Long time readers of The Compass will remember our first post highlighted an exciting new espresso bar in Downtown Louisville. That espresso bar, of course, was the third retail location for Louisville specialty coffee pioneers Sunergos Coffee. Just shy of 6 years later, the Sunergos retail family is growing again, though their fourth location couldn’t be a sharper contrast from the closet-sized standing room-only espresso bar, in the shadow of Michael Graves’s famed Humana Tower. Sunergos Norris place occupies a refurbished garage, in quiet Deer Park. We caught up with Sunergos’s co-owner Matthew Huested to find out how the project came together.
Congratulations on opening your fourth location. What can you tell us about the space?
The space is at 1647 Norris Place in one of Louisville’s historic neighborhoods called Deer Park. The space itself was one of those old school Texaco service stations. You’ve seen them with the simple blocky building clad in enameled panels topped with a 360 degree slightly overhanging roof with a subtle slope and florescent lights all the way ‘round. It’s got two huge service bay doors that roll up virtually bringing the inside out. In total, the space is just under 1000 square feet. Before Sunergos, it was a dent removal shop and before that it had been occupied for many years by a mom and pop ice cream shop. We opened up the interior and exposed the old terrazzo floor which over the years has become a patchwork of cracks and concrete patches (service-worn is right up our ally). We also had to replace all the plumbing, update the electrical to service our equipment needs, tear out some walls, bring the bathroom up the code, and of course a complete paint and patch. All in all, it was a big project but we were able to do it in record Sunergos time which is about four months. Our last store took us about a year, I think.
I think of Deer Park as an underrated neighborhood that kind of lives in the shadow of the Highlands and Germantown. What drew Sunergos to this location?
It may be under-noticed, but definitely not underrated; especially by those living and working there. You’re right about its proximity to the Highlands which deservedly gets lots of attention for its long lived local business strip. And, of course, Germantown is known for its historic and accessible housing stock, though its affordability to the young and creative is quickly fading. So, yes, Deer Park sits nestled right in the crux of these two neighborhoods that do get lots of attention. We chose it for a couple of reasons including the fact the afford mentioned fact that its a historic Louisville neighborhood. I’ll start with that; as we’ve matured as a business we’ve come to discover that we just like neighborhoods. We especially like slightly obscure neighborhoods where people actually live. This is especially apparent in our Preston as well as our Beechmont locations. I don’t mean to say that other people aren’t living ‘actual’ lives. . . they are. . . but I’m talking about that kind of living the arrives on the boarder of mystifying college debt realization a little baby spit-up.
We also chose it for the building; it’s just interesting. Brian and I, from the beginning of our friendship some seventeen years ago now, have always loved repurposing a thing. Once this was toaster and Dutch ovens converted into home coffee roasters and has moved on to include a few more complicated things like building and stuff. Along with repurposing, we like an admirable aesthetic. This is something true of our whole team. It’s often something intangible about a place, space, or structure, but you know it when you see it and this location was exactly that for us. One glance and everyone on the team was a exclamatory “Yes!”. That warm fuzzy feeling that turns into a stomach ache when you start lease negotiations and paying for renovations. Lastly, and this is kind of boring, but its accessibility drew us to it. The cross streets where it sits are Speed Ave. and Norris Place. Speed connects Bardstown Rd. and Newburg Rd. While Norris Pl. is the neighborhood capillary you want to take to avoid the traffic on both. Boring but legit. So to sum up, the neighborhood, the aesthetic, and the access all drew us here.
Your three other cafés each feel like expressions of their unique communities. How did you approach designing the café on Norris?
We have a pretty long value statement that moves from the most sharable value to the least. The first of these is “we value people” and nearly last is “we value place.” When we say we value ‘place’ we’re talking about that synthesis of many factors that make it fitting, apt, and integral. It’s its own thing and it’s a part necessary and belonging. To do that at Norris took some time and painters tape. Whenever we go into a space that’s not yet what it’s going to be we just go and imagine, discuss, reimagine, and generally act it out. What I mean by this is we walk through, repeatedly, like a customer and like a barista. We walk through one door and think about sight lines and natural movement through the space and then we do it again and again. We talk about orientation of furniture and how the placement and height of something as simple as a two top can totally change the function and flow. We do this as a Lead Team, who all give their opinions. Sometimes we have great ideas and sometime they’re just stupid. Fortunately we weed out the stupid ones but only after we laugh and make fun (all in love). Then we break out the painters tape. With tape we lay out the whole shop to get a feel. Tape on the floor and tape on the walls. Lots of tape. Then we draw, or have someone draw. In this case, and for the first time, we got the help of a draftsman as well as Billie Bradford, a local furniture maker who designed a lot of our cabinets. We don’t worry too much about furnishings until the end. We tend to hold the opinion that if something is made good and stout, and we like it then others will too.
Another major, and almost more important factor here is the people. We like people and, honestly, as well as we might engage in a process to prepare a place it’s the people that fill it and make it a unique expression. This is a combination of the people who work it like managers and baristas and the people who make it a part of their place; one that is fitting to them and one where they are a part necessary and belonging.
For the gearheads amongst us, what equipment did you stock the bar with?
Synesso MVP Hydra, Mahlkonig Peak (x2), Baratza Forté, Mahlkonig EK43, and Fetco 2132XTS.
What’s been the community reaction so far?
In every way welcoming. Deer Park Neighborhood, Bellarmine University, Highland Middle School, all of them have been incredibly supportive.
All photos by Jay Keywood, courtesy of Sunergos Coffee. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
(Full disclosure: Coffee Compass cofounder Darren Jennings worked at Sunergos as a barista, many moons ago.)