in the morning
What happens when you see successive tweets about a pour over pop-up bar happening in the city of Cleveland. Well, if you are me, ever inquisitive and ever exploring, you track the twitter feed to its originator and investigate the timeline of said user. This is how I socially stumbled upon not just one but soon to be three specialty coffee pop-ups by coffee shop, roaster and brand that understands the power of slow coffee making small waves in an ocean of specialty: Rising Star Coffee Roasters.
Robert Stockham, General Manager at Rising Star Coffee Roasters and I speak by phone on a Monday morning – its cold where he is and quite warm where I am, but coffee is our great in-between.
Now In Conversation with Robert Stockham of Rising Star Coffee Roasters.
c.: I started seeing these tweets about a pour over pop up happening and it peaked my interest. Can you tell me more about the pop-up and its attachment to pour overs.
Robert Stockham: Let me first tell you about how we started. We started in 2010 and a wholesale roaster. Then, in 2012 we opened a café. The deal was to show off the quality of the beans that we were using. When we opened, all the coffee was done with pour over and Aeropress. And, we were the leaders in the pour over movement, up until then Cleveland hadn’t progressed to that point.
In 2015, we added FETCO batch brewers for more consistency to our pour over style coffee, that helped take out the human error, so flavor wise we were on par with our pour over. We still do pour over and AeroPress in our stores and batch brewing.
We began talking to a local brewery. They do a coffee stout and they make it with our coffee. They purchased a building in a suburb and approached us to see if we would be interested in putting a coffee shop in the neighborhood. This suburb – Lakewood Ohio – is split into two sides. Everything on the western end of Lakewood has an abundance of coffee shops. On the east side of the suburb there’s no coffee shops but it’s an up-and-coming neighborhood. We talked about it and agreed to open a shop in their building.
We talked with some retailers about partnering and using their space to do a coffee bar in the morning. Their space is empty everyday. We would set up a pop-up and come in and do pour over and AeroPress and leave in the afternoon before their bar opens. The goal is to get our name out there and for people to come in and taste the coffee so that when we opened a full café they’d know who we were.
c.: That’s not a bad plan at all, acquaint yourself with the neighborhood, the locals and let them become aware of your coffee and approach to it.
r.s.: That was the first idea. But then, after talking to another owner of a space in the Flax district – an entertainment district in Cleveland – there’s a speakeasy called Magnolia there that’s open Thursday through Sunday nights and only after 6 p.m.
We said ‘it could be a good spot for us. We talked to the guys form Magnolia and that we’d like to do a pop-up there: use their coffee bar and setup and do our own coffee bar. So now we’ll be opening there in March.
c.: So that’s two pop-ups?
r.s.: Actually, there’s one more. We ran across a space at a local rehab project. It’s a creamery building that’s been turned into condos and office space. In the remodel, they brought in a juice space but it didn’t survive, so it’s been siting empty for about nine months. We asked about it and the manager of the property has been looking for someone. We talked about signing a one-year lease and if it worked it worked, if not, no big deal.
c.: What does it take to come in and pop-up a manual, hand driven coffee service into a pre-existing location?
r.s.: In Tremont the rent is good and the space is built out. The pragmatics are that it only requires a couple AeroPress’ and pour overs’ and a water tower to heat the water. We don’t come in and do espresso or batch brew. For us, it was about going back to our roots – because that approach of concentrating on the coffee itself as a beverage and experience; spending time talking with customers because they have to wait a few minutes for us to make their coffee, gives us the time to talk about the coffee they are buying, the origin and about our company.
c.: A captive audience.
r.s.: They’re kind of trapped their for four minutes. It allows us to bring high end coffee into spaces that it hasn’t been.
c.: Tell me a little about Cleveland and specialty coffee there.
r.: Cleveland has its own unique feel.
“The specialty coffee market is a growing segment but its not saturated by any means.”
We have to build our market because Cleveland isn’t used to $4 coffees.
So we’re doing a lot of education and outreach about what we are as a company and what the end cup is for our customer.
c.: Given the cultural climate of Cleveland’s market economically and even educationally, how do you pull it into these nuanced ideas of coffee – including increased prices that they may not be used to?
r.s.: For us, it’s really about the barista. Right away we always have two menus. The standard drinks and the coffee of the day. What’s on pour over, AeroPress and the Fetco is two espresso’s, the house blend and a single origin. If people are new and they are immediately confused, then we can talk about what the coffees are like. We don’t do anything over 12 ounces. And, while we’re doing the 12 ounce pour over we’re explaining to them why it is what it is. We want to bring people into this industry and into accepting that higher price point with education, letting them know why we do what we do.
c.: What are the price points for your coffee program?
r.s.: We charge $3 for drip; $4 for a pour over and $4.25 for an AeroPress. Cleveland is still more of a Dunkin Donuts town: $2.25 for a 16 ounce or bring your own 32 ounce mug for two bucks.
c.: Do you think Cleveland is agreeable to your approach?
r.s.: We have a decent reputation in Cleveland, but we have to put our best foot forward. If a customer is brand new, we give them a guarantee.
“If you don’t love this coffee, we’ll give you your money back.”
If they are used to paying two bucks and are really splurging, we rather them get their money back and have a free cup of coffee. But, we know it’s going to be delicious and we have no problem giving you your money back.
c.: And what about other shops in Cleveland?
r.: Between us and the coffee shops in the Greater Cleveland Area it’s a pretty tight knit group. There’s five specialty coffee roasters and three or four multi-roaster third wave shops. In 2012, when we opened our first shop, I wasn’t with the company then. And then, I didn’t have time to wait for a coffee, manual was all you could get.
c.: What’s special about manual coffee?
r.s.: People like watching you make a pour over, it’s a bit of theater, you’re presenting them with an entire coffee experience. They stand and watch, see how it’s all done and talk to you about the coffee they’re getting. It forces us to have those interactions with customers. It also gives us a chance to go back to what made us special and different in the first place. It’s a chance to connect with our neighbors, the neighborhood and hand craft drinks with them.
c.: Ah, that beautiful idea, connection!
r.s.: These pop up bars allow us to come in at very little expense and not in a high traffic area. If there’s something interesting and cool we want to try it. We’re not afraid to try something. But that’s how innovation works, you just keep trying. And it’s all one giant experience.
We’re in Lakewood Mon-Sat opening at 6 a.m. and on Sunday opening at 8 closing at 4 p.m. because that’s when the bar opens. Our Tremont location opened as of January 1, and that lease is for a year. with the same hours as Lakewood. For Magnolia, its there all the time so we see it as their business, but powered by us. It opens on Saint Patrick’s Day and the hours are 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday – Saturday and probably 8 a.m.- 4 p.m. Sunday.