For us Northern Hemisphereans, there’s no denying summer is over. Sunset, once a yummy mummy hand-rolling pizza dough to be garnished with her garden’s heirloom tomatoes and self-pestled cashew cheese, has returned to harried mother mode. Darkness falls quicker each day. Do you smell the Ellio’s in the microwave?
Well, somewhere you can postpone your autumnal equinox anxieties is Cafe Volan, one of the scant Third Wave coffee shops in New Jersey and one where warmth is merely a state of mind. This is a surfers’ hangout. No shoes, no shirt? All service.
Plus, it is in Asbury Park, that small seaside town romanticized forever on the eponymous album by Bruce Springsteen, who often played at rock venue The Stone Pony, a 10-minute walk from Cafe Volan. And while June through August at the Jersey Shore may hold allure for vacationers (and MTV producers), Asbury Park offers laid-back livability and summer-vibes contentment year-round.
“The waves are so much better in the wintertime. It’s cold, but it’s better,” says cafe co-owner Paul Cali.
He and business partner Doug Parent, both Jersey surfers since childhood, find their 7 a.m. opening time ideal. It’s late enough to give themselves “an extra hour to surf, or sleep” and early enough to cater to their morning regulars, from fellow surfers on dawn patrol to commuters bound for New York City (60 miles away) and Philadelphia (80 miles away).
The timing of their establishment was key, too, agree Cali and Parent. Cafe Volan opened in 2011, at the height of an urban revitalization so significant it compels many a New Jerseyan to proclaim “Asbury is back.”
“It was a resort town that got affected by race riots in the ’60s, that was struggling. And then when the bad economy hit in the ’80s, it just fell,” explains Cali, who, save for a stint in Rhode Island, has always lived within a 20-mile radius. “People started moving here in the early 2000s, but the businesses weren’t here. The businesses couldn’t be here. Asbury’s got a pretty bad element—we’ve got the quintessential other-side-of-the-tracks.”
The reference is to the town’s western half, still troubled by poverty and violence. It presents an uneasy contrast to the east-lying waterfront, which in the last decade has bloomed with small businesses—boutiques, farm-to-table pizzerias—run by young, artisan-minded entrepreneurs.
Entering Cafe Volan, visitors see a collection of upright surfboards. That’s not an attempt at authentic décor—“for me, that’s lazy,” laughs Parent, describing how equipment at the cafe is usually betwixt a loan and a borrow, awaiting pickup. The wood floor looks genuinely weathered, from the sand and beach tools and toys dragged back and forth. Alongside the tables, steel-blue flowers climb on a wallpaper that’s more granny than gnarly yet fitting to the local antiques industry.
Most of Cafe Volan’s beans are supplied by Counter Culture; Fast Forward is the house coffee and Hologram is used for cold brew, while guest roasters include Bay City, Michigan’s own Populace. A two-group La Marzocco GB5, a FETCO extractor, and grinders by Mazzer and BUNN are on standby. Vanilla-flavored almond milk lattes and scones from Seed to Sprout in nearby Avon-by-the-Sea keep vegan clients happy. Pro-butter patrons get pastries from Balthazar, the NYC brasserie that delivers wholesale from its bakery in Englewood, NJ. Daily toast specials come sweet (e.g. raspberry-mascarpone-pepper) and savory (e.g. tomato achaar-arugula-olive oil).
Before all this, Cali managed a since-closed “’90s Seattle-style cafe,” known for “Girl Scout cookie-type things” in nearby Red Bank, the town filmmaker Kevin Smith put on the pop culture map. The 34-year-old is soft-spoken and soft-treading. He walks and bikes barefoot, swearing off shoes until November—except when behind the bar, to appease the health department. Black ‘X’ tattoos on his middle and ring fingers commemorate two decades of being straightedge.
Parent, 33, also defies stereotypes of Jersey excess. He pulls shots wearing perforated foam clogs and sports a gray-streaked bob with tresses so well-loved by the elements they could advertise a hair product called Sea-Breeze Head. Parent met Cali after returning from a trip to Sydney, where he discovered “inspiring” waves, ocean-wise and coffee-wise. Prior to travelling, he only had time to admire the skills of Gorilla Coffee baristas en route to his job in Manhattan’s Financial District. Parent doesn’t seem to miss the era. Of a recent surf, he remarks: “We were able to get out nice and early, and whenever anybody else would’ve been sitting at their desks, we were enjoying the morning.”
So what about this season coming to a close, at least as dictated by the Gregorian calendar and the heaviness that fills the hearts of schoolchildren, their teachers, and the sentimental daylight savers among us?
Cafe Volan is relaxed as ever. Says Cali: “We have what everyone around here calls ‘local summer,’ so it’s not that sad when summer winds down. That’s when we get to enjoy the beach a little bit more. Before the weather turns, people are here less, and we get to take advantage of that.”
Karina Hof is a freelance journalist based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.
Photographs by Liz Clayton.