Aside from a few sprigs of fecundity, the Garden State has long been a specialty-coffee wasteland. Yes, a couple urban hubs along the Hudson River have more than one third-wave cafe to boast of. But ride west and watch the Manhattan skyline shrink in your rearview mirror, along with hopes of finding an espresso pulled by a barista whose company of employment does not have its own brand of K-Cups.
Last year, however, a small, steadily growing coffee-shop enterprise began stirring the pot—the frequently burned coffeepot, some would say—of Jersey's inner suburbs.
It is called Ground Connection, and it is located in Hackensack, New Jersey. All its coffee comes from Toby’s Estate, the Australian specialty roaster that launched a Brooklyn headquarters nearly four years ago. It uses a three-group La Marzocco Linea PB, three FETCO brewers, and grinders by Nuova Simonelli, Mazzer, and Bunn.
And, gentle drinker, it is in a mall.
Ground Connection opened last February at the Shops at Riverside, named for the Hackensack River flowing through the bustling Bergen County town. Bloomingdale’s has forever been the mall’s crown jewel, but ritzy retail chains, such as Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton, attract patrons who prefer a more lightly trafficked sanctuary of sky-lit anonymity in which to spend.
A standalone square with a dozen small tables and chairs surrounding it, Ground Connection Coffee is, technically, a kiosk. Positioned at an angle from a mall entrance, it appears, when viewed from the second level, as a diamond—a diamond of handcrafted drinks and food amid the merchandised rough of Tumi, Vera Bradley, Stuart Weitzman, Ann Taylor, and Godiva.
“I didn’t want to make it overly complicated,” says Ground Connection’s creator, Scott Gillman, of the kiosk. “I wanted to do something that generally had really good quality coffee and great training of our baristas, who could serve a coffee just as good as some of the great places in New York.”
Gillman is the CEO of Mascott Corporation, which has built an estimated 50 restaurants over the past 25 years in New Jersey. He lives part-time in New York City, where he says he “had become intrigued by what was going on in the coffee business,” and cites Intelligentsia and Café Grumpy as being among his favorite coffee shops.
Using a different modus operandi from Mascott's other brands—Smashburger and Seattle’s Best Coffee, to name a couple—Ground Connection is meant to be a place “for people to slow down,” says Gillman, to “sit down, share a cup of coffee, a sandwich, a sweet, something, and have some nice conversation.”
Two sides of Ground Connection's open-air polygon layout provide space for clients to eat sur la bar, and a series of uniformly spaced power outlets welcomes those in need of another kind of charge. But laptops are scarce here. Instead, customers tend to be young families, parent-child dyads, clusters of women, and plenty of mall staff—the all-black-attired Bloomie's employees are reportedly among the most loyal.
To call this the only third-wave coffee shop in a Jersey mall would be inaccurate though, because this past spring, Ground Connection established a second bar, at the Livingston Mall, about 30 miles away. The Livingston branch seems to offer less of a so-called third space, essentially operating as a service counter in a food court, with Cinnabon as a neighbor. Meanwhile, Gillman is readying a third location, set to debut later this year at an office complex in Jersey City.
Opening for business two hours before the shopping center’s official 10 a.m. opening makes the Hackensack branch an oasis for “mall walkers” and “stroller moms,” says store manager German Chabur.
Lunchtime draws not only mall employees, but workers from surrounding buildings as well. Of a regular group of businessmen, Chabur recalls: “When they first came here, they were like, ‘What is this? This is amazing. We’ve never seen this before.’ And we got them hooked on the cortados, because you don’t see a cortado anywhere else.” (For the record, Ridgewood Coffee Company, about 10 miles north, lists a synonymous Gibraltar on its menu.)
Toward sunset, customers' tastes turn sweet. “The affogatos, a lot of people love them,” says Chabur. “People come and get them as treats if they had a rough day.”
Near the register, a half-dozen white, wooden taps dispense cold brew, iced teas, lemonade, and apple cider. Each is kegged, chilled, and delivered to the counter via underground lines from a closed-door prep area, approximately 30 feet away. Working in the same space, beginning at 6:30 a.m., a crew makes sandwiches, salads, baked goods, and flavor syrups from scratch.
Ground Connection in Hackensack serves up to 35 pounds of Toby’s Flatiron Espresso and a similar amount of its Brooklyn Filter Blend each week. Asked if the baristas do pro-filter proselytizing, Chabur, a local who admits he was more likely to spend his youth at the clamorous malls of nearby Paramus, replies, “Not really. I think this area has always been a big coffee area—people just like their drip coffee.”
Invoking another New Jersey phenomenon, one even more iconic than the mall, he adds: “Even I’m sometimes just a fan of a simple black coffee from a diner. It’s strong, and it’s a memory. It brings back good memories of being in the diner at two in the morning.”
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.