It's been a tough go for Connecticut's capital city, tougher than usual, but that hasn't stopped three hopeful young entrepreneurs with a dream of creating the perfect coffee shop.
The January weather was unseasonably warm, pleasant even, but it was Sunday morning, and Hartford still had that windy, vacant vibe one comes to expect from Connecticut's capital city during off hours, or any hours really, depending on where you are standing. I was on Capitol Avenue, looking for Story & Soil, a new coffee shop that the locals can't stop talking about.
The block where this new shop was supposedly making its considerable mark happens to be just a short walk from the sprawling Aetna campus; it is home to a long abandoned, commercial building that was just recently underwent an impressive residential conversion. It is a terrific block for a coffee shop, really, even more so since Aetna's new corporate parent, CVS, put the kibosh on much-publicized plans to relocate headquarters from the already ailing city.
Better still, this stretch of Capitol Avenue also happens to fall within the boundaries of Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood, a place where you are increasingly likely to find people attempting to do ambitious things. Already here is Firebox, a very good farm-to-table restaurant, tucked into a historic industrial campus that also houses a casual café doubling as a job-training program. In season, the campus hosts a popular farmers market; around the corner, back on Capitol Avenue, you will find Little River Restoratives, a serious bar with properly vintage cocktails. All of these things are a very nice compliment to the neighborhood's main commercial drag, Park Street, a working-class strip overstuffed with interesting restaurants, from the classic Bean Pot to the excellent El Mercado, where counter-service joints serve up food from all around Latin America. Frog Hollow might be one of the most stubbornly low-income neighborhoods in a very poor city, but it is also a very interesting neighborhood, a curious blend of the old and new. It is a place worth knowing, and it certainly feels like a place worth gambling on.
I was expecting a measure of quiet at Story & Soil (the name will be familiar to Bright Eyes fans, and leave everyone else scratching their heads, just a little). Walking toward the diminutive shop, tucked into a commercial space at the corner of a nicely kept residential building, I noticed, from all sides, groups of people coming toward me, which is not something you expect on a Sunday morning in Hartford. Turned out, we were all heading to the same place.
It was something of a miracle that everyone fit in the door—the café couldn't have been more than 500 square feet, total. Also, it was already full of other people, but this didn't really matter—the high ceilings, the mellow, but warm welcome, a shiny La Marzocco Strada spitting and steaming, the naked Edison bulbs, the happy crowd, half of whom seemed at least marginally familiar with the other half, all added up to a winning combination.
Even if I had to stand in a corner (I actually did), this felt like the place to be. Story & Soil isn't just a great thing to happen to Hartford—this is a great coffee shop, period, and not one laptop in sight. They're a multi-roaster operation, which is so fashionable now—the day I went in, there were beans from Giv Coffee, out in nearby Canton, along with that other great New England boutique brand, Little Wolf, up in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Everything about this place was just right, just so—a coffee snob's dream come true. Who, exactly, was running this place?
Sarah McCoy is originally from Hartford's suburbs; when I caught up with her a couple of days later, she freely admitted that, like a lot of people growing up around here, she never spent much time in the city, never knew much about it. McCoy, who co-owns the shop with her husband Michael McCoy, and their partner, Michael Acosta, did the typical thing—got married, bought a house in the suburbs. Sarah, who has a master's degree in counseling, worked as a freelance photographer. Her husband had a teaching job in Hartford. Then, their young daughter got into a magnet school in the city—suddenly, both parents were making the trip into town every day.
Eventually, Sarah began taking notice of the good things that were going on in a city she'd spent much of her life around, but never knew very well. One day, the McCoy's attended an event, held downtown at Hartford Prints, a letterpress shop that doubles as sort of a booster club for the city, selling t-shirts and various ephemera designed to encourage pride in Hartford. There, they met some great people, doing great things, and went home inspired.
"We were just awakened to a community in the city that we didn't know anything about," says McCoy.
Fairly quickly, the decision was made—they were moving to town. The McCoy's found a home in the Asylum Hill neighborhood, just on the other side of the Aetna campus, home to one of Hartford's best-known attractions, the Mark Twain House & Museum. (In other cities, Asylum Hill would be considered a highly desirable neighborhood, with its trove of historic residential stock, within walking distance of the downtown business district. In Hartford, it still has to beg to be noticed.) Moving to town, however, was just the beginning.
"We knew we wanted to do something, in the community, and for the community. We'd been talking about an independent bookstore, or an ice cream shop, both of which are really needed in Hartford. And then we settled on coffee. When we found the space [on Capitol], it just felt like, that's where we should be." Before long, there they were, going for it.
"This was our first business, and our first venture into the world of coffee—we had two small children, and it was probably more than we could bite off on our own. So on a whim, I called Michael Acosta, who I'd met at a local farmers market; he has a degree in neuroscience and philosophy, but was running a mobile coffee cart at the time. We met for a drink around the corner, at Little River, and we talked a lot about why we love the city, and why we stay here. Within a week of knowing each other, we decided to put a deposit down on the space. That was a year and a half ago."
The shop opened last summer. Traffic is good, McCoy says, as good if not better than they'd actually expected. The going hasn't necessarily been easy—two days before they opened, the city changed the parking rules for their block, banning all stops during the morning and evening rush hours, a decision they backed down from, but only months later. Shortly before Christmas, someone broke into more than one of the storefronts along the block—one business owner was so disheartened by the event, they chose to abandon ship. In the case of the McCoy's and Acosta, it only made them believe even more in the work that they were doing here.
"The first day, we realized that they took a box of odds and ends, including our coffee filters—Firebox ran some of theirs over for us to use. Hartford Prints gave us a register, another business replaced the supply of chocolate that had been stolen," McCoy recalls. "We have great community support here."
Tough to swallow, for sure, and that was far from the only major obstacle they've had to overcome; long before they even opened, they got turned down for a business loan, because the bank was concerned that there was a Dunkin' Donuts nearby.
"We were like, we're in Connecticut, there's always a Dunkin' Donuts nearby," laughs McCoy. "We've definitely had to overcome certain mindsets—people don't get it, they don't understand the pricing, but overall, we're in a good place. We don't feel like we're done growing, but we're getting there. We see new people coming in all the time. Every day, we have someone from somewhere else, whether it's Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, The Bay Area—they are always really appreciative of what we're doing. It warms my heart to see people enjoying Hartford. "