Billy Lee can't believe his luck, going to work every day in the dramatic lobby of the Duffey apartments in Minneapolis' North Loop.
A concierge for the 1916 building, he is smitten with the breathtaking immensity of the space. Ceilings in the former iron warehouse that he estimates to be 40 feet high. Repurposed wood turned into open shelving. Plants in every nook. Abstract photographs of Minneapolis landmarks printed onto fabric wallpaper that absorbs the noise in this stylish cavern of a lobby.
Despite its size and the fact that nearly every seat — from the long co-working table to comfy couches — is occupied, the only din you hear is the sizzle, gurgle and whoosh of a forest green La Marzocco espresso machine.
A smooth, dark wood coffee bar belonging to Backstory Coffee Roasters — the St. Paul-based roaster and wholesaler — keeps lobby dwellers caffeinated and fed, including Lee.
A resident there recently told him, "This is not a coffee shop. It's a coffee cathedral." And Lee couldn't agree more.
Backstory's digs in a high-design lobby, along with its emphasis on the origins of its beans, is making it one of the area's buzziest new coffee shops. But it's not the only place in Minneapolis to get a stylish jolt of joe. The city's next wave of coffee shops is all about gorgeous spaces, serious coffee programs and innovative concoctions, many made with local ingredients. Above all, each of these new shops is sharing a unique point of view on something we all thought we already knew.
"Coffee shops should not just be these interchangeable commodities," said Sam Kjellberg, co-owner of SK Coffee.
It's not uncommon to find flavor syrups made in-house, as Backstory does with its blood orange-ginger and lavender-cardamom syrups. Vanilla, chocolate and honey are sourced from farms from South America to Minnesota. Menus tout hyperlocal, foraged ingredients such as galium, a perennial that grows in the Twin Cities and tastes almost exactly like vanilla. Top local bakers, such as Vikings & Goddesses, Marc Heu Patisserie Paris and Laune Bread, are supplying pastries. Bartenders are working as baristas at places like Disco Death Records and the Briar, and their elaborate drink menus, while built around coffee and tea, look more like those found in a cocktail room than at a Starbucks.
Other coffee shops go minimalist on the ingredients, choosing to focus on the origin of the coffee itself. FRGMNT features a rotating lineup of roasters from around the world, and SK Coffee, when it opens soon in Minneapolis, will make you a pour-over to better experience its single-origin beans.
"There are no rules in coffee," said Colin Wilkinson, co-owner of Disco Death Records. "And the weirder you get, the more people will be interested in seeing what you're doing."
Backstory Coffee Roasters
Where: 528 Washington Av. N., Mpls., backstory.coffee; open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
What: The dramatic lobby of the Duffey apartments is the first Minneapolis location for the St. Paul-based roaster and wholesaler (formerly known as Bootstrap). Forty-foot ceilings, modern furniture and a plant wall provide a stylish backdrop for Backstory's coffee bar — and gleaming La Marzocco espresso machine.
The menu: Backstory's name comes from owner Micah Svejda's interest in the beans' origins, so espresso drinks, batch brews and pour-overs are the pride of the coffee bar. But other ingredients get just as much emphasis as the coffee. A menu of seasonal lattes with a focus on local flavors changes five times a year, and the syrups for them are all made in-house. Pastries from Vikings & Goddesses and house-made sandwiches and grab-and-go snacks sustain remote workers pecking away at laptops throughout the morning.
Nice touch: Look closely at the wallpaper; those abstract designs are actually art made from photos of Minneapolis landmarks, including the Voya Financial building and Boom Island.
Try this: The Maple Standard ($6.25). Cold brew shaken with Minnesota maple syrup and a dash of cream is served in Backstory's signature beer-can glass. This icy refresher is one of their most popular orders year-round.
Where: 1231 NE. Washington St., Mpls., briarbar.com; open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
What: This charming northeast Minneapolis corner spot goes for coziness and whimsy with fun upholstered booths and shelves stocked with cookbooks and vinyl — plus inventive drinks that read more like cocktails than traditional coffee shop fare. When it's not covered in snow, a tucked-in patio will greatly expand the space — and the black walnuts that fall over it will be turned into house-made nocino.
The menu: The Briar was initially conceived of as a day-and-night spot, but the liquor license wasn't ready in time to open. Instead, co-owner Evan Goldenrod, who ran the coffee program at the Bachelor Farmer Cafe and bartended below it at Marvel Bar, crafted a nonalcoholic cocktail menu where coffee and tea are the main ingredients. Local roaster Dogwood and North Carolina's Black and White coffee provide the beans. There's almost no dairy at the Briar, with most creamy drinks built with oat milk. For food, co-owner Abe Ziaimehr, who cooked at Victory 44 and Travail, has put together an upscale yet low-key cafe menu, including grain bowls and sandwiches on Laune Bread.
Nice touch: An art vending machine will take four quarters and spit out a limited edition "hand monster" from artist John Russeth (aka John W. Robot).
Try this: The Nowruz Milk Tea ($7). Persian flavors of pistachio (in a house-made orgeat) and cherry pair with perfume-y tea in this cold and comforting sipper.
Disco Death Records
Where: 721 W. 26th St., Mpls., 612-354-3533, discodeathrecords.com; open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
What: Three friends with scores of bartending experience bring their separate analog-era passions together under one roof. Their hip, minimalist shop is a combination vintage vinyl store, photo development lab and cafe with wildly creative coffee drinks. Naturally, expect your sips to be accompanied by great tunes from the turntable/tape deck behind the bar.
The menu: One-of-a-kind specialty lattes and traditional espresso drinks (courtesy of Misfit Coffee Co.) come from a lever-operated espresso machine. "It's about as manual as you can get," said co-owner Joel Eckerson. Cocktail syrups made in-house bring amari spices, passion fruit, poppy seed and Nilla Wafers into tasty coffee drinks. Marc Heu Patisserie Paris provides the pastries, and there are sandwiches and sipping broths on weekends.
Nice touch: The owners plan to install a listening station, where you can sample any of the used records in the shop, including some rare finds from Nigeria. Until then, feel free to request them to spin any record you see in the stacks.
Try this: The Asmodeus ($6.66). This sweet and creamy latte is like none we've tried, thanks to the winning combination of caramelized canned sweetened condensed milk, passion fruit and a sprinkle of Himalayan sea salt.
Where: 43 SE. Main St., Mpls., frgmntcoffee.com; open 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
What: This espresso-centric cafe's newest location just opened in Exposition Hall's historic-feeling brick lobby, with lots of seating in the vast teal-tinted atrium — plus checkers tables, shuffleboard and pool. The cafe is meant to lure workers back to the office building, said FRGMNT owner Ben Banse, an idea that might lead to more locations in even more lobbies. "The quietness and the dead air that was in here? It's hard to want to come into that space," he said. "But now there's people and energy and a nice little positive buzz. It's more enticing." But you don't have to work there to take advantage of the stunning space — and serious coffee.
The menu: FRGMNT, which has two other locations (in Eden Prairie and Minneapolis' North Loop) shines a light on small roasters, with rotating selections of drip coffee and espresso. Local flavor wizards 3 Leche provides some of the syrups. Pastries are by Honey & Rye. (The North Loop FRGMNT's resident supplier of sweets, Cardigan Donuts, will be available at a pop-up next month.)
Nice touch: A small shop appeals to coffee nerds, with books ("From Nerd to Pro: A Coffee Journey"), beans from abroad, ceramics and fancy chocolate bars.
Try this: The Espresso Tonic ($5.50). Unadulterated espresso is the way to go at FRGMNT, but a refreshing espresso tonic that features the roast of the moment is the next best thing.
Also try ...
Folly Coffee Café & Jinx Tea Bar: The Linden Hills tea taproom, home to sparkling Arnold Palmers and other inviting concoctions, joined forces with Folly Coffee, bringing their locally roasted small-batch coffee to the menu for the roaster's first storefront. Straightforward espresso drinks and drip coffee explore Folly's single-origin selections. On the tea side, pick up crowlers of favorite Jinx punches, or sample bubble tea and more. 4503 France Av. S., Mpls., jinxtea.com, follycoffee.com
SK Coffee: A laser focus on single-origin coffee from this St. Paul-based roastery returns to its roots in Minneapolis. The corner cafe, formerly inhabited by Misfit Coffee Co., is being remade into a bright space, with pastel and penny-tile walls, hand-cut wooden slats, and a massive coffee bar for pour-over and espresso — and conversations about coffee with knowledgeable staff. A small selection of baked goods will be from Laune Bread and Vikings & Goddesses. Opening soon at 2401 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., skcoffeeplease.com
Misfit Coffee Co. The Minneapolis-based roaster and wholesaler plans to open a full-fledged "coffee garage" and retail space this summer in its 3,000-square-foot warehouse and patio in north Minneapolis. For now, you can stop in on weekends to enjoy a coffee amid the roasting operation. 207 Humboldt Av. N., Mpls., misfitcoffee.com