The buildup: I’d joked with a barista friend once that we needed to convince the owners of Rustico and Tallula to open a coffee shop. The former has one of the best beer lists in the DC area and the latter is great for wine. Both serve delicious cuisine and have fun, warm atmospheres. Big budgets, too. Who better to create an awesome coffee shop?

So I guess I should have put one and one together when I noticed the coffee house under construction next door to Rustico a few months ago. As Amanda at Metrocurean reports:

Neighborhood Restaurant Group, the parent company of Evening Star Café, Vermilion, Tallula and Rustico, will open Buzz, a 35-seat bakery, coffee house and dessert lounge located at 901 Slaters Lane in Alexandria’s Potomac Plaza. Pastry chef Lisa Scruggs will oversee the menu, which will offer cupcakes, housemade doughnuts, and pies and cakes in two sizes (eight inch and mini four inch). Also in the plans: “drinkable desserts,” including at least 20 wines by the glass, digestifs and after-dinner cocktails, and savory items like a brioche muffin filled with eggs, bacon and cheese. Hours will run from 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week.

Sweet! Exciting news. Northern Virginia needs a late night coffee place and I’m sure the pastries and desserts will be wonderful. But the big question for me is, how is the coffee going to taste? If the owners apply the same refined selectiveness to beans as they’ve done for wine and beer, Buzz could become the new coffee house standard in the DC area for getting everything right. Or they could take the route of so many other high end restaurants and treat coffee as a neglected afterthought.

The letdown: As I was in the neighborhood for a meeting tonight anyway, I decided to drop by and check the place out. Finally some of the brown paper had been stripped from the windows and two big banners explained a bit about Buzz. One banner was about the pastry chefs, who sound very talented. I can’t wait to try out their stuff. The second banner was about the coffee.

It’s Illy.

Yikes! I mean, Illy’s good enough, but that’s such a missed opportunity for this place. Coffee is a perishable good; freshness matters. Illy advertises that its packing methods can preserve coffee for over two years. But why deal with that when there are so many outstanding American roasters who can deliver within a day or two after roasting? Roasters who make espresso blends of remarkable complexity and sweetness along with a wide variety of truly excellent single origin coffees. Serving just Illy at Buzz would be like serving just Stella Artois at Rustico. It’s ok, but why stop there when there’s so much more to be experienced in the world of coffee?

Buzz could have instead gone with a high-quality roaster based in the US. Counter Culture is the obvious choice, but if they’re already too popular in DC, Intelligientsia, Batdorf and Bronson, Zoka, Terroir, or any of the other big names in American specialty coffee would be good options. Any one of them could provide Buzz with a great espresso blend, interesting single origins to serve as drip coffee or paired with desserts in a French press, and consulation on how to prepare everything correctly. Or Buzz could have offered seasonal selections from a variety of providers, offering a constantly rotating glimpse of the best specialty coffee has to offer. Instead they’re giving us something blah and boring, the same brew served at every other restaurant in the United States.

It all comes down to the common view of coffee in the culinary world as something simple and easy. “It’s only coffee.” If the brains behind Buzz had tried some fresh, properly prepared American blends next to Illy, I really doubt they would have made the choice they did.

I’m still glad to see Buzz opening. I’ll go occasionally because it’s in Virginia, open late, wi-fi enabled, and offers what I expect will be great desserts and pastries. And it’s conveniently close to Rustico. I bet it’s close to perfection. But I don’t think I’ll ever be excited about the coffee.

Perhaps the tea will be good?


4 thoughts on “Buzzkill”

  1. good thing you left the meeting to write this! of course i’m just giving you a hard time, but you really did miss out on some AMAZING coin work- some of the best stuff i’ve ever seen… everyone in the room was ooohing and aaahing and gasping like laymen- it was awesome.

    as you know, i’m not a coffee drinker but (and this story may only be interesting to me) what stands out to me is the name Buzz because i used to be an administrative assistant to a man named Craig Muzeroll who decided to stop what he was doing and move to australia to start up a drive-through coffee stand because he had done some research and at the time, there was no such thing over there. he invited me to move with him to be his assistant there, as he was impressed with my abilities in that dept but i turned it down as my life was headed in a different direction. i did, however, help him with all of the start-up work that could be completed state-side. he called the place “MuzzBuzz Coffee” and from what i understand, it was a big hit- he is the new starbucks basically (which i know true coffee lovers hate) and is making major bank… you can’t even reach him anymore as he’s just the “big man on top” and you would have to go through many channels to do so… so basically i would be very rich right now, but i’d also be living down under.

  2. As a frequent visitor to your area (and murky coffee enthusiast), it’s good to hear of more people trying to advance coffee culture in the Mid Atlantic.

    Illy may not be the best coffee going. But for a shop opening up, it’s a name and a brand that people recognize. And it’s certainly not offered at “every other restaurant in the United States”. If that were the case, after-dinner coffee would at minimum be enjoyable, and might occasionally be delightful.

    I doubt few outside the true geeks really know/care that Nick Cho serves Counter Culture at murky. Or that we here in Pittsburgh serve Intelly. Neither offers much in the way of point of purchase marketing tools or marketing outside the coffee geek community. Illy is advertisted heavily and has considerable currency with the food community.

    Illy is what Thomas Keller uses (much to the chagrin of many). Foodies know and understand the importance of that connection.

    So maybe what they’re using isn’t perfect. But it could be worse. At least Illy has science and the technique they can share.

    If the grinders and espresso maker are top shelf – and the bar talent is trained appropriately – they can still serve a pretty good cup – better than the major chains.

    Lastly, we’re extremely jealous that such a concept is available to you. Not so here in PA where there is no such thing as a limited license and any liquor license can run north of $50K, putting it out of reach to coffeehouse owners.

  3. Hi Rich,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I agree that using one of the roasters we geeks love doesn’t offer much in the way of marketing the way Illy does, at least before customers get into the door. But it’s been my experience that customers do respond to quality single origin coffees if they’re presented properly. That’s where I think Buzz is missing out more than on the appeal of having an elite roaster.

    If it were most any other restaurant group taking on this venture, I wouldn’t have minded so much. But these guys have a history of being great with drinks. Rustico, the beer restaurant next door, offers 30 taps, well over a hundred bottles, and a rotating real cask ale. Their customers are used to being adventurous and exploring a wide variety of offerings and the staff there is used to helping them navigate such a huge menu. Keeping track of a few single origins at a time seems relatively easy. So for them to take the rather unadventurous path of serving Illy when they get into the coffee business is a lot more disappointing than when other people do it.

    I couldn’t tell from my glance inside what kind of equipment they’ll be using. But I’m with you, I hope they’ll invest in the training and equipment necessary to coax the best from their coffee.

    And yeah, I’m happy to have this kind of option available, too. I love being able to have coffee, wine, beer, and sometimes spirits all under the same roof. I wish the licensing made this easier for more establishments.

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