Ten years after hatching onto the coffee scene of Grand Rapids, Mich., Sparrows Coffee Tea & Newsstand is finally spreading its wings. The longstanding café is preparing to open its own roastery this summer, attached to what will be the company’s second retail location.
With a Diedrich IR7 waiting to go live, owner Lori Slager Wenzel has brought on board recent West Coast transplant Julia Lancer to head up sourcing and roasting. Lancer is a former manager of San Francisco-based Ritual Coffee Roasters‘ original Valencia Street café that later cut her roasting teeth at Oakland, Calif.-based wholesaler RoastCo. It was Lancer who approached Wenzel with the opportunity to purchase the Diedrich from RoastCo, who, it turns out, actually purchased it from Ritual green buyer Steve Ford. So not only has Lancer roasted on that very machine before, but she has access to its records dating back for at least a decade.
The new Sparrows café will be about the same size as the original — roughly 900 square feet — and will feature a classic 2-group La Marzocco Linea backed by Mahlkonig grinders. A Mahlkonig Guatemala lab grinder will assist for batch and manual brews, the latter of which will be performed using Kalita filters on Manual Coffeemakers. Cupping, roasting and the rest of production will be visible but separated from the café either by a wall or other yet-to-be-determined barrier, while at the front of the house, the company won’t be turning the page completely. Newspapers and periodicals will be available.
Lancer is currently sample-roasting and establishing a repertoire of profiles using a Quest M3 sample roaster prior to sourcing larger quantities through Red Fox Coffee Merchants, Coffee Shrub and Café Imports, with perhaps an occasional “more precious” small-bag offering from La Bodega.
“I don’t have the most adventurous palate, but I do know what’s good and I do know what I like. Going along with maintaining consistency within origin, related to elevation, terroir, processing—that goes along with my palate,” Lancer told Daily Coffee News, admitting that she is a transplant to Grand Rapids with a characteristically West Coast palate. “I use my roast profile to find a little bit of wiggle room between what I like and what the customer will expect.”
Lancer’s aim is to reconcile the “grassy, tight, under-developed” style with which she was acquainted out west with a more fully-developed take that meets Midwest tastes halfway. “I’m willing to go a little darker, just so that the coffee’s more approachable,” said Lancer, noting, “I’m not the only one drinking the coffee.”
For her part, Wenzel is happy to grant Lancer complete autonomy as Sparrows takes flight, while she will focus on some of the businesses’ other immediate goals, including expanding a wholesale business that Wenzel said has already attracted an encouraging amount of interest from other businesses in the area that are familiar with Sparrows from 10 years of service in the city.
“Once you own a café, it’s hard to take time to go and learn how to roast. It’s pretty demanding,” Wenzel said, adding that she hopes to learn as much as she can without stepping on any toes. “I like giving Julia complete freedom and control over the roasting program. But I want her to teach me everything.”
Pending approvals from the city, the new Sparrows roastery café will open in late June at 442 Bridge Street NW.