxes about the corner of Magazine and Erato: the bar across the street has been serving drinks since it was built in the 1800s, and the site that the shop sits on and the lot next door were former brothels; if you were a longshoreman, the corner would be conveniently located close to port and a hot spot for shore leave.
Meeker's own story begins not with coffee, but in the kitchen. After graduating from the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, he took internships in Dallas and New York City and worked in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago. He also worked for Bon Appétit magazine and the James Beard Foundation as their special projects chef. Business was good, and Meeker even ran his own culinary consulting firm that worked with W Hotels' stand-alone restaurants.
Work and life conspired to deliver Geoffrey Meeker to the city of New Orleans in November of 1999. A A few years later, he hosted his cousin who was living in the Bay Area for a visit. She brought along a bag of a Mexican coffee roasted by Blue Bottle Coffee the day before. Meeker calls the moment an “epiphany.”
“I'd never had coffee that good before in my life,” he says. “I'd been working in five-star restaurants most of my career, and I couldn't understand why. I started backwards engineering it and trying to figure out what was different about the coffee that I had from my cousin versus everything I'd ever drank before and just basically figured out the same thing that is true of all excellent food products. That it starts with excellent raw materials, treat them well, get them to the customer quickly and accurately, and it's always going to be better than mass produced or something that is less than that.”
As it so often does with coffee, interest turned to obsession. In 2012, Meeker began roasting on a five-kilogram Ambex roaster in his laundry room. Neighbors could smell the beans and could grab a fresh bag off his back stoop. He also sold his beans at farmers' markets and to his chef friends at their restaurants. To crack into the New Orleans market, filled with commodity-grade, dark-roasted coffee, Meeker turned to the company's namesake as an icebreaker: a 1975 Citroën 2CV Truckette. The tiny truck lovingly nicknamed the “Roaring Chicken” provided deliveries and free advertising for the company.
French Truck's Magazine Street location opened in November 2014 and is painted in bright yellow with blue accents. Although the building looks like a shipping container, it is not; the space originally repaired emergency life rafts for the nearby port. The shop has a sleek minimal feel with a handful of seats inside and outside. Espresso drinks are made on a blue La Marzocco GB5 with Mahlkönig grinders, Marco undercounter boilers, and two Oji towers. While your drink is being made, you can make like Alice and see through the looking glass to French Truck's roasters. One Diedrich IR-12 and a Loring S35 Kestrel handle the roasting duties averaging 2,700 pounds per week between the two machines. To keep up with the high demand of ice coffee drinks, there's also capacity to make over 100 gallons of concentrate per day in two 55-gallon stainless steel liquor tanks. The company's growth has also swelled the number of employees from three to 22.
A second location of French Truck opened February 19, 2016, in the Uptown neighborhood two blocks off of the parade thoroughfare of Napoleon Street. Meeker refers to the second location as a “coffee cafe.”
“We differentiate ourselves from a coffee shop or anything else because we're really taking my culinary background and making it,” he says. “Coffee is the star, but then we also have the food, the wine, and the beer. It's in the vein of a coffee shop but really trying to be an overall cafe where coffee is the specialty.”
To show off the new space, Meeker offers a ride over in the classic French Truck. The truck's smooth suspension glides over bumps in the road, and cameras are at attention to capture a picture of a classic in action. Originally built as a traditional two-family shotgun house in 1910, the new space has a bright yellow exterior and lots of natural light bouncing off the roof beams. The new space's kitchen cranks out breakfast and lunch options including a waffle sandwich with egg, goat cheese, and prosciutto. The drink menu is similar to the Lower Garden District shop minus a Cafe Gaufre: a one-and-one with an espresso shot served in a small waffle cup.
Looking down the road, French Truck is eyeing a few more coffee cafes and potentially expanding regionally into Baton Rouge, 90 minutes north on Interstate-10. But no matter how large they grow, Meeker's ethos will be intact. “We're always trying to buy the best quality beans,” he says. “We're trying to have the best service. We're trying to have the best food, et cetera. I think when you put all of that together as a package, we're doing it in a way that is more appealing to the customers.”
Evan C. Jones is a Sprudge.com contributor based in St. Louis. Read more Evan C. Jones on Sprudge.