The Twin Cities has been a coffee city of transition over the past six years. A few shops early on stood out—those of us who dreamt about good coffee from other cities where we had lived went out of our way to get excellently pulled espresso. These shop were islands, but in 2015 the culture of coffee in Minneapolis and St. Paul is in a new place. The past six years have been witness to the opening of a number of new shops, each one encouraging more and spreading the idea that it is possible to do coffee differently in this market. Along with brand new places, we’ve had the opportunity to work with several shops that transition from an “old” way of coffee (think 90s coffee shop) to doing coffee with more intention and quality. It’s a challenge to make the leap, thinking you’ll lose a core of customers when everything is “new,” but we have yet to witness a shop that hasn’t killed it after making the change.
The space where Groundswell started was a small coffee shop, a very neighborhood type place where the personality of the well-connected owner mostly drove business. The shop changed hands when the economy turned in 2008 and the new owners were unable to provide the type of community space that had existed there before. Current owner and neighbor of the shop, Seth McCoy, says he watched the coffee shop dwindle away from what it had been. The owners recognized Seth’s involvement in the neighborhood, frequenting the shop, serving on the neighborhood coalition board, and they suggested that if he buy the business he could help it return to the community space it once was. In 2009, Seth and his best friend Tim Gilbert partnered and bought the business.
“And that’s how we got into it,” says McCoy, “Just a couple of neighbors who were interested in the role that the space played providing community for the neighborhood, and actually—not very educated about coffee. We literally said: How hard can it be to run a coffee bar?” He laughs.
Groundswell became a wholesale partner with Dogwood Coffee in 2012. Over the course of the next year, they took a dying neighborhood coffee shop and expanded it into a larger space and a full-blown café and bakery. They have super delicious cupcakes (vegan options too!), delicious and approachable food, wine and beer, and a full coffee bar featuring Dogwood Coffee. We interviewed Seth about his experience with transitioning a shop to a new coffee experience and his approach to food and drink at Groundswell.
Tell us about why you felt the shop needed a new approach.
When we bought the shop, it was a mess. The business was way worse than we thought it was. Even in spite of our relationships it was really hard to resuscitate. We called on a lot of our friends to work volunteer barista shifts and we kind of built the business back up, but it was still a real struggle. We didn’t have volume and we didn’t really have food or other things that you need. You either need high-ticket prices or high volume and we had neither one.
It was 2012 that I figured out that we really needed to understand what was happening in coffee in order to make this thing work. I knew what we were doing, I started looking around at other places that were doing well and I realized we were part of an old school coffee world, and we needed to get new school. I reached out to Dan from Dogwood and the folks from Autumnwood and that was really the beginning of a significant change for us. If we really wanted to do well in this business we had to be really interested not just in the community environment, but in the product we were serving. We totally underestimated that in the beginning. Dogwood came on board midway through 2012 and it was like the first glimmers of hope I had that we could get this thing turned around. I think within 30 days from the switch we saw a significant change in our business. Once we started taking coffee more seriously, our clientele did too.
At the end of that year, our neighbors who ran the shop next door told us they were going to close. That’s when we thought, What if we could take what we’ve been building higher quality coffee, better ingredients and a higher price point, and take that approach with some food and bakery? In 2013 we started the expansion project and in June we had a full kitchen, full food menu and our own in house bakery.
Was it challenging transitioning the shop from a one that focused on dark roasts, syrups, more “90s” era things, to what you do now?
It was really hard, but I became convinced that what you guys were doing was for sure the future of where coffee was headed. I thought, we either change now, or we’re just going to slowly die and get behind. I also knew that we couldn’t build a vibrant coffee bar based on people not wanting to pay more than 2 dollars for a cup of coffee. At the end of the day, the most significant pushback we got was price point. But, if I’m going to stake my future in one direction or another, is it a safer bet to go with people who are never going to pay more than two dollars for a cup of coffee, or to try to provide a quality product that will give me a lot more options in the future?
I think because I was convinced about it, I was able to get through the real challenging time of trying to get our regular customers on board with a flavor of coffee they weren’t familiar with. I was also able to stomach the fact that we were just going to lose some. Some of them just weren’t going to come here. At first, I still offered a dark roast during the transition time and we just sort of tried to evangelize people over from the old school to the new school. We came to the point where I just didn’t really want to have both anymore. I felt like if I were really going to tell people “this is what a great cup of coffee tastes like” I no longer wanted to put something on the counter that I didn’t feel confident was going to be good.
One thing I didn’t think about at that time that I would tell a shop owner considering making a transition, is that if you don’t do it, you’re going to severely limit who will ever work your bar. People who really want to work bar want to know they’re making some of the best coffee out there. And if you’re not dealing with a new school coffee roaster, all the good baristas are going to work other places.
What would you say your food focus is? How did you develop the menu and what kinds of things do you aim to offer?
When I was dumb enough to buy the coffee bar and think “how hard could this be?” at least I learned my lesson. I knew that if we were going to do food and bakery I was going to have to bring people in who really knew what they were doing. I had a good friend Megan who stepped up to the bakery and has just been killing it back there. I reached out to a friend of a friend who was a chef in North Carolina who we brought up to open the kitchen. He definitely had a savory approach and also a bit of a southern flair. Our food profile is like a collaboration between a bakery café with some southern spice sprinkled in. It’s not a really wild menu—pretty straight up, but everything has just a bit of a twist so that it’s interesting but not real far off the beaten path. I don’t think we have too many people who are interested in experimental food that come in here. They want stuff to be pretty understandable and accessible, but we want to avoid being utilitarian about it.
Do you have any future goals for Groundswell? Either with food or coffee?
I feel pretty good that we’ll keep refreshing and playing with chef’s menus and bakery specials and seasonal drinks. If you’re in the food and beverage industry, you always have to be pulling some things off the menu and adding new things. I think that just becomes part of it means to be vibrant and not get stuck.
I’m really interested in this intersection. I think if you come back to this corner in ten years, this will be the only thing around that’s still the same. Do you know where Kopplin’s is? That little corner has become sort of the social gathering spot for that whole neighborhood. I’m really interested to see if this intersection can become something similar. I think this corner is the one opportunity in the Midway to do that same thing. I have aspirations to be involved in getting some more things going on this corner, so maybe it’s less about what’s going to happen with Groundswell as much as what’s going to happen around it in the neighborhood.
What has been the most difficult part of all this, and what part is your favorite?
The hardest thing about all this is that none of the people who are leaders and managers here have done this at another place. We are all cutting our teeth for the first time in this project. I think we second-guess ourselves a lot. If we had done this six other places we would just kind of know, ‘oh this is the way that everybody else does it.’ It’s fun to be innovative, but I also think it’s kind of exhausting because we end up having to learn all the lessons we need to learn and we don’t often get the benefit of having somebody here who has done it before. We take a chance on people. When we hire we think: This person has abilities, maybe not the knowledge base yet. We’re giving them a chance to realize their full potential in this place. It’s been super gratifying when it works out, like with our baker Megan Greulich.
I know most of our people won’t work for us forever, they’ll go on to do other things. I always hope they’ll look back and feel that because believed in and took a chance on them, they’ve grown as a person in their skills.
I think my favorite thing is that we started out with an idea of what we thought could happen and took a pretty giant risk. When we expanded, I think we multiplied our seating by 6—we went from 12 seats to 75 and some days while we were planning, I thought, of course, people will love this place! Another day, I would think, what are we doing? We have ten people who come in every day, how is this going to turn into the 250 people that we need? It is rewarding to see that what we envisioned is actually happening. We thought could be really successful and positive for the neighborhood on this corner. Our neighborhood and beyond has responded to what we created here. It is really gratifying every time I walk in the door and see a full dining room—which is almost every day, almost all the time. To feel like what you wanted to provide to people is something that they really wanted and embraced—that’s definitely rewarding.
1340 Thomas Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55104
Open daily 7am-9pm
Dogwood is happy to be a sponsor for Groundswell's event, Grounds and Sounds on August 15th! Visit Groundswell's website for more info or check out the Facebook page!