Groundswell evolves in Midway

The coffee shop transforms into a community catchall

Groundswell evolves in Midway

"Throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks" is not generally an approach that an investor, consultant, or loan officer would advise you to put in your business plan, but so far it seems to be working for Seth McCoy. He's the co-owner of Groundswell, an inviting little coffee shop in the Midway neighborhood that has recently evolved into a casual cafe serving light lunch, happy hour, family-friendly weekend brunch, chef-driven dinner specials, and particularly outstanding house-made bakery items. He and partner Tim Gilbert have been running Groundswell together since December 2009 when they decided, on a whim, to buy the failing business.

"I lived around the corner from the place, and it was just too sad to see it go. I have a lot of talented, creative friends, and we thought, 'How hard could it be to run a coffee shop, right?'" laughs McCoy.

The first thing they changed was the source of the coffee itself. McCoy adopted a more European approach to coffee service, which he summarizes as "fewer flavors and extras, more time and energy." Dogwood Coffee, with its emphasis on high-quality, single-cup brewing, was a natural partner for Groundswell.

Coffee and then some: Groundswell owner Seth McCoy with a beer and a veggie flatbread
Benjamin Carter Grimes for City Pages
Coffee and then some: Groundswell owner Seth McCoy with a beer and a veggie flatbread

Details

GROUNDSWELL
1340 Thomas Ave., St. Paul
651-645-6466; groundswellmn.com
menu items $3-13; bakery items $2.50-$4.75

Still, McCoy didn't want to go full-on minimalist with the shop.

"I think limiting the clutter is great, but there is a line that gets crossed where it starts to feel cold," he reasons. "We were always meant to be a neighborhood place, so while we are about simplicity, we still try to include a lot of art and warmth in everything we do."

Much like Parka's shared space with Forage in Longfellow, Groundswell has an attached-but-separate retail partner called Artizan. The store is managed and curated by local artist Jessie James, and supplies the local artwork displayed in Groundswell's dining room. Groundswell expanded its operation significantly at the end of 2012, when their crafty next-door neighbor Borealis Yarns went out of business.

"That presented a great opportunity for us, but we also knew it was going to be a huge challenge," says McCoy. "Customers from Borealis made up probably 10 to 15 percent of our daily business, and without adding some other components, we were afraid we might not stay afloat."

One of those components, McCoy's attempt to boost evening business, was booze. "When we started our build-out, I had to think of other things besides coffee that people really gather around. Serving beer and wine was a good business decision, plus I figured that was like the evening version of coffee. I liked the idea that someone could come in and get a cinnamon roll and coffee in the morning and then a taco and a beer after work."

Those tacos, by the way, come stuffed full of chorizo sausage, or spicy tempeh for those who don't dig meat. They are then topped with chunks of creamy avocado, a smoky cabbage slaw, and a little cilantro-lime vinaigrette. It makes for a filling, yet somehow still light meal, and for only $3 by itself or $5 during happy hour with a pint of beer, the taco also makes for a cheap date. As for that pint of beer, Groundswell currently has on tap selections from Bad Weather, Rush River, Indeed, and Fulton.

And let's not neglect to mention the cinnamon rolls. The cinnamon rolls! Baking expertise is evident in these dense, sticky-sweet, Chai-scented, cardamom-iced treats, something that McCoy knew he could not pull off on his own.

"I knew even before we started doing everything else that the bakery would be a super key piece," he says. "You have to have good pastries at a good coffee shop." To that end, McCoy enlisted Megan Greulich, owner of a small wedding and occasion-cake business called Consider a Cake. What Greulich came up with was a selection of vegan, gluten-free, and full-fat, full-carb, full-on-flavorful baked goods. Standouts and best-sellers include a savory bacon, rosemary, and Gruyere scone; a wild rice cookie with almond icing; and her signature cupcakes.

"Megan could have gone any direction with dessert, but we really felt the format that worked best in this context was cupcakes. They highlight all the good things about her larger scale cakes: texture, layers, fillings, and decoration," McCoy gushes. He knows he's got a good thing going there.

Chef Johnny Becker is handling the rest of the menu, which includes handmade cornmeal-dusted flatbreads, a tempeh Reuben with a dynamite Sriracha-laced Russian dressing, and distinctively decadent, Southern brunch dishes. McCoy convinced Becker to re-locate from Asheville, North Carolina, where Becker had started an artisan cream cheese company, Dream Cream. "I think of Johnny's style as Southern with a little nouveau Mexican thrown in for good measure," says McCoy.

Lovely, creamy guacamole; piquant, smooth house-made salsa; and the super rich biscuits and gravy are all a testament to McCoy's assessment. The last starts with one of the aforementioned bacon Gruyere scones, which is then topped with a hearty helping of slightly spicy, sausage-laden country gravy, and finished with a crisscross of bacon slices. There are relics of Becker's Dream Cream at Groundswell. For example, the killer buttermilk waffle sandwich is layered with his own pecan cream cheese, sweet fig and apple jam, candied bacon, and a drizzle of maple syrup.

Though flavors were really well-established in all the dinner entrees, some items we ordered seemed to have spent a little too long on the flattop. The house-made quinoa and black bean burger had a nutty texture and a nice amount of Southwestern spice, but the patty was blackened to a crisp. A blue-plate special of American meatloaf and gravy with crisp smashed fingerling potatoes was generously portioned and fully comforting, but the slab had to be deconstructed a bit to get past the too-crunchy outer layer and into the more tender middle. No one had any complaints about the spicy pimento mac and cheese, made with cavatappi and crisp bacon.

Groundswell is a coffee shop, yes, but sometimes it's also the site of a book-release party. It's where you might go on a double date to drink wine and create an instructor-led canvas painting. A place to meet your rag-tag team for Sporcle-hosted trivia. McCoy says in his mind there is one factor uniting all that they do at Groundswell.

"If there is just one word it comes down to, it's handcrafted," says McCoy. "Everything we do is powered by people, from the wooden tables we made and the tile we laid to our pizza crust and the jewelry we sell next door."

Something good is most certainly brewing here, and it seems like the neighborhood agrees. Power to the people.

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