When you're one of the most legendary coffee characters in Boston—or in the specialty coffee world, full stop—you don't make a re-entry into big city retail lightly. So when, hot on the heels of opening a busy to-go bar in Boston Public Market, George Howell was offered a space in an ambitious luxury hotel redevelopment in Boston's Downtown Crossing, the potential was clear.
Last week, we shared an in-depth interview with Howell, tracing his life's path through coffee from the founding of his chain The Coffee Connection through the inception of programs like Cup of Excellence to today. Now, we take a deeper peek inside Howell's flagship Boston cafe in the Godfrey Hotel, opened earlier this year. The spacious, high-style cafe marks a departure not just from Boston cafe standards but also national ones. The shop's 1,700 square feet play host to a diversity of ways to partake of coffee and the café lifestyle. Its multifaceted approach reflects much of George Howell—the man—in the form of George Howell Coffee, the public space.
“In essence, I'm something of an impresario,” said Howell, seated at a tall communal table across from a bright, massive pink-and-red abstract mural by Boston artist Lynette Shaw. “I think what drives me is the intense desire to share a discovery.”
And whether it's the sharing of art, music, or—oh yes—coffee, Howell's newest venture is tailored perfectly to showcase his discoveries. From the womblike Shaw mural to the transfixing Huichol yarn painting in the distressed-concrete main room to the careful selection of music (salsa, African, and jazz, “to keep people away from what they're comfortable with,” Howell tells me), the cafe space is the kind of spot you'd truly call a fusion, back when that word didn't evoke the vulgarity of, say, kimchi tacos.
“The whole idea is exploration on every level, from the visual to the coffee,” says Howell, and indeed the cafe offers many chances to explore. For many, the visual vernacular of its coffee bar will be their main point of engagement: the lengthy countertop, outfitted with dual Kees van der Westen espresso machines, four Modbar pour-over modules topping Kalita Wave drippers, an array of up-front Nuova Simonelli Mythos Grinders—and a strong back line of Mahlkönig EK43s—does much to beckon the coffee lover's eye. (And if that didn't work, there's a daily host of those Union Square Donut balls in the pastry case to weaken your resolve.)
Toward the right of the expansive bar, the room opens into a complex retail nook set up perfectly for tasting, retail, events, and, as Howell would say, exploration. A nerd's paradise of brewing gear fills one side, while a broad selection of beans lines the opposite.
“Despite my reputation for being anti naturals, we'll have [natural-processed coffees], and we already do,” Howell says. “We carry some dark roasts as well,” he adds. “I see us as more of a wine store from that point of view—I may not like sherry, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to sell a great one.”
The retail annex/exploration space is set up for training, tasting events, Genius-bar-style equipment counseling, and, if you're lucky enough to chance upon him in the store, for standing around listening to Howell's personal recommendations of the coffee producers he likes to call “fanatic craftsman farmers.” For those preferring a more traditional sit-and-work atmosphere, though, there are plenty of tables for this on the other side of the wall.
In keeping with the sophisticated-but-inclusive spirit of the space, WiFi is offered, along with “real food” like sandwiches and toasts made from local goods, like Wolf Meadow cheese; A&J King bread from Salem, Mass., and treats from purveyors like Union Square and Praliné. Beer and wine—including the continuing adventures of the brewing collaboration between George Howell Coffee and Mystic Brewery—are also in the works for 2017.
Despite Howell's much-voiced opposition to cold-brew coffee—a concoction, as opposed to a terroir-based drink, he'll remind you—there are iced-coffee options here for those who need a cool-down. The menu also offers—wait for it—a revised original recipe for the drink that became, when he sold it years ago to Starbucks, the Frappuccino, known here as “The Classic” and undeniably tasty, no matter how high you may imagine your brow.
“We're not turning our backs on popular products [unless there is] good reason to,” says Howell. “We hadn't brought in cold brew because we're making a point with iced coffee. You can like one or the other and we're not judging you for it,” he insists.
“We want to serve the best black coffee in the world,” Howell explains.
“But the woman who's bringing her date, he might like Frappuccino.”