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Black: Coffee and Waffle Bar owners Andrew Ply and Brad Cimaglio gave the coffee shop known as “Mudsuckers” on Como Avenue a top-to-bottom makeover in early 2014. It’s a familiar story to one of our earlier interviews with Seth McCoy of Groundswell coffee. They more or less gutted and redesigned the place, brought in new coffee equipment and partnered with Dogwood to start a quality-focused coffee program. Since the transition, Black has turned into somewhat of a sensation in real life and on the web. The Forrest Wozniak mural on Black’s distinct, rounded wall on Como Avenue is the subject of an Instagram frenzy—as well as all the waffles, of course. The coffee and waffles concept at the first shop in Minneapolis has been so successful that they were able to do it again. Black’s second location on the corner of Marshall and Cretin in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul opened a few weeks ago with the same waffle menu and coffee program, plus a few extras.
We interviewed Black’s general manager and coffee guru, Heather Feider, who runs the whole show. She is a specialty coffee veteran and drives everything we love about the coffee program at Black Coffee and Waffle Bar.
Dogwood Coffee: Tell us about yourself and your introduction to specialty coffee.
Heather Feider: I’ve been working in coffee since I was in college. But, you know, just“regular” coffee. I liked it right away and I liked hanging out in coffee shops. I took to it, I guess. I worked at different shops throughout college and after school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I moved to Seattle with my boyfriend at the time and ended working at this bakery in Belltown that served Cafe Vita. I got promoted to manager in a couple months and then all of the sudden I was managing this busy bakery! Mostly managing coffee, but also the bakery and front of house. I did that for a while, then moved to Minneapolis. I ended up managing this place in Maple Grove that was an art studio with coffee. It was much more focused on the art part. That was again, just regular old coffee. To make a long story short, I moved around a lot. Worked at a lot of different cafes and ended up managing a lot of them. Around 2008, I got a job at Think Coffee in New York, which is more of a specialty shop. That’s the first place I really learned how to dial in and how to do things more the way that we do them now. Actually having some parameters to make coffee was a revelation! You don’t just have to be stumbling around in the dark! So, that was really cool and my introduction to specialty coffee.
When I moved to California—I know, it’s crazy—I got a job as a manager of a super high end Indonesian art gallery and coffee bar that a couple were opening. Everyone involved in the project was really cool. But, they were really cool. We ended up having this beautiful coffee bar in the Lake Merritt area, it was a really special place. Then we brought in Dogwood!
When I moved back here [Minneapolis] I thought, ‘Hey Dogwood’s here, I should see if they’re hiring.’ So, that’s how I ended up with Dogwood at the MIA. Shortly after, I had to move home [to Milwaukee] for a while. I took a leave of absence but when I returned I ended up starting to work with Black. So, kind of weird, all over the place… but basically I’ve been in coffee forever.
It’s been fun. I’ve been able to meet coffee people from everywhere. Of all the cities I’ve lived in, I really loved the coffee community in the Bay Area. That’s really where I feel like I blossomed in specialty coffee and started to have a passion for it.
DW: Tell us about the new Black location in St. Paul! Why did you pick this spot?
HF: We were looking in Minneapolis too, we were just looking for the right space, but we did more looking in St. Paul. Brad was focused on having one in St. Paul, it seemed like a good idea, to spread our reach a little bit. We had heard about people coming to Black from Stillwater, so we thought, ‘Oh maybe we’ll move east a little bit.’ So, we looked at some spaces that were okay, but when we saw that this space was open, it felt big enough, the right size for us—plus the corner is so busy—and it’s by St. Thomas. The other shop is by the U of M, so we thought it would be a good fit for our demographic. Plus, there’s a nice family neighborhood nearby too so it’s not just the college crowd. Everything just kind of came together.
We’re excited to open here. We have a guest roaster program, still featuring Dogwood as our main roaster but then just one different roaster from around the country every couple of months. The first roaster was Equator. Other than that, everything is run pretty similarly.
DW: What do you think draws people to Black more, coffee or waffles?
HF: I really think it’s both. I think the combination of the two—that is our unique pull, for sure. If we were just doing specialty coffee, people would hopefully like us still and we’d be busy for coffee, but I think the explosion of business that we saw was definitely the combination of waffles and coffee. If we didn’t have the waffles it wouldn’t be the same at all.
DW: Which waffle is the most popular?
HF: The “Naughty Waffle”, for sure. I don’t know, must be the name! Combined with the fact that it is delicious. It has the most fresh fruit on it, so I think that people think, “Oh, that’s healthie-rrrrr…” but there’s still whipped cream.
DW: Well, there’s probably protein in there….
HF: Yeah, almond butter? That ones definitely the favorite, but actually when you look at the numbers, the Build-Your-Own might beat the Naughty Waffle. Some of the combinations people come up with… It’s just, as much sugar as possible, you know? “Put every single topping on there!”
DW: Let loose!
HF: Let loose, you know! I think it’s sometimes sort of a competition between the teenage boys. You know, how much can I eat?
DW: Tell us about your customers—you have an interesting demographic that includes a lot of university students because of your locations, but also a surprising amount of high school kids it seems!
HF: It caught on with high school. I guess just because of the Instagram and then, I mean, I think just the aesthetics. I think that we do have kind of a nice Instagram account. It’s been done well by university students who are also Black employees.
It’s so funny. We get a lot of people during Spring Break. We’ve seen some funny things. When it’s prom—people will call ahead and be like, “I want to ask this person to prom, with a waffle”. We’ll write, “Prom?” with syrup. It’s so funny. People will ask, “Can you write ‘Happy Birthday’ or something?” Which is actually kind of hard to do.
DW: You’re talking about the coffee scene in the Bay Area and obviously that’s pretty cool. What would you say about the coffee scene here?
HF: I don’t feel like we’ve have a strong community, to be honest. People seem to feel like there’s a weird tension? People don’t seem excited about getting together. I don’t know, maybe it just seems like that because we don’t… There’s no one that’s like, bringing people together. You know they have those Thursday Night Throwdowns* in towns, where the baristas get together. And I’ve thought about that, if that would work here or if people would just be like, “Eh”. I feel like there’s some weird tension between some of the shops. So, I don’t know. I wish that it was more of a community. And I’ve wondered what I can do to help that, like hosting stuff like that more regularly. It would take a lot of effort but maybe just getting the community together regularly would help that. People would get to know each other better.
I think sometimes maybe it takes particular people. The leaders in the community really have to be the type of people [to reach out]—those people are the energy. And if they’re not trying, then it’s going to be difficult, I guess. But it still can be done!
Visit Black: Coffee and Waffle Bar at one of their two locations:
*Since this interview TNT has started gaining more ground in the Twin Cities!
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