Combining precision-made coffee drinks and a warm and fuzzy approach to customers, Velvet Robot Coffee Lab has opened a brick-and-mortar cafe in downtown Rockford, Illinois.
Justin Carner and a roasting partner launched the Velvet Robot brand in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2017 when they saw a demand for cold brew at a local farmers market. They set up a booth and built a following for their cold brew before Carner in 2019 moved back to his home city of Rockford, splitting the business into two, and launched as a vendor at the Rockford City Market.
Over this past summer, Carner not only seized an opportunity to move into a permanent space within the market building, but also started roasting for the company on the Diedrich machine owned by Five & Hoek Coffee in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton. Velvet Robot now smoothly beeps and boops out drinks using house roasted beans, a Rancilio espresso machine, Bunn batch brewer and commercial refrigerators.
The eclectic, cyberpunk-themed shop features a bar made from recycled particle board with a twisted white neon light above the register. Local art hangs on the walls, and two hand-shaped chairs flank an antique rabbit-eared antenna TV by the front window.
“I don’t like bare white walls,” Carner recently told Daily Coffee News. “I don’t go for the minimalist vision. I want fun, creative things packed in the cafe — and local art for sale… We just want to create a vibe and let you experience it.”
The menu at Velvet Robot features traditional espresso-based drinks along with a broad range of specialty drinks. Specialty drinks have so far included a cereal milk latte, and during the holiday season, an alcohol-decked latte called Bad Santa. Recently the shop unveiled the Black Mamba, a cold brew served over a double shot of espresso, named to honor NBA great Kobe Bryant.
“I feel like in coffee you have to make a choice to be the really fancy shop with 20-minute pourovers, or you can be like Starbucks with no quality and amazing customer service,” Carner said. “We thought to ourselves, ‘Why not both?’ We can still do amazing pourovers, do latte art… and still be nice to customers.”
Expanding beyond typical coffee shop fare, Velvet Robot features a food menu inspired by Carner’s father, a former chef. Current offerings include bagels, scratch-made breakfasts and bowls, and sandwiches including the Tommy Boy (turkey, bacon, avocado, Swiss cheese and Dijon on a wheat panini) and Mezy’s Bangin Brisket (with crispy onions, American cheese, BBQ sauce and chipotle aioli).
“I want customers to enjoy a good cup of coffee, the way they want it,” said Carner. “And I want them to also have a badass meal with it, too.”
Carner said that whether it’s food, drink or human interactions, the Velvet Robot is programmed to deliver quality and approachability across the board.
“People who come into the shop are guests, not customers,” said Carner. “We aren’t trying to be cool. We just want to be a little weird and do different stuff. Guests walk in and they should feel welcomed.”
Velvet Robot Coffee Lab is located at 116 N Madison St. in Rockford, Illinois.
Craig Batory is a writer, marketer and coffee professional working and living in Detroit.