Five Watt Coffee powers up

Caleb Garn and Lee Carter, open for business at Five Watt Coffee. Credit: Photo by Jim Walsh

Thursday morning last, Caleb Garn and Lee Carter opened the doors of their new shop, Five Watt Coffee, to a burst of warm spring air and appreciative neighbors on the fast-burgeoning and newly blossoming intersection that is 38th and Nicollet.

“We opened at 6 a.m. and it blew up,” said Garn, sitting in one of the Five Watt booths. “Boom. Four times busier than we thought we’d be.”

Welcome news for a neighborhood that already boasts several new businesses and restaurants, including the Butter Bakery Café and the Blackbird Café, and for Garn, a sometimes musician and record producer/engineer who named Five Watt after his former recording studio. As a native of Michigan, where economic blight has suffocated businesses for decades, Garn knows plenty about the importance of a city’s ability to grow some funk of its own.

“I love the idea of reborn, rebirth, restart,” he said. “Coming from a way-out part of Detroit, any glimmer of any great or good growth or uptick, it’s exciting. Having been a born and bred Michigander, that was ingrained in you: Find a way.”

In its first week, Five Watt is finding its way. The steady stream of curious high-end coffee drinkers reflects a growing national trend that Garn and Carter plan to ride hard as eager proselytizers of the so-called Third Wave coffee movement, which is akin to the coffee scene what microbrews are to the beer scene.

“The first wave is getting coffee in your home, like Folgers vacuum packed stuff in your home,” said Carter. “The second wave is Starbucks making it taste good. And the third wave is going back to tradition and making it less about substance and more about actual balance in taste. The same thing is happening in the cocktail world. Cocktail bartenders are super specific and precise with what they choose and what goes with it. All of their tastes, they did everything on purpose, and I see a parallel between that and the third wave coffee world.”

Garn, who worked for Caribou Coffee and other shops to get a feel for the coffee business before diving in on his own, said the trend isn’t new, but “it’s reaching critical mass point.”

“There’s shops like this opening every day by the dozens, because consumers are getting more interested in what else can be done,” he said. “So our approach to the coffee, and how we handle it and how we view it and constantly meticulously work with it is a lot different than hitting a button on a machine. It’s a very gourmet, high-end approach, and we adopted that style and approach and we’re not allowing one ounce of pretension to come across the counter. That’s bullsh**.”

In other words, Five Watt seeks to be an original in a sea of franchises and chains — as illustrated by a menu that features regular coffees and espressos and tongue-exploding specialty drinks The Kingfield (vanilla, coriander, espresso, milk, black Hawaiian sea salt); The Bow Tie (cold press, syrup, cream, cocktail bitters), The Orange Blossom Special (cocoa, orange bitters, espresso, milk), The London Calling (Laoshan black tea, vanilla, fennel bitters, infused milk), The Hendrick’s (cold press, juniper and basil simple syrup, grapefruit bitters, cream) and The Bulldog (black walnut bitters, espresso, milk, orange zest), all of which can make your favorite Starbucks drink stink like McDonald’s.

“We’re thumbing our noses at Starbucks and Caribou to a degree,” said Garn. “People in the third wave movement have a tendency to talk ill about Caribou and Starbucks, but I look at is thank god that they paved the way and we do owe ’em something.”

But there’s nothing like a neighborhood coffee shop, as the bustling Five Watt has already proven. The sounds of roasting and brewing coffee harmonize with the local music playing from the PA speakers overhead, and with the chatter of customers who are obviously thrilled to have a new community hub in their midst.

“The environment is great,” said Garn. “It’s a socially acceptable bar that you can hang out in 10 hours a day and nobody looks down on you. Coffee shops are the third place people live. You’ve got work, you’ve got home, and you’ve got your coffee shop. For half the country, that’s a pretty real thing.

“I pay a lot of attention to the coffee industry in the United State. What trends are moving and what’s becoming more interesting. Coffee itself is the second-highest trade commodity in the world. It’s a $90 billion a year industry. The only thing that beats it is oil. Roughly half of the U.S. drinks coffee every day, and about 25 percent of that drinks specialty coffee four or five times a week.”

“People get excited about something that tastes good when they didn’t know it could before,” said Carter. “People get super excited about it and that’s why you see shops like this packed out. It’s a new thing in coffee, it’s very exciting, and definitely something to get behind.” 

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at madripple@earthlink.net and www.jimwalshmpls.com