Downtown Phoenix is on the rise. Changing urban demographics and slow-but-steady economic recovery have brought an influx of new residents and rapid development to the area. The city center used to be a virtual ghost town after dark; now, hopeful entrepreneurs are staking their claim and new business models are bubbling to the surface.
Palabra is one such creative venture. The art gallery and hair salon opened in 2012 but tried on a few different downtown spaces for fit before settling into its current location in January 2016. Their new standalone building allowed owner Jorge Ignacio Torres to add a specialty coffee component, which came to be known as Futuro. Futuro and Palabra coexist as a coffee/hair/art collective that somehow just makes sense.
Bill Kennedy heads the coffee program at Futuro, and is a veteran of Phoenix institutions like Giant Coffee and Cartel Coffee Lab. He says he was drawn to this project for several reasons. “I wanted a chance to do something from the ground up. I liked the idea of being part of something that was not just a coffee bar.”
The new Palabra/Futuro compound might be described as “intensely minimalistic.” Aside from the art and a few well-kept plants, nearly everything at Palabra is white. The interior walls are matte white with installations strewn throughout. The exterior of the building is white. The bar at Futuro is crafted from white geometrically-shaped cement blocks. The bar top is steel, and it’s white. Baristas wear white shirts. Their paper cups are white. You get the idea here.
Though at first the space may seem sterile, Palabra’s subtle imperfections tell a gentle story. The floors are unfinished concrete, complete with cracks and blemishes. Exposed beams line the ceilings. It’s not quite the scripted story that brand managers and PR people might come up with while selecting trinkets and baubles to fill a space. Instead, it’s the story of a building that used to be a Montessori preschool, a building that’s been marked by years of children playing, that’s sat and watched the neighborhood change and seen Phoenix grow. When your eyes adjust to the space, each crack and beam somehow becomes far more fascinating than any Edison bulb or Mason jar or taxidermied pheasant.
When the weather is fair, a sliding glass wall in the front of the shop is opened up, exposing Futuro’s coffee bar and giving the space a sunny, Southwestern feel. A James-Turrell-inspired opening in the patio roof allows additional light to spill in. When things heat up, patrons instead enter through one of two side doors, each of which opens into a distinct gallery area. Palabra is shaped as a sort of horseshoe, with Futuro at its base, seating to the left, the salon to the right, and art throughout.
Kennedy notes that Futuro’s minimalist design appealed to his coffee sensibilities. “Art galleries are plain so that the art ‘pops’ more. We wanted our products to pop more.”
Futuro’s menu is written in Spanish and makes use of ingredients sourced from the United States and Mexico. The menu is nearly as minimal as Palabra’s design. To date, Futuro is the only Arizona cafe serving coffee from 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters. Their Colombian cascara is sourced from nearby Swillings Coffee. Kennedy and his team serve up nine variations on espresso, brewed coffee, and cascara—and that’s it. But he wants to make it clear that just because they don’t offer something on the menu doesn’t necessarily mean they’re opposed to making it—they’d just want to make it something truly their own.
Futuro is a from-scratch kind of place—when from scratch is the right way to go. Their simple syrup is made in-house using piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar). The chocolate mixture for Futuro’s mocha is made with Rancho Gordo cocoa from Oaxaca, canela, and piloncillo, and is melted down with hot coffee to form a syrup.
Futuro’s menu has an appropriate balance of classics and well-crafted iced drinks—a necessary trait in sunny Arizona. The shop’s iced cascara beverages are truly fun: the sultry Cascara Con Leche is prepared with milk from Danzeisen Dairy, while the Topo Chico version is topped with everyone’s favorite sparkling water. Their Espresso Tónico (iced Fever-Tree Tonic Water topped with espresso) is yet another refreshing option.
If you’re looking for a straightforward coffee drink at Futuro, you will receive an impeccably prepared rendition of that beverage. If you want one of their signature drinks, you’ll be delighted. Living up to the striking visual impact of Futuro’s setting is a high bar—but one their commitment to quality preparation and simple ingredients enables them to meet, and then some.
Zaida Dedolph is a Sprudge contributor based in Phoenix, Arizona. Read more Zaida Dedolph on Sprudge.