Local Eau Claire coffee scene continues to thrive


© 2018 Kailin Schumacher

The Living Room Cafe menu displays their homemade treats and coffee among holiday decoration.

By Kailin Schumacher

The French Press kitchen buzzed as both Kris Schnack and Pat French rolled out rolls by hand and frosted cakes while baristas ran coffee and other homemade treats to early bird customers. Like most local coffee shops in Eau Claire, the French Press takes pride in perfecting the hand-made items that customers request.

“It is all from scratch. Sometimes there are opportunities to cut corners and we just say, ‘Nope, that is not our thing,'” French said.

Over the last couple of years, the City of Eau Claire has seen a number of coffee shops pop up all over town, giving coffee drinkers an option to buy locally. With 11 small-business coffee shops in Eau Claire, community members are provided a wide range of atmospheres, menus, and locations. While there are big name cafes in Eau Claire, many local coffee shop owners say there isn’t any competition.

“I don’t think that we are a competitor of Starbucks or Caribou or anything because honestly, we’re in different markets,” said Matt Schwahn, founder of Honest Roast Coffee and co-owner of Northbound Coffee Company.

With big name coffee shops in Eau Claire, smaller coffee houses continue to thrive off community support. Along with localizing shops, small cafes in town take time to focus on high-quality coffee made right in the city and homemade treats.

“I’d say numbers-wise, compared to a Starbucks or Caribou we’re not going to compare in sales, but we are going to be close,” said French co-owner of the French Press with Schnack. “I’d say we are definitely second in line to those businesses as far as quantity. And as far as quality of coffee, I think we’ve got them beat. And our food isn’t frozen.”

Along with making food from scratch, Morgan Hines-Munson, Acoustic Café manager said that making the place feel like home adds to the customer’s overall experience.

“We make everything from scratch,” said Hines-Munson. “We try really hard to give it that homey feel and I think that that really shines through.”

Homemade treats are just one of the many reason’s local baristas say their cafes are successful. With so many coffee shops in Eau Claire, owners said that the differences between the shops are the reason that everyone is able to be successful.

“They are all different in their own way, and you can feel the vibe that each one has and go wherever depending on what you’re in the mood for,” said Racy’s barista Brianna Larson. “For example, ECDC has this business-y vibe while Racy’s is cozy and cave-like and SHIFT has their whole bike thing happening.”

While environments are important and add to the overall experience, newer coffee houses in Eau Claire are targeting their success from being more than just a coffee shop. In the last two years, both Northbound Coffee House and boutique and SHIFT Cyclery & Coffee Bar started their businesses in Eau Claire, each bringing another element that the city hadn’t seen before.

“Everyone does it a little bit different. Those places like Racy’s and The Goat are all established, and all do it so well, I don’t think we need another one of those. But we definitely did need a Northbound, we needed a Shift,” said Northbound’s Schwahn. “I think us, and SHIFT are a new generation of coffee shop.”

Even the French Press took the extra step to be more than just a coffee shop when it opened in 2014.

“I think the reason that we are successful is because we diversified,” said French “We’re not just a coffee shop but we’re a restaurant and a bakery and we cater. So, when one slows down a little bit due to the economy, we have something to fall back on.”

While the city continues to change and grow, old traditions continue to thrive in Eau Claire. The Acoustic Café started its business back in 1994 and staff take pride in the impact it has made on community members.

“People have such a nostalgia about Acoustic Café because it’s been here so long, and they keep coming back and they bring their kids and they bring their kids,” said Hines-Munson, the Acoustic Café manager. “Also, I feel like we have a really good sense of community in between us and the customers.”

When walking into any coffee shop in Eau Claire, chatter fills the space and camaraderie between customers and baristas is inevitable. Students fill tables full of books and laptops and family’s flood in for lunch. Racy’s works to bring the outside community in by featuring local art, while Acoustic holds events like “Ask A Scientist” to connect the community through coffee and science.

“I think our customer service is amazing, and I hear it repeatedly from customers,” French said. “That’s really the big difference, too. It makes it a place that people want to come back to. When they remember their name, or their coffee drink or they just take the time to smile, they do a really good job of that. ”

On top of good service, local coffee shop goers recognize the extra effort put in by Eau Claire-based coffee shops that you wouldn’t necessarily see in chain coffee houses.

“I love the community that local coffee houses bring and how SHIFT and a lot of other coffee houses around Eau Claire display local artists and share all that creativity and I don’t think a lot

SHIFT manager Colin Carey agrees.

“A big part of coffee is community,” Carey said. “That’s what’s centered around it. A place to collect, start out our days or just to meet and kind of connect with people.”

While the city loves to connect with its community, Eau Claire is following the nation’s lead as America continues to consume more and more gourmet coffee. The U.S National Coffee Association’s National Coffee Drinking Trends report showed that 2018 has broken the record for highest percentage of Americans drinking coffee within the past day, a record that hasn’t been broken since 2012. The report clarified that 59 percent of all coffee consumed daily is classified as gourmet. These numbers have been rising over the last few years, but this is the first time in the report’s 67 years that specialty coffee has been more than half of daily consumption.

Looking at the numbers a little deeper, the report reveals that 46 percent of coffee was consumed outside the house. The report mentions that this gradual and fundamental shift in the American coffee landscape means that more people are drinking coffee that comes at a higher price and is infused with the history of where the coffee came from. The Perfect Daily Grind describes this third wave coffee as, “understanding that an espresso isn’t just made by a barista. The producer and roaster also receive credit.”

For Northbound owner, Schwahn the quality and history of his home-brewed coffee is something that he thinks is overlooked.

“In Ethiopia where coffee originated from, there is a ritual when making it. It’s a whole thing, it’s an event and way more than someone just waking up in the morning and pushing a button, so a machine can dispense your Folgers,” Schwahn said. “Every bean that I roast has gone through such an incredible journey to get your cup in the morning. And that is a story worth telling.”

With the never-ending success of local coffee, community members flood each coffee house day after day and recognize the difference between the experience that they can get from a local environment versus a corporate one. Connor Zielinski decided to cut out corporate coffee shops in July to try and focus his energy on supporting local.

“I think with local coffee shops they are just going to take better care of you and your coffee is just going to be in better hands. Everything doesn’t seem so mechanic. When shops try and get you your coffee as soon as possible you lose some of that quality,” said Zielinski.

Eau Claire coffee shop owners say they will continue to create bonds between community members and focus on their quality of coffee. Whether community members need a caffeine boost or just a place to study or relax, choosing local over corporate is something that coffee house owners are thankful for.

“I think the more local it is the better it is in quality and from a socioeconomic standpoint. The money is staying in the community and that’s what people care about,” Schwahn said. “Eau Claire is a city that loves to help its friends and neighbors.”