When the Blue Star Cafe opens in early February, customers will be able to recline on a sofa while sipping steaming cups of cafe mocha, or surf the web on their laptops via free wi-fi while snacking on grilled panini. If they drop by in the evening, they might order a cheese plate or a light entree with a $25 bottle of wine to sip under the ambient blue lights. Or maybe pick up a bag of Fair Trade Nicaraguan Segovia coffee beans to go, roasted right there in the basement.
Yep, coffee and wine snobs, take note: A new gourmet purveyor is on its way -- to Winooski.
It's been years since a new business opened in the center of the Onion City; construction recently drove several establishments out. Though city officials celebrated the "grand opening" of the renovated downtown in November, there have been few signs of new life. Now it looks like Blue Star will be the first.
But, like the new buildings that dwarf the city, Blue Star will likely stick out in the working-class burg more famous for dive bars than for haute cuisine. "It's ahead of its time for Winooski, that's safe to say," observes owner Matt Sutte. "But I'm quite sure Winooski can grow into it."
Sutte, 30, co-owns South Burlington music venue Higher Ground and was an active partner when the nightclub was located in a nearby Winooski strip mall; he was Higher Ground's hospitality manager for six years.
One day, before the club was demolished, he was talking to a friend about what to do next. "I said, 'There's got to be something cool to put in here for this renovation project,'" he recalls.
Sutte started working on a plan to bring a coffeehouse to the city two years ago, before the redevelopment construction even began. He negotiated with the owners of a former bridal shop -- in the Hansen Block on Main Street, next to the post office -- and had an architect draw up plans. He even dropped 25 grand on a touch-screen-controlled Diedrich coffee roaster.
But the plans fell through at the last minute. Sutte put the roaster in storage in Williston. "I used to go visit it there," he says, a trace of longing in his voice.
Last fall, Sutte secured Blue Star's current space on Main Street, on the same block as the Monkey House bar and Sneakers Bistro. He recently moved the coffee roaster into the basement. Soon customers will be able to walk in the front door and see it through a glass panel inlaid into the smooth bamboo floor in front of the counter.
Though the cafe hasn't yet opened, Sutte is already roasting and selling coffee through the website for his American Roasting Company. Gray bins full of green beans line a wall in the basement. Once the beans have been roasted, Sutte and his employees sort them into bags that are stored on metal shelves near the stairs. Their varieties include the sweet and extremely rare, organic, washed Himalayan; the Sumatra Mandheling GR-1, which is described as "bittersweet"; and the Blue Mountain Peaberry from Jamaica, which yields a smooth, chocolate-y cup o' joe and retails for $44.95 a pound.
Upstairs, meanwhile, construction is still underway. You can hardly carry on a conversation over the whine of a circular saw and the popping of a nail gun as carpenters build Blue Star's booths. Most of the work is already done - the floor and trim has been installed, and the blue track lighting works. The bar's smooth concrete countertop has been poured. "They're all the rage out West," Sutte says.
Swinging, saloon-style doors separate the main room from the kitchen. Chef Jake Rockefeller, formerly of Burlington's high-end Italian restaurant Trattoria Delia, is putting the finishing touches on his breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. Small glass panels inserted into the exposed bricks along two walls are filled with coffee beans in various stages of the roasting process. Even without the furniture, the space exudes an urban attitude.
But General Manager William Siebert promises he won't just cater to the gentrified hipster crowd. A native Vermonter with family in Colchester, Siebert spent more than a decade working in restaurants and hotels in Europe. Like many old-time Winooski residents, he speaks fluent French.
He takes a break from dealing with a long line of food and equipment vendors to talk about his customer base. Siebert predicts that the cafe will appeal to many who use Winooski as a bedroom community, and will draw students from the new University of Vermont housing under construction in Spinner Place, just across the roundabout. But he's also conscious of the need to appeal beyond that market.
"There's not anything snobby about this place," Siebert insists. "As fancy as it may look, we're trying to please a wide spectrum of people."
That philosophy is on display at Higher Ground one afternoon, during the final Blue Star wine tasting. Sutte and Siebert are still deciding what to serve. They've invited Rockefeller and coffee manager Michelle DeAngelis, along with two Higher Ground employees, to offer feedback. These twentysomethings, say Sutte and Siebert, represent an important part of their clientele, both because they're young and because most of them don't know much about wine.
Rockefeller calls out the fruit he tastes -- "plum," he says after a sip of one dessert wine, "and very heavy black cherry." DeAngelis fills her comment sheet with colorful but unconventional reactions. "Dis-gus-ting," she writes about one wine. About another, a zinfandel, she writes, "really smooth. Slightly stankin'."
"Stanky, to me, is like the smell of a smelly cheese," she explains. "I don't like smelly cheese."
Siebert notes that most of the wine being tasted today would sell for $8 to $10 a glass. But some, such as the La Terra Cellar Chardonnay, might go for as little as $3. Around the corner at Papa Frank's, wine is $3.25 a glass, plus tax.
If Blue Star still seems a little rich for Winooski's blood, it probably won't be for long. Community Development Director J. Ladd notes that, since completion of Phase I in the downtown redevelopment, several businesses have expressed interest in the city's vacant storefronts. No doubt some will cater to Winooski's anticipated student population.
In a few months, Blue Star won't even be the only coffeehouse in town. In late March, Jonathan Guy hopes to open the Vanilla Bean, a coffeehouse and ice cream joint at the west end of the Winooski Block, on the corner of Main and East Allen streets. Guy has already begun renovating the space, last occupied by the Vermont Sandwich Company. The atmosphere he hopes to cultivate, he says, is "urban and trendy, but with a Vermont feel."
In some ways, Guy will be competing with his neighbors down the street. But that doesn't worry him. "I think there's plenty of opportunity for everybody," he says.
Sutte shares that vision of Winooski's future. "In two years," he predicts, "this place will be hoppin'."