We love a good love story here at Sprudge Maps Spotlight, but this one really takes the cup: a long distance relationship that blossomed into a coffee bar and roaster in Philadelphia. This is Nook Bakery & Coffee Bar in Rittenhouse Square!
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As told to Sprudge by Michael Caro.
Introduce yourself to our readers—tell us about your cafe!
My wife Edna and I met in San Francisco in 2003, and not long after that began a long distance relationship that soon turned into planning and starting a coffee shop together. At that time, there were not too many independent cafes in Philadelphia. We found a quaint neighborhood location in a recently renovated building at the Center City side of a bridge that connects to University City. We spent five years there, learning the craft of coffee, learning how to bake professionally, learning how to be a couple, and learning how to navigate the ups and downs of all of it, one step, and stumble, at a time. Everything we did back then was in small batches, and that continues to this day. In 2010, we closed our first cafe and founded a new Nook on 20th St, closer to the heart of Center City—just a block from some of the city’s tallest skyscrapers—with this location allowing us to serve the professional downtown office workers, denizens of the Rittenhouse Square area, students, and visitors alike. It was a big step up for us, coming from a quiet and quaint “neighborhoody” location, but we wanted to expand upon our dream. Five years ago, we sprang-upon an opportunity to begin roasting coffee in-house, and that ignited a whole new passion for coffee.
What equipment do you use in your shop?
A Stronghold S7X coffee roaster, two-group Synesso Cyncra, Mahlkönig EKK43 grinder, a FETCO batch brewer for our Philly Blend (house coffee), and Technivorm Moccamasters to brew over two dozen coffees by the cup. We also just added a Mahlkönig X54 grinder and a Lelit Bianca espresso machine to conduct workshops on espresso, milk steaming, and latte art, and to explore how varying the flow and pressure of an espresso extraction can result in variations in body, flavor, and balance. If people are impressed with the (prosumer) machines that they use during our workshops, we also sell them and plan to provide ongoing training and service.
Which roaster or roasters do you serve?
We proudly roast our own, in 725g (1.6lb) batches.
What is the neighborhood like where you’re located? What’s some other cool stuff nearby?
Our neighborhood is an eclectic mix of office workers, residents of Rittenhouse Square/Fitler’s Square/Logan’s Square, and further flung neighborhoods, undergrad and graduate students, business travelers, and vacationers from all over the country and across the globe. Cool stuff: Mural art right across the street (and all over the city), The Mütter Museum, The Barnes Foundation, The Franklin Institute, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Love Park, Helium Comedy Club, The Kimmel Center, The Schuylkill River Trail, Rittenhouse Square Farmer’s Market (Tuesdays and Saturdays), The Four Seasons Hotel at the Comcast Center, The Pennsylvania Convention Center, and The Reading Terminal Market are just a few destinations within a five- to 25-minute walk from our Nook. Philly also has a fantastic dining and theatre scene; we’re surrounded by great restaurants and small theatre companies that have also really struggled, innovated, and worked hard to make it through this pandemic. Some nearby favorite restaurants: Smile Cafe, Village Whiskey, Parc, and Dim Sum House.
Did you close during a mandated Coronavirus shutdown, and if so, for how long?
We stayed open the entire time, but pivoted towards serving customers curbside, and shipping our bags of roasted coffee across the country. We even hosted several Zoom coffee brewing and tasting sessions, with people participating from their home kitchens and offices across the country! Since Labor Day 2021, we’ve opened our door for take-out orders, and plan to bring back some seating once the latest variant subsides.
How has Coronavirus impacted daily work at your cafe?
We’ve become much more production-focused—and our cafe has morphed into more of a coffee and baking laboratory. Some folks have commented that it has a “mad scientist” kind of vibe. Nevertheless, artwork from Mike’s mom adorns the walls, and Edna has started painting murals inside as well. Coronavirus spurred us to develop our website to enable online ordering of drinks and baked goods for take-out and delivery, as well coffee shipments all across the country. The slowdown in customer traffic gave us the opportunity to put more thought and experimentation into our respective crafts. Rather than scale down our coffee menu, we expanded it. We brought in more variety of coffees, but instead of ordering full (132-154lb) bags we ordered partial bags of each coffee. We now offer over two dozen single origin coffees brewed by the cup, and project our menu onto the wall from a nine-foot tower at the center of our cafe, with the coffees categorized into three main groups: Light/Bright/Fruity, Somewhere in the Middle, and Deep & Bold. Our coffee menu projects as a slide show, with video clips and photos from the coffee farms playing intermittently. We want to help people better understand the flavors naturally found in the coffees, and we want our customers to feel a connection with the farmers and the many people that work quite hard to grow a quality crop, and bring that crop to market.
Keeping that goal in mind, we also launched a subscription program that has a new theme every month—whether it be a focus on several coffees from a particular country or how fermentation methods can influence flavor precursors that are brought out during roasting or how the roast level can bring out different flavors from the same coffee. Each month’s selection of coffees are paired with something from Edna’s kitchen. Oftentimes we try to find a recipe that derives from the origin country of one of our featured coffees.
What’s something cool or unique about your cafe you want folks to know?
Our goal is to present coffee and baking as a comforting daily ritual, a calm way to start the day, or take a break, a way to celebrate important milestones, a way to connect people, yet also push boundaries—challenging or surprising people’s palates with (inherent) flavors that they may never have expected in a coffee, or in a bite-size morsel, as a result of pioneering efforts at the farm, mill, roastery, bakery, coffee bar, or when they enjoy the things that we’ve made, at their homes. There are so many ways to experiment with coffee and baking—so many ways to develop and experience flavors. Selectively sourcing coffees, experimenting with roast profiles, and creating new recipes in our bakery—is an endless creative challenge for us.
Our hope is to connect our customers to the stories behind the coffees, the inspiration behind our recipes, and to tell our story—as imperfect individuals and as an entrepreneurial couple—that has dreamed, stumbled, and had to rise back up many times throughout our ongoing journey, as we serve our customers and play our part, in helping them through their daily struggles and sharing their accomplishments and celebrations.
It’s all a tremendous responsibility—requiring us to wear a lot of hats each day—keeping things continually interesting, yet overwhelming us and exhausting us at times. Edna and I are here every day that we’re open; our Nook is our child (technically a teenager now!) and many of our customers have become extensions of family. These connections are vital and mean the world to us, as neither of us originally have family members here in Philly. As cafe owner and operators, it remains a tremendous challenge, honor, and a privilege to be able to connect so many disparate elements and combine them into a cohesive whole that on our best days, shows gratitude for the efforts of so many people that consciously choose to be a part of a community that is there for each other, through thick and thin. Coffee and baking is a labor of love and they ripple outward in a way that belies the small batches behind each sip or bite.
Is there a community organization or charity you’d like to shout-out as part of this feature?
There are so many wonderful community-oriented organizations in Philadelphia. It’s hard to single-out just one, yet each day that we come to work, and each moment that we pause to look outside our window, we can’t help but feel inspired by the mural across the street from our Nook, depicting the attentive and watchful eyes and outstretched hands of people from different backgrounds and ages—it’s a masterful work of art that has graced the exterior of the building across the street from us, long before we opened our doors, and imbues a simultaneously uplifting and grounding sense of community and hope. Mural Arts Philadelphia is the largest public art program in the country and brings so much purposeful beauty to our city. Art has the power to connect, heal, inspire, and empower people from all walks of life, and that’s a timeless mission that also applies to coffee, baking, and cafes—as essential hubs that can ground, connect, and sustain the evolution of our communities, and our world.
Photos by Nook Bakery & Coffee Bar, used with permission