There’s coffee and then there’s coffee. It ranges from gas station black swill you buy at 1 a.m. solely to push through the last hour of an extended road trip to fragrant ambrosia made from carefully selected and roasted beans that are freshly ground before being turned into brews prepared by trained baristas.
For 16 years, Grab-A-Java has been providing Springfield with the latter, most often known as “specialty coffee.” While some may think the term refers to what have become myriad coffee-based concoctions, many of which are highly sweetened and include additional flavorings, to the Specialty Coffee Association of America it’s all about the quality of coffee beans and the standards used to create them. As Ric Rhinehart put it in a June 2009 article published by the SCAA: “In the final analysis specialty coffee [is] defined by the quality of the product, whether green bean, roasted bean or prepared beverage and by the quality of life that coffee can deliver to all of those involved in its cultivation, preparation and degustation. A coffee that delivers satisfaction on all counts and adds value to the lives and livelihoods of all involved is truly a specialty coffee.”
Grab-A-Java owners Meg and Pete Lazare have had a love affair with outstanding coffee since the earliest days of their own love story. “Coffee has always been a big part of our lives,” says Meg. “We met in St. Paul, Minn. back in the early 1970s. I was living with Peter’s ex-girlfriend upstairs in a two-flat; Pete lived downstairs. His ex-girlfriend was a great cook and really into coffee.” When the Lazares left St. Paul, they brought along the love of coffee that Meg’s flatmate/Pete’s old girlfriend had instilled in them.
By the mid-1990s, the specialty coffee craze that had begun on the West Coast was taking America by storm. But it hadn’t yet really hit Springfield; Meg, a registered nurse, thought the time was right to bring the brewing storm to Illinois’ capitol city – with Pete’s help, of course. And they decided to do it by building a drive-through.
A drive-through? It might not have taken a trends expert to realize Springfield had potential as a specialty coffee market, but drive-throughs had barely begun appearing in the Pacific Northwest. The Lazares had seen a couple on travels there and read about the concept in a magazine. It would be several years before specialty coffee’s 800-pound gorilla, Starbucks, started building them; outside the west coast, specialty coffee drive-throughs were totally unknown.
“We’d drive along Sixth Street and see long lines at the McDonald’s and Hardee’s drive-throughs opposite each other,” they told me. “And we thought it’d work for coffee, too.” Not everyone agreed. Meg got start-up capital through a Women and Minorities Loan program, but their builder was incredulous that money could be made from drive-through coffee. “Of course, when you start a business, you think everybody will want your product,” says Pete. “If you’re a chain restaurant, it’s a mob scene on the first day; if you’re an independent, it takes awhile for people to find you.”
But people eventually did find them, though it took three years for the business to turn a profit. Grab-A Java has an ever-increasing base of regular customers, some almost fanatically so. “We have really loyal people that come day after day, and year after year,” says Meg. “And we form relationships with them, which is kind of surprising in a drive-through. Some are second generation: small kids who came with their parents are coming in as grown-ups. ”
There was the woman who drove through to pick up a coffee on the way to her wedding – behind the wheel, in her wedding dress. Another stopped by on the way home from the hospital with her newborn in car. Some come after funerals. “We even had one great customer who died of cancer and mentioned Grab-A-Java in her obituary,” the Lazares told me.
What effect has specialty coffee’s 800 lb. gorilla had on Grab-A-Java? When Starbucks opened their first Springfield drive-through in Parkway Pointe shortly after Lazares built their second Grab-A-Java on Hedley across from Lowe’s, I worried that the competition from the famous national chain would hurt their business. Lazares had concerns, too. But they also saw it as an opportunity to make the quality of their coffee “shine through.” They credit Starbucks with helping popularize coffee drinks, and say the competition helps keep them on their toes to “make ours the better product.”
But the Lazares didn’t need outside motivation to make fantastic coffee. Grab-A-Java offers a wide selection of coffee drinks of varying strengths as well as flavored and/or sweetened options (teas and smoothies are also available). From the beginning they’ve gone to great lengths to educate themselves about coffee-making, taking courses on everything from how to brew a perfect cup of coffee, make espresso, and properly foam milk for cream to the chemistry of coffee. “There’s so much that goes into making a good cup of coffee – so many steps,” they say. Their coffee beans are purchased from a micro-roaster in Oregon. “It’s almost all organic,” Meg says. Their roaster has personal relationships with the farmers who supply the beans, ensuring that the source is ethical – i.e., the farmers and their workers are paid a living wage. “That’s important to us,” she says. “The beans are roasted the day we order them. We get them three days later and use them within a week and a half. And we grind the beans for each order as it comes in.” Water quality is also a high priority; the water for coffee is monitored and adjusted to have enough minerals to improve taste, but not so much that it interferes with the flavor. Different water standards are used for tea.
Education hasn’t just been for Grab-A-Java’s owners. The Lazares periodically fly that Oregon micro-roaster to Springfield for barista training sessions; just one of the reasons many of their baristas are long-time employees. “We’re lucky to have such good people working for us,” they say.
Although Grab-A-Java has always been a joint effort for the Lazares, initially it was primarily Meg’s business. Since Pete’s recent retirement from the Illinois Commerce Commission, he’s taken on a bigger role. But from the beginning, Pete has made Grab-A-Java’s whimsical – and occasionally controversial – banners. One of England’s Queen Elizabeth II saying, “Shag me some coffee, baby” caused a woman to threaten staging a protest. A rendition of Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, was misinterpreted as denigrating the Holocaust. The legend, “Mocha Gone Wild” prompted a complaint that the banners were always about sex. One banner even received national attention: a depiction of Abraham Lincoln eating a muffin that declared “Finger-Lincoln Good,” on display during the presidential library/museum opening, made an appearance on C-SPAN.
The Lazares continue their quest to improve Grab-A-Java. They attend coffee conventions to “get a feel for what’s new,” trying samples of espresso from leading providers. They search for innovative equipment that can “provide the most advanced technology that still allows the barista to be in control.” To that end, they’ve converted to the espresso-maker used for the World Barista Championship Competition. They’re expanding the flavor ranges (darker and lighter roasts) of coffees on offer as well as food items including non-sweet “snacky things” such as ham and cheese tarts and house-made hummus. A recent innovation that is gaining popularity nationally and that Meg says has “really exploded” at Grab-A-Java is cold-brewing coffee, a 12-hour process of soaking and then slow extraction.
It’s a quest that ensures Grab-A-Java’s coffee-drinks – as well as its other offerings – will continue to meet the SCAA’s definition of specialty coffee, delivering “satisfaction on all counts and add[ing] value to the lives and livelihoods of all involved.”
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.