Brooklynites waited a long time for their Whole Foods. For years, the land earmarked for the natural foods big box, just adjacent to a Superfund site and with scenic views of the Gowanus Canal, sat patiently, awaiting the day the Texas-based retailer could issue the green light.
There are Whole Foods locations throughout Manhattan, of course – if you’re a New Yorker reading this then you’ve likely patronized the pop-up version of Smorgasburg (itself a pop-up) at the Whole Foods Bowery location, or been shoved by someone in the Time Warner Center store — but this newest location just west of Park Slope is Brooklyn’s first. Yet the Brooklyn of even a few years ago isn’t the Brooklyn of today — it’s become Brooklandia — and so Whole Foods knew that their first Brooklyn store would require going in hard, especially in the coffee category.
Enter, then, the world’s most tricked-out, craziest Whole Foods coffee scene: the Allegro Coffee-branded (that’s Whole Foods’ own coffee subsidiary) coffee bar in their Brooklyn supermarket will drop the jaw of many a coffee aficionado. Let’s begin slowly: you’ve driven your Prius to the store – it has a parking lot with windmills! — and parked in the ecologically conscious vehicle parking. Or perhaps you’ve ridden your bike today, in order to take advantage of the onsite bicycle repair? Regardless, you enter the store near the scenic Gowanus Canal and behold: a beckoning island of Allegro coffee splendor, bustlingly staffed with five baristas, mirror image La Marzocca Strada MPs on either side, five grinders (two Mazzer Roburs, two Mazzer Minis, a Ditting), and…is that an Alpha Dominche Steampunk? Yes, yes it is.
This is one of the most technologically advanced and expensive speciality coffee setups in all of Brooklyn.
“We wanted to stand out,” said Michelle Diaz, Whole Foods’ Regional Coffee Coordinator for the 28 stores in the Northeast, who was in charge of the company’s mold-breaking bar buildout in Brooklyn. “Especially since Brooklyn is kind of a coffee-centric area,” she told me, “and we knew we had to do something different. So we cleaned up our concept and started from scratch. We wanted really clean lines, baristas to be friendly but to also really do something very, very unique.”
Diaz, a former barista herself, said that she loves La Marzocco and the semiautomatic Lineas they have in most of their stores, “but for this one we really wanted it to have that manual craft touch.” They decided to go with two independent Strada MP stations so that each barista could “become one with [a single] machine,” while still allowing them to handle the store’s high volumes.
“Another key component to that coffee bar is the Steampunk,” continued Diaz, who pointed out that they have one of only a half-dozen of these brewers in NYC. Whole Foods Brooklyn is “certainly the first to have one in a grocery store,” according to Ms. Diaz, who noted noted that the cafe staff had trained with Alpha Dominche a few months prior to open. The cafe does, indeed, incorporate a stepstool for the needs of the shorter Steampunkista.
The bar operates much like any other third-wave bar, albeit one surrounded by non-pasteurized coconut milk aisles and an in-store herb garden. It offers a full menu of espresso and brewed coffee drinks, including Fetco batch-brew coffee ready to go, and by-the cup coffee and tea offerings made on the Steampunk brewer. For espresso, they are using Allegro’s Bel Canto espresso blend as well as a rotating microlot featured espresso.
The Steampunk is the go-to method for brewing filter cups of their featured microlots, all of which are roasted in store by roaster Matt Perelli on a 12-kilo Diedrich.
Though many Whole Foods stores nationwide feature onsite coffee roasting, traditionally this is done on easy-to-integrate automatic Java Master fluid bed roasters, which produce fresh roasted beans for the Allegro bulk bins. In Brooklyn, however, the gas-based Diedrich and full-time roastmaster allow for a different approach. Though the store itself retails local roasters like Café Grumpy, Gorilla Coffee and Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Allegro has chosen a (slowly) rotating cast of a dozen or so microlots to be exclusively roasted, packaged, and sold in the Brooklyn store. Rather than roasting for bulk bins, Perelli is running a diminutive craft roastery right there by the fish department, from roasting to bagging to hand-stamping roast dates.
The microlots are roasted on the lighter side and are affordably priced (around $14.99 for a 12oz bag), and span origins from Mexico to Kenya, Guatemala to Malawi. The (did we mention handstamped?) bags are kraft paper and include flavor notes.
For Diaz, Perelli, and the entire coffee bar staff, the coffee program at Whole Foods Brooklyn is a huge part of what sets the shop apart as uniquely Brooklynian. And for a national chain specializing in the artisanal, entering a borough saturated with just that (have you tried our handcrafted porridge or pizza flavored mayonnaise lately?), it’s no small feat.
Of course, there are subtle differences: we’re in a grocery store here. Customers with to-go drinks are required to take lids, although ceramic cups are available. Presumably this is to prevent them from spilling coffee into the bin of curated LPs for sale near the bath salts, or from jostling a few drops onto the in-store knife sharpening guy (no word on if he sharpens grinder burrs). Also, there is no tip jar. I am not making those above claims up: this Whole Foods actually sells vinyl LPs and has a knife sharpening station.
Actually, there is a tip jar, but this gets me to the only real critique I have about this otherwise highly remarkable grocery store coffee experience. Whole Foods makes the baristas keep their tip jar underneath the counter, which is a policy we at Sprudge sincerely hope will change. This cafe is as good, and certainly as well-heeled and groomed and technologically buttressed, as any you’ll find in Brooklyn’s myriad speciality coffee options. Their staff is working every bit as hard as the next artisanal barista down the block, and they deserve the ability to be tipped accordingly.
Because there’s nothing that quite says “I appreciate having had a great coffee experience before hitting up the bulk kimchi bar” like being able to toss an extra buck or two at your skilled barista.
Liz Clayton is the author of “Nice Coffee Time“, a regular columnist for Serious Eats: Drinks, and New York City chief at Sprudge.com. She lives in Brooklyn. Read more Liz Clayton here.