Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bike-Friendly Stella

I have in front of me the City of Chicago Bike Rack Request form. It's called a request form, but the city insists that it is a 'suggestion', which I guess is their way of being petulant. Yes, I get it, I can't make them. I have children, you know.

My intention is to make Stella a bicycle-friendly place. I ride a pretty fabulous Mercian myself, and the shop will have to accomodate it, but I also want to indulge my customers, employees, and various hanger-onners. A city bike rack is a good start, but I'd like to do more. Ideally, I'd have mooring rings installed on the blind wall facing Lakewood, so you can row row row your Bianchi Milano gently down the street and into Stella. I do have a landlord, though, so this plan may not fly.

I will definitely stock a cool Silca Pista pump at the shop. Riding around the city, I occasionally get a flat, but I can usually make it all the way back home by pumping up at a bike shop or two. I do not carry a replacement kit in the city because, well, I am in the city. The city helps keep you safe and tethered to civilization, and by providing a pump on demand I'll be doing my part to help keep it that way.

Bicycle lifestyle is all the rage in Chicago now. I feel it when I am standing at a red light on Wells and Ontario with no less than five other bicyclists in the morning, or when I am circling the block by work looking for a free rack. I have just discovered two brand new blogs by Chicago bicycle shops - the venerable Rapid Transit, and a stylish new shop called Tati Cycles, down in Hyde Park. Tati, in particular, has a similar sensibility to Stella, with its Old World influences and local emphasis. Another thing that unites us - a medium latte in a paper cup fits snugly into your bicycle's water cage. Just don't spill it.

Monday, May 28, 2007

High Anxiety

First, there was the time when La Marzocco was delivered and installed. At that point, every time I walked into Stella, I felt euphoric. The shiny new machine, the bags of beans, all the people stopping by to ask about our opening date - all that made me downright giddy.

It's been about a month since the machine was installed. My espresso skills are way improved, but the euphoria has given way to anxiety. I still keep the front door open when I am working inside, and I am still thrilled to try out new blends, but my mood is, well, preoccupied, to put it mildly. Now, there are many reasons one can be anxious when things are essentially going well - a dour outlook on life, garden variety manic-depression, fear of what might come next. It could be lots of things, but none of them are me. I am a cockeyed optimist, goddamn it, and worrying about what might come next just ain't my bag.

The thing is, I know precisely the source of this anxiety. I can pinpoint it. Here it is: tomorrow morning, I am applying for a health inspection. Not that I have anything to worry about - the place is clean, and everything is up to code, as far as I know. No matter. You see, it's that Soviet upbringing messing with me. I was only a teenager when I left the good old USSR, and I was never victimized by the regime, but I still believe that one day a man in an Astrakhan hat will show up at my door and hammer a sickle up my ass.

Most ex-Soviets are like that. Every one us has a little Montana Freeman inside, ready to hole up in a cabin with some deer jerky, a shotgun, and a bucket of buckshot to fire on them gubmint agents. In this case, though, I have to do the polar opposite of that - throw my doors open for the agents, welcome them in, grovel, and if they find any buckshot, or deer jerky for that matter, I will never be opening for business.

The inspector will not show for a good week or two, and in the meantime I need to keep myself on an even keel. Avoiding getting too hopped up on my own product would be a good start. You, the people of the neighborhood, on the other hand, need to keep your fingers crossed. Check out the fabulous new photos on the the Stella website and wish me luck!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Roasters At My Door

A waiter in Spiaggia once told me that Italians view French and California wines as works of art, to be admired and appreciated. On the other hand, they see Italian wines as simply good for drinking. He then proceeded to serve me a Langhe so exquisite that it left no doubt that "simply good for drinking" does not have to mean "unsophisticated".

Italians and Americans seem to be similarly split over espresso. Most American roasters, including Chicago's very own Metropolis and Intelligentsia, think big. They give you in your face flavor, incredible complexity of aromas - chocolate, honey, lavender, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme. Only by the sweat of his brow does a coffee connoisseur get through fully appreciating those.

Well, it turns out that there is another way, brought to us courtesy of Caffe Umbria, a brand new Seattle roaster started by the team behind the now defunct Torrefazione Italia. Their espresso blend is quite different from anything I've had lately. Certainly, it does have the flavors, but they are muted, understated. You do taste some chocolate, but mostly it's just coffee, and it is quite smooth.

There is something very American about those bold flavors, which is probably why we love them. Mere coffee is not enough for us, we have to go beyond that and find every fruit, berry and herb known to man right there in the cup. It must have something to do with the journey being more important than the destination, dreaming big, the new sheriff in town, and other fine aspects of the American dream and/or experience.

The Italian way is more about getting things just right, something that Italians value and are frightfully good at, which is why the world always lusts after Italian stuff.

So now I have a choice, and I can only go with one roaster. My palate is not yet sensitive enough to analyze the fine points of these blends, but neither is yours, so it's not about that. It is about a comfort level, and that's what I'll spend the next few days achieving, by making a lot of espresso. Hopefully, I'll come to a conclusion of sort.

If you would like to sway my opinion one way or the other, please comment.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Stella on Gapers Block

That's right, that must mean that we have arrived - see it to believe it right here.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Shock of Change

Today a monumental coffee event took place at my place of employment. Our modest, one-button Keurig k-cup machines have been replaced by a Flavia - a bold, menu-driven contraption meant to 'replace a Starbucks run', according to everyone on the sales team.

The curious traders and programmers crowded around a girl in a logo-emblazoned Polo shirt, as she explained the various menu items and the flavors available from the battery of little packets that come with the machine. She told us that the Sumatra is less acidic than the Kenya, although the Kenya is more 'fair trade'. She explained how you can combine a coffee packet with a Creamy Topping packet to make an 'Indulgence' drink - a latte or a cappuccino, depending on the button you push.

She also mentioned that you can instead add a Milky Way Swirl packet to your coffee to end up with a speedball of sorts - a concoction that feeds two addictions at once. At the other end of the health spectrum there is a whole slew of 'Wellbeing' packets - from Japanese Green Tea to the enigmatic White Tea.

Cutting to the chase, I'll say that between me and my co-workers, we ended up trying the entire line of Flavia's offerings, and they all tasted like shit - the latte, the drip coffee, even the tea.

I really shouldn't feel threatened by this - they are really not targeting my segment of the market. In other words, they wouldn't be caught dead in Edgewater or Rogers Park, but just witnessing this can be a bit scary. Basically, in the blink of an eye, a corporation will show up at your doorstep, turn every concept that you hold dear into a buzzword, and make what you do sound trite. It's like the action movie routine - the hero says, "it's not safe here", and right away we hear the first bullet strike a window.

I accidentally crossed paths with the Flavia sales team on their way out. The girl in the Polo shirt was chattering like a banshee, probably a consequence of getting high off her own supply (it's rule number two, and don't you forget it). She was talking about how wonderfully positive the response was, and that once the "shock of change" wears off, it will be more postive yet. We'll just see about that, sister.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Au Zinc, S'il Vous Plait

Stella has just entered a week-long construction hiatus.

A couple of nincompoop restaurant and furniture supply companies can't seem to get their stuff together enough to ship me my things. Another item that is held up is the zinc. The bar is going to be made out of zinc, and also the top of the condiment stand, as well this very visible long stripe along the front part of the counter. You can say the zinc is meant to really tie the room together, like the rug in The Dude's apartment.

So, why zinc? Well, you know the very French custom of having a quick drink standing up at the bar? According to the guidebook I bought for my first trip to Paris a dozen years ago, they call it au zinc, or "at the zinc", as in "I'll put on my beret, go to the cafe, meet Francois, and talk about the crassness of the Americans over a Vittel Cassis au zinc." Right. We all know they do not wear berets over there, and googling 'au zinc' returns a bunch of links where those two words just happen to be side by side. They probably used to say it, but they certainly don't say it any more.

Those fabulous ornate Parisian countertops weren't even zinc. They were an alloy of tin and lead. Clearly, we can't have that - lead is not very good for you. We don't need all that ornamentation, either - we are living in the age of materials, after all, and zinc is a pretty nice material. It does not have that sterile look that stainless steel has, and when it gets scratched up, it begins to look broken in rather than worn.

So, as Americans, this is what we do - we take an Old World idea, and we adapt it to our needs. Sometimes things go terribly awry, and we get Britney Spears the Kaballah scholar. Other times, things go just right, and we get something wonderful, which, in turn, reinforces our feelings of smugness towards the rest of the world.

I can't wait to get that zinc, because with the cost overruns and the requisite first-time entrepreneur anxiety, I feel I'm losing some of my innate smugness. When the zinc is in place, I'll swing those doors wide open and invite everyone in, so I can trade coffee for flattery.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Sun Still Never Sets

This morning, I contacted The Aceh Coffee Company, trying to get some fabulous beans directly from Aceh (rhymes with Versace), a region at the western tip of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.

Immediately, my website was hit a few times from Malaysia, and then I received a phone call from a fellow whose accent was at once very British and unmistakeably Asian. The spirit of the British Empire lives on, I thought to myself.

A hundred years ago, roughly half of the Earth's landmass was governed from three cities - London, Paris, and Saint Petersburg. The empires have disintegrated, but not necessarily in the minds of their former subjects.

I grew up in one of those three cities, and that is probably why I am afflicted with the kind of wanderlust that only an empire can sate. If I cannot trek off to the faraway reaches of the empire, I want to at least be able to bring pieces of it here. Well, there is no better way to do this than in the form of coffee beans.

Green beans keep for a a long time, long enough to survive an arduous journey by sea. The way from Aceh lies, just like in the olden days, through the Strait of Malacca, where there are still pirates, and then all the way across the Pacific. Still, when the beans arrive on our shores, they are perfectly fresh, and roasting them unlocks the aroma of the terroir of their origin. The trick is to not lose any of that during brewing, and if you've mastered that art, you can have a little piece of Sumatra to go with your morning commute.

If you've been reading carefully, you must have figured it out by now - that's right, The Aceh Coffee Company only sells green beans. I am not a roaster, so buying from them won't do me any good. Instead, I have to find roasters that understand the above. Many of them do. Chicago's very own Intelligentsia and Metropolis certainly understand it, and it will likely be their coffee that I'll be buying. I suppose for the time being they'll be the ones flying off to every corner of the world, while I'll be staying right here in Edgewater.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Stella Brew & View

Ok, here is a basic dilemma. We want to show movies at Stella. Late in the evening, once or twice a week, we want to project DVDs onto the back wall for the enjoyment of our patrons. Sounds cozy, doesn't it? Coming to a coffee shop and watching a modern cult classic, like The Royal Tenenbaums, is certainly my idea of a good time.

Now, here is the where things get hairy. It turns out that The Man has no beef with us playing any sort of music at our shop (even Metallica). However, The Man has a major hard-on about movies played at the shop, even if we do not charge admission. A nice lady at Criterion Pictures informed me that a license for a single showing ranges from $200 to $300. It is unlikely we will be able to recoup that by just selling coffee. If we flout the law, we will be entering a world of pain, tout de suite.

The thing is, we want to do the movie thing anyway. The brew & view concept happens to really jibe with our idea of a neighborhood hangout. Please allow me to illustrate.

A while back, when both Maya and I were working at Northrop Grumman in Rolling Meadows, we one day decided to go see a movie at a bar. I found the place in The Reader, and it was called Liquid Kitty. The year was 1998, Wicker Park was still hip, and the smokey and boozy joint was packed with good-looking people with shaggy bedhead hair. It was real bedhead, too, before anyone started paying money to make their hair look like that.

We, on the other hand, looked like your run-of-the-mill harried commuters, having just spent 90 minutes on the expressway, with our corporate clothing and corporate hair. We did not fit in, but that did not prevent us from having a blast getting hammered while watching Se7en. We were able to follow the movie, although we people-watched most of the time. It seemed as though no one in that bar had ever heard of such a thing as Northrop Grumman, or Rolling Meadows for that matter, and that made us feel that perhaps those things had somehow ceased to exist. We were in for a rude awakening the following morning.

What we especially enjoyed that night was the ability to step out of the daily reality that surrounded us. We loved that we could go watch a movie somewhere other than a multiplex, surrounded by people unlike any that we saw every day. There are generally very few opportunities to do that, which is why we want to provide them whenever we can. There is nothing wrong with getting in the car and driving over to that gleaming multiplex by the side of the highway, but we don't want that to be the only way, do we? There are times when you just want to amble on over to your neighborhood coffee joint and watch a movie you've been meaning to see for years but can never get around to renting. You can do it while sipping a latte. You can even (gasp) talk.

So here is a pledge - we will do the movie thing if we can afford it. The choice of fare may be influenced by licensing fees, but even more so by popular demand, so I am happy to start taking requests right now. Whether it's Cagney noir, Truffaut New Wave, or Mel Gibson faith-based horseshit fantasy, we'll be happy to oblige, with kind permission from The Man.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Treacherous Interior

So, it turns out there is interest in seeing the so-called interior of Stella. The thing is, currently it is not a "Top Design" kind of interior. It is more like this: "Charmed by the islands sparkling beaches, the explorers ventured into the island's interior, only to find it covered with thick jungle and teeming with vipers. No one survived."

So here it is, complete with a bag and a bicycle left by one of the natives. You can see the proto-counter and the pile of furniture in the back, including chairs and table tops. Let your fancy run wild, and you can imagine yourself sitting at one of those tables, sipping a latte. Enjoy. Some day all this will be yours. (Click on the picture to expand it.)

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Well, hello, boys and girls

My shop is right where Rogers Park and Edgewater come together. Or split up, whichever you prefer.

Me and this part of town go way back. I have sat at Panini Panini with a bottomless cup of stale coffee and a bottomless pack of Camels. I celebrated the arrival of 1994 in an apartment on Columbia, right off the frozen beach.

I also used to go to Donald Duck's on Ridge - a hot dog joint where you could get a Polish and, if you noticed the handwritten sign, a plastic cup filled with jug wine. Donald Duck's disappeared so long ago, I honestly can no longer remember where it used to be.

Perhaps me and this part of town go way too far back. Back to when Donald Duck's was still standing, when I smoked and drove my car everywhere. Nowadays, I walk or ride a bicycle, and everything appears different when you do those things. Now I see the cute pocket playlot on Lakewood. As someone mired in a big construction project, I appreciate the hardware emporium down on the corner with Clark. I am also loving the fresh bread baked at Devon Market. You can buy it, hot and delicious, even late in the evening.

I love city neighborhoods and how they allow to dump the car and eschew all the familiar national chains, if only for a little while. You can already do a lot in this neighborhood, except get a cup of coffe. That is where I come in.

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