As the craft coffee industry has grown, cafe business models have gone high volume in heavily trafficked areas. Although we’re excited to see specialty coffee get larger and larger shares of venture capital, our favorite shops remain the ones that are a step ahead of the urban planners and real estate developers. These cafes pick a location not on retail potential but on community and character. It’s hard to find a better example than Sump Coffee in Saint Louis’s South City.
Before starting Sump, owner Scott Carey spent 11 years as a patent lawyer in New York. Like many in the hustle and grind of big city corporate life, coffee breaks became a cherished oasis in the midst of hectic days. A great experience at Ninth Street Espresso set Carey on a path that eventually led to opening a shop in his native Saint Louis.
Carey is best known for having what’s undoubtedly the best beard in specialty coffee, but his painstaking remodeling of Sump’s turn-of-the-century building is equally impressive. The dark slate interior and deep wood tones are complimented by flourishes of bright red, like on Sump’s Slayer espresso machine or their Hario V60s. “Shops need to be reflective of the people who are in those neighborhoods.” Carey explains in a recent interview. Though Carey concedes for most, “It’s a destination… you don’t accidentally find yourself at Sump.”
Shops need to be reflective of the people who are in those neighborhoods.” – Scott Carey
But if Sump is a cafe destination, it’s for good reason. From the state of the art equipment to the small batch roasted coffee (roasted in-house with a Diedrich IR-5), every detail at Sump serves the purpose of providing their customers an “elevated coffee experience.”
If I had one word to describe my experience at Sump, it would be “atypical”. There’s no queue, cash register, menu boards, or any other artifact from the fast food model of coffee service. In other words, there is virtually no way to get a coffee without interacting with the barista, which on this occasion was the Beard himself. Although I eyed the Steampunk Mod 2.1 enviously, after chatting with Scott I wanted to try their Kenya as espresso. The shot was bright and sweet, and though not particularly balanced, immensely enjoyable.
My Compass co-editor Darren Jennings had the privilege of judging Sump during America’s Best Coffeehouse Competition at CoffeeFest St. Louis. According to him, the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Adado Coop was the best espresso he sampled over the three day event. Although Sump only placed 2nd in that competition, they took top honors in America’s Best Espresso (which included a victory over my own place of employment).
Whether it’s your neighborhood shop or your destination escape, Sump delivers an elevated coffee experience in a beautifully designed space. If the Compass ever relocates from Louisville downriver to St. Louis, South City will be the first place we look for real estate.
Interior photos supplied by Cody Maher.