By MeLinda Schnyder
On a fall morning about 14 years ago, my job handling public relations for a local non-profit had me picking up a reality television celebrity at the airport and driving her to a speaking engagement on the far east side of Wichita. She was friendly and seemed genuinely happy to be visiting our city for the first time, but she had a big-city craving that I wasn’t sure our town could satisfy. She wanted a hot, caffeinated beverage to get her voice and her brain ready for the stage, and she didn’t want a coffeehouse chain.
As I drove east, I began racking my brain on where I could take her. Remember, this was before Yelp so I couldn’t crowdsource destinations. Then I remembered all the times I had passed Il Primo, tucked in a strip mall at Central and Woodlawn. I knew nothing about their product but I was pretty certain they were locally owned.
We popped in and she got what she was looking for: a premium espresso drink made exactly the way she wanted and good conversation with the baristas. She asked about the roast’s flavor profile and the preparation methods, and we both learned that Il Primo opened in 1993 as Wichita’s first specialty coffee shop.
If I were faced with that same scenario today, I would have a tougher decision. Locally owned specialty coffee shops – including two that roast their own beans – can now be found across Wichita and they each seem to offer a different experience.
On the west side, I could stop at Ecclesia Coffee, which serves handcrafted drinks featuring PT’s Coffee, a roaster in Topeka. There is also Verita Coffee Co. that opened a café in 2015 and earlier this year started roasting its own beans. Verita has developed a following with signature drinks like root beer latte made with Kansas’ Hildebrand Farms dairy and chai latte mixed with the owners’ custom spice blend. Another west-side option is Twisted Java Coffee Bar, which has a huge menu of classic coffee drinks as well as creations like the Twisted Shocker, made with orange juice and espresso.
On the east side, Il Primo is still in its original spot and loyal customers continue to come in or drive through for Panache brand coffee and David Rio brand chai. Cocoa Dolce Artisan Chocolates loves to pair Reverie Coffee Roasters brew with chocolate to make mochas and other drinks at the full-service coffee bar inside its Bradley Fair retail store.
Churn & Burn is an outlier in location and concept. Located on South Oliver just off Kellogg, they make their own ice cream (churn) and serve locally roasted coffee (burn) individually but their namesake that combines the two is their best-seller. It’s made by pouring a shot of freshly steamed espresso into their liquid cream base (vanilla with syrups and mix-ins available) then freezing the combination in 30 to 40 seconds using liquid nitrogen to create the creamy treat. They also offer a hot version. They use Verita’s light roast and get their dark roast and high-caffeine blends from The Spice Merchant, a 37-year-old local institution that roasts about 100,000 pounds of beans each year.
In Riverside, R Coffee House has become an anytime-of-day destination for locals and out-of-towners. They like to highlight single-origin coffees roasted by PT’s Coffee and they use PT’s signature blend to craft specialty lattes like The Mexican, spiked with vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, honey, almond and brown sugar.
Downtown, Mead’s Corner bills itself as a faith-based fair trade coffeehouse. Espresso To Go Go has two locations less than a mile from one another. Often referred to as the one with the disco ball and the one with the unicorn, they serve coffee from The Spice Merchant. They constantly invent drinks and consequently their non-traditional “secret menu” is now bigger than their posted menu.
Just east of downtown in the Douglas Design District, The Donut Whole has a full-service coffee bar with three signature blends – smooth, bold and espresso – from The Spice Merchant. A little further east on Douglas is Reverie Coffee Roasters, which earlier this fall won a bronze medal among national roasters for its Boneshaker Espresso. Next to its roasting den, Reverie has a small retail space and a café selling drip, pour overs, espresso, cold brew and more.
Celebrity chef Alton Brown visited Reverie and Espresso To Go Go while he was in Wichita in 2014. He included both on his national list of favorite coffee stops that year and revisited them last month while performing at the Orpheum Theatre. This time, he posted photos on social media showing the two espresso drinks he ordered at Reverie and calling Espresso To Go Go “my Wichita happy place.”
Reverie and Espresso To Go Go both opened in 2013 and both have owners who were inspired to create coffee experiences they couldn’t find in Wichita. Andrew Gough, Reverie’s owner, wanted an approach to roasting that nobody offered. Ann and Warren Tandoc, Espresso To Go Go owners, wanted innovative coffee drinks served professionally and efficiently.
“People are desiring better experiences and that means creating unique businesses to offer those experiences,” Gough said.
That also explains the surge in craft breweries in Wichita, where the experiences can include talking directly to the brewers about what’s in a beer and how it’s made or sampling a steady stream of new brews.
River City Brewing Co. opened in Old Town in 1993. All of Wichita’s other brewers have opened this decade, including brewpub Wichita Brewing Co. and Pizzeria and taprooms at Central Standard Brewing, Hopping Gnome and Aero Plains Brewing, which opened last month in Delano.
Those working in each industry say the boom in coffeehouses and breweries can be attributed to Wichita catching up in two areas where the city is trailing national trends.
“We are soon to have seven breweries and Wichita is still underserved,” said Greg Gifford, co-owner of Wichita Brewing Co. and Pizzeria. “Competition in this business is good. It makes everybody better and makes us all work harder to keep things fresh and new.”
Wichita Brewing opened its west location in 2011 and an east location in 2015. Both locations serve wood-fired pizzas, house-made cream soda and root beer and have full bars in addition to brewing beer on-site. They have 16 different beers on tap, including their flagship eight plus rotating selections. Their seasonal Yumpkin Pumpkin won the King of October Brew title at the inaugural ICT Bloktoberfest last month. It is served with a spiced rim of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, all spice and white and brown sugar.
Central Standard Brewing is a taproom serving only beer and its house-made sangria. CSB typically has eight beers tapped in a range of styles, including one or two sour beers – a niche they’ve had fun experimenting with and introducing to customers since opening in 2015 near Douglas and Hydraulic.
Last month, Central Standard Brewing’s Standard Issue, an oak-fermented tart beer, won the silver medal in the “Other Belgian-Style Ale” category at the 30th annual Great American Beer Festival, the world’s largest commercial beer competition. They were the only Kansas brewer to medal this year and it’s believed to be the first for a Wichita brewery.
Most importantly, owners said, is that Wichita’s interest in craft beer has far exceeded their first-year expectations. They envisioned half of their sales would be to bars and restaurants but about 95 percent have come from individuals visiting their taproom, a indoor-outdoor space with the vibe of being in a friend’s living room or backyard.
“Wichita loves good, local beer. We get experienced beer drinkers and we get first-timers who are new to craft beer, even wine drinkers who think they won’t like beer. We coach them through the different styles we offer and educate them on what’s in our beer, how it’s made,” said Ian Crane, co-founder and brewer. “People love coming to the source, they love having this experience in Wichita.”