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Posts Tagged ‘Ground Floor’

There’s a new cafe next to the Common. And it has stolen my heart.

On a recent errand-filled lunch break, I passed by Thinking Cup, as I had done for the past couple of weeks, noting its cheerful chalkboard easel, propped up outside the door, advertising its French hot chocolate or a hazelnut latte with real roasted hazelnuts. After the post office and the bank, I decided I needed a treat, so I slipped inside.

And fell in love.

There is no shortage of cafes in Boston, but I had yet to find one that felt like mine in every respect, and was close enough to visit frequently. I like the Charles Street Starbucks because of its location (right on the Common) and because it was my friend Lisa’s hangout when she lived in Boston. (Now I text her when I stop in for a hot chocolate, and let her know I’m at “our” Starbucks.) But it’s still slickly corporate, and I’m an indie girl at heart.

This place is indie. And filled with soft light and dark wood and tables for two topped with laminated front pages of old Boston newspapers. It boasts a pastry case filled with delectable treats, a carefully curated selection of looseleaf teas, a soup-and-sandwich menu, and the perfect relaxed/cozy vibe. I ordered a chai to go, but I went back that very night after work and ordered a pot of tea and curled up and wrote for a while.

Of course, I can’t spend hours here now, the way I could have when I was unemployed – and it just opened in December, anyway. But I can pop by on my lunch break for a hot drink, or before work on particularly frigid mornings. And if I know J’s going to be home late, I can head over there for a cup of something warm and some writing time.

I think I’m always searching, in every city I live in, for its equivalent to the Ground Floor, the coffee shop in Midland where I worked and hung out and wrote and learned to make all my favorite drinks. I loved everything about that little shop, but what I loved best was that I knew everyone there. And they knew me. (Besides, it had a large selection of tea, an array of yummy pastries, mellow music, big windows for sunlight to spill through, and lots of time and space to write.)

Since I left Midland and the Ground Floor closed, I’ve been looking for its replacement wherever I go. In Abilene, it was Mezamiz; in Oxford it was both Queen’s Lane and the Jericho Cafe. In Boston I thought it might be Francesca’s, in the South End, but the problem is I’m never over there. And Quincy is sadly lacking in good cafes, and I spend my days downtown now, anyway. So I’m hoping very much that this is it. A cafe I can write and read and dream in, and where I can know and be known.

Care to join me for a cuppa?

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Tara had a beautiful post recently on surviving the dark, cold winter in Seattle, with the help (in her case) of fresh local milk to put in her morning tea. It made me think about my morning tea – a beloved year-round ritual, but more vital now than ever.

These days, I hop out of bed and straight into the shower, because nothing wakes me up or warms me up faster than a quick, steamy shower. Then I slather on the lotion and moisturizer, dry my hair, etc., and brew up a cuppa – either flavored black tea, brewed strong and drunk plain, or a breakfast blend (such as Yorkshire or PG Tips) with milk. I open all the blinds in our dining-room bay window, whether it’s sunny or not, and start a load of laundry, if it needs to be done. (Nothing like crossing a task off the to-do list before breakfast.) Then I drink tea and eat breakfast while writing my morning pages, reading blogs and getting ready for the day.

What do people do who don’t drink hot drinks, who don’t have this cup of warmth and comfort to ease them into the day? When I lived in “the dungeon” in Oxford, sharing a basement kitchen with five boys, we all flocked to the kettle and the French press every morning, brewing up cups of Yorkshire or strong coffee or even peppermint tea, to help us wake up and warm up. Even in Abilene, where most mornings year-round are sunny, I needed my morning tea time, and here amid the cold and snow, I need it more than ever.

I’m lucky to have a whole cupboard full of mugs, though I most often reach for the simple, cobalt-blue mug that came from the Ground Floor. Before closing up shop, Barb gave us each a goody bag that included one of the crayon-colored mugs we’d used in the shop for nine years, and mine is still my favorite on these winter mornings. It’s sturdy and simple, and it feels good in my hands.

Anyone else have a morning winter ritual? Or a favorite tea you’d recommend?

(Taken last month, as evidenced by the Christmas candy dish.)

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I’ve written before about my work at The Ground Floor (which was only, you know, the greatest coffee shop EVER), during a few summer and holiday breaks in college. We were located in the bottom of a tall building downtown, which meant a lot of our regulars were businessmen (and women) who stopped by at the same time every day. Many of them dropped in on their way to the post office, just a block away.

Five years later, I still remember some of these folks and their drinks – which we’d start making the second they walked in the door, so we’d be nearly done by the time they reached the counter. I loved brightening their days by giving them their favorite drink, made exactly the way they wanted.

Here are the ones I remember:

1. Tracy worked at a bank in town and would come right when we opened at 7 a.m., for her 20-oz skinny latte with almond.
2. Tim Baker came in at least once a day for a 16-oz skinny latte with sugar-free hazelnut. Sometimes he wanted it half-caff; sometimes it was 60/40; sometimes he’d say, “Give me all the caffeine today!”
3. BJ came in with his brother and brother-in-law every day around 3; he always got a short latte with a double shot.
4. Bob (BJ’s brother-in-law) got a Diet Coke with ice and a little vanilla.
5. Stuart (I think that was his name) got a lemonade with ice and a little raspberry.
6. Aaron came in every night and drank whatever drip coffee we didn’t sell, from his own mug with his name on the bottom. (He was an employee before I was, and remained a regular to the end.)
7. David Eiler (aka Smiley) used to order a 16-0z drip coffee, but one day when we were between pots, he ordered a 16-oz americano. He got hooked on the stronger taste and extra caffeine after that.
8. Jere always got iced ginger peach tea – I’ve written about her before.
9. Ben was at least a twice-daily regular – sometimes he wanted drip coffee, sometimes green tea.
10. John, the owner, would come behind the counter and make himself a latte, in his own smallish mug.
11. Adam usually wanted either a fruit slush with an extra fruit flavor mixed in, or a short cappuccino in a grande mug – preferably yellow. (And he always wanted me to play Weezer on the stereo.)
12. Hugh would drink a red-eye – coffee with a shot of espresso – out of a green mug.
13. Steve always wanted a 16-oz soy latte with an extra shot and two packets of Sugar in the Raw.
14. Barb, my manager, loved a lot of drinks, but I remember her rhapsodizing about iced blackberry sage, and wild berry plum, tea.
15. My dad would drop in sometimes for a short mocha.
16. Sarah, a co-worker, loved chai as much as I did.
17. Sophia, another co-worker, loved soy chai lattes and Italian sodas.
18. Cynthia, our other manager, loved regular lattes.
19. John V, a regular (not the owner), bought a Dr. Pepper nearly every night.
20. Ryan, one of “the guys,” drank a LOT of hot tea. I remember he liked our cardamom-cinnamon blend.
21. Dennis would come in for a 16-oz coffee in the evening – he worked nights.
22. Fred, who also worked nights, would order six or eight espresso shots in a grande cup – about 12 oz of straight espresso!
23. Jon, my best friend since fifth grade, loves jasmine tea.
24. Chris Cherry, a police officer and (the owner) John’s good friend, loved our African red teas.

And me? My summer favorites were a granita (slushy coffee drink) with chocolate mint flavoring, or a raspberry cream soda. In the mornings or in the winter, I drank a lot of chai lattes, rich hot chocolate, or flavored black tea.

What’s your “usual” at your favorite coffee house?

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When I worked at the Ground Floor, we hosted a private group for lunch every Wednesday and some Fridays. Most of them had their own personal sandwich slips, kept in a rubber-banded bundle under the counter, and they’d just walk up (a few would even call ahead) and say, “I’m (so-and-so). Can you make my sandwich, please?”

There was Max, the leader, who had three different sandwich slips and whose secretary would call ahead for him and tell me which one he wanted, and whether or not he wanted a cookie. There was Cecil, who called ahead every single week, and Tim, who came in every single day for a latte but also joined us for lunch (we kept an avocado in the fridge just for him). There was Michelle, who, oddly enough, was a big, burly, kind-faced man, and there was Sug (short for “Sugar” and pronounced that way), tiny and graying and always cheerful. I never found out her real name, but it didn’t matter. The Ground Floor was a safe place for them to come and eat and talk about their lives. We supplied them with sandwiches, cookies, chips and pitchers of iced tea and water, rang them up, accepted their gracious tips, poured coffee for a few of them – and then we slipped into the kitchen and closed the swinging door. They were called “Bill’s Friends,” but they were an AA group, and they liked to be alone to share their struggles with each other.

A few months after I started working there, Jere (pronounced “Jerry”) started coming to Bill’s Friends. At first she wasn’t there every week, but she quickly became a regular, and filled out her own sandwich slip in scrunched-up cursive. She had a finely structured face under feathery gold-blonde hair, tanned skin and nervous hands, and an almost eager look in her eyes behind her quiet reserve. I never quite made friends with her, but I tried to talk with her every week.

After a week or two of iced tea and water, Jere started ordering ginger peach tea – a tall 20-ounce cup, golden brown and iced. She always asked for it after that, and whenever I brewed a cup for anyone else, I thought of her. It had a sweet and subtle flavor – slightly fruity, slightly spiced, still hearty enough to chase the heat of a broiling Texas summer.

I haven’t seen Jere in close to five years, not since the last Christmas break I worked at the Ground Floor. I have no idea where she is or how she’s doing, or whether that group of Bill’s Friends has found another place to meet. I hope they have. But last night, my wonderful husband bought me ginger peach tea at the grocery store, and this morning, I brewed a cup and thought of her.

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Mike Cope posted this morning on the new Starbucks in the ACU library. I am technologically challenged and I don’t know how to insert hyperlinks, but his blog (www.preachermike.com) is the first one in the list of blogs on the left sidebar. There are nearly 40 comments (thus far), mostly from people who are absolute Starbucks addicts – and many of them extol the virtues of Starbucks in the areas of coffee drinks, atmosphere, etc. (though no one admits to liking the prices).

I tried to comment three times, but the site wouldn’t let me. So get ready: here comes a Katie rant.

Starbucks does NOT have the most innovative coffee-drink menu, the best coffee (they burn it – according to a friend of mine who worked there after working at 2 different independents), nor the best atmosphere to hang out. Local coffee shops had a corner on the ambience, the forum for local artists and musicians to flourish, the laid-back community, the safe place for people of all ages AND the wonderful drinks before Starbucks ever came on the scene. (For one thing, the coffee house originated in Prague…not even in America!)

No, I don’t drink coffee. Love the smell, but can’t stand the taste. (Interestingly, Mike shares my view.) So I suppose I can’t vouch for the quality of Starbucks lattes and cups of joe over others. But I CAN vouch for the lack of quality in Starbucks chai, hot chocolate, tea and Italian sodas as compared to those you can get at independent places. The Starbucks stuff is bland. And their chai tastes weird.

Yes, I worked at an independent for two years. The Ground Floor Coffee House in Midland, Texas. Server of at least four varieties of roasted beans shipped from an independent roaster in Lubbock, Texas, and maker/purveyor of the best granitas, Italian sodas (96 different flavors – and you could combine 2 or more to create your own!), rich Ghirardelli hot chocolate, steamers, chai, and build-your-own sandwiches I’ve ever had. We had three shelves of tea – some 52 blends of black, green, red (rooibos), herbal and even white – and four shelves of flavor syrups, which could go into any of our hot or cold drinks. For the non-hot-tea drinkers, we always had a pitcher of Lipton iced under the counter. As for the sandwiches, we bought the ingredients fresh at least once a week, and there’s honestly no substitute for turkey with mustard, provolone cheese, lettuce and tomato on a homemade jalapeno-cheddar roll from Tony’s Mexican Bakery, made fresh, sliced in half and microwaved for 22 seconds. Can Starbucks give you that?

Not to mention Friday nights filled with the mostly acoustic and very pleasing LIVE sounds of local (but talented!) bands. We did have the radio or CDs playing most of the time…but it was the stuff we liked, not some piped-in corporate mix. Norah Jones, Caedmon’s Call, HEM, Guster, Enya, Sinatra and all kinds of jazz recordings. And brightly painted walls (we painted them ourselves!) hung with vibrant and thought-provoking art by local artists, including Rachel, one of our baristas; the owner’s husband, Jeff; and a tall lanky regular named Ryan who bought more cups of hot tea than anyone I’ve ever known.

And another thing: We knew our regulars. We didn’t scrawl their names on the sides of their cups, but we knew them. Steve, for example, would come in a few times a week, always wearing sunglasses (I was shocked one day to see that he had beautiful deep brown eyes), for his 16-oz soy latte with three shots of espresso (they came with two) and two packets of Sugar in the Raw. I’d start making his drink when he walked in the door. I’d do the same for Tim Baker, who came in between 2:00 and 3:00 every afternoon for a 16-oz skinny latte (made with skim milk) with a shot of sugar-free hazelnut syrup. One man, another Steve, liked to empty his sugar packets into the cup before we put the coffee in. David Eiler, known affectionately as “Happy Face” or “Smiley,” bought a $1.75 16-oz espresso every day and always slid three dollars across the counter, telling me, “Keep the change.” Aaron, a very unusual biker who had mild cerebral palsy, a love for Jesus and an absolute heart of gold, would hobble in (he hurt his leg in a bike wreck two years ago) and ask for his special mug (it had his name on the bottom), drinking the drip coffee we didn’t sell. At closing time he would help me take out the trash, then walk me to my car.

The Ground Floor closed its doors on April 30, 2005. We had an all-night GF-style party complete with an espresso-drinking contest, live music for some five hours, floods of customers from age 15 to well into their fifties, and nearly everyone who’d worked there for the past couple of years, all of us rotating behind-the-counter duty. We all loved the tactile and sensory process of making drinks and restocking supplies and even smoothing your hand across a counter to make sure the espresso grounds were all gone. None of us wanted to leave. I was one of the first, and I finally headed home at nearly 4 a.m. Aaron walked me to my car, and I sobbed all the way there.

Now there’s no place except Starbucks to get a cup of coffee in Midland. Fortunately, there are several local joints here in Abilene: Mezamiz, the Bean Counter, Third Rock Creamery & Coffee. Thank heaven. In Oxford, there was G&D’s – an Oxford-original ice cream shop that also did bagel sandwiches and coffee, and there is now QI (Quite Interesting), which sells wonderful tea and scrumptious ginger cake. Totally local. And last summer in Hawaii, as Scott frequently reminds me, I found another kindred coffee house: Volcano Joe’s, across the street from the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii. Mango smoothies, great chai, chilled-out atmosphere and way cool T-shirts. Whenever the team missed the big blue whale of a van, they knew it was a safe bet I’d taken it and driven to Volcano Joe’s.

These places are packed with atmosphere – organic, funky, sometimes rough-edged, homegrown, original local flavor. They’re not as slick as Starbucks, but they sure feel more like home than it will EVER feel. Support your local coffee house, for goodness’ sake. These places are some of the few remaining bastions of rich, relaxed, family-friendly local flavor amid all the franchise fast-food restaurants and national department stores.

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Remember is a place from long ago
Remember – filled with everything you know
Remember when you’re sad and feelin’ down
Remember – Turn around

Remember – Life is just a memory
Remember – Close your eyes and you will see
Remember – Think of all that life can be
Remember…

-Harry Nilsson, “Remember (The Christmas Song)”

It’s a chill rainy day in Abilene, and I feel like remembering. Remembering hot chocolate made in Bert & Ernie cups when Bets and I were little. Remembering hours spent at the Ground Floor, painting the bathroom or brewing rich dark coffee or drinking steamers and talking about everything and nothing. Remembering cold, gray days in Oxford when just walking down the street meant anything could happen.

Here’s to memories and the deep subtle richness they add to our lives. My storehouse of memories holds a few painful ones, but I will be forever grateful to my God that He has made us a people who remember.

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