Coffee shops have long been favorite meeting places for everyone from revolutionaries, and politicians, to friends and family. In recent years, with the addition of free wi-fi, coffee shops have become a place to be secluded with your device. Paper Co. Coffee is one shop that is trying to change that by encouraging their customers to share their stories. “Everybody has a story. We want everybody to hang out and talk and share their story about their lives,” Dave Foong Paper Co.’s coffee shop manager tells me. After sitting down with Dave and their coffee supplier Josely, head roaster for Mueva Coffee, I discovered that there are indeed many stories to tell here.
Paper Co. Coffee is the new incarnation of what used to be Ecclesia Church’s Taft St. Coffee and is now located on the cusp of downtown Houston at 1100 Elder . If you are coming into downtown from I-45 north you can see the new Ecclesia sign to your right as you round the first bend of the Pierce elevated. They offer the standard coffee shop fare at more than fair prices and high quality. The pour overs are carefully crafted and the baristas are knowledgeable and equally skilled without being pretentious. “We don’t want to make it intimidating,” he tells me. Paper Co. is friendly, and conducive to storytelling.
The shop’s many stories begin with the building that they have moved into. “It’s called Paper Co because in the 50′s it was a paper company called the Phillips Paper Company,” Dave tells me. “The pastor found out a few days after his grandfather passed away that he used to work at the Philips Paper Company.” Ecclesia bought the property but not with intentions of tearing down and rebuilding. “The best way to be a part of a community is to be like them and assimilate into them. Not with any hidden agenda. By tearing a building down and building out you are kind of going against that. When you have respect for the history and the context of it I think that is great. What we usually do in Houston right now is ‘That’s a really cool building. Lets buy it and tear it down and build a town house,’” scoffs Dave. “Let’s do the opposite. Let’s respect it for what it is and change the inside and make it our story. We want to tell our story as well. “
Dave’s own story with coffee began when he was in school cramming for a test. “You know, being Singapore, it’s high stakes high school. That night I had eight packs of instant coffee not knowing that caffeine would keep you THAT awake.” However, his involvement in the coffee business begins only about a year and a half ago when the church first approached him to run the coffee shop. He was working for the church as the accountant and also doing any food events they held when they asked if he would take over running their coffee shop. “You want to know how I learned about coffee? I read it all in a book. They asked me to run Paper Co. and I just started reading like crazy. I never managed a coffee shop before, never been a Barista,” he recalls. So he spent six months working the floor and being involved with the product to build some experience and learn from his mistakes.“When you go through a five pound bag of coffee trying to figure out latte art: you remember. Forty dollars down the drain to make a little heart,” he laughs. And though Dave may be self taught he is surrounded by people with years of barista expertise. Barista Anthony worked many years with Starbucks, and Andrew spent some time at local Catalina Coffee.
Paper Co.’s coffee supplier Mueva’s story begins long ago at Hacienda Dorado in the Matagalpa Highlands region of Nicaragua. For seven generations the Chavarria family has produced shade grown coffee beans. “We grow under banana and coco shade mainly and have a lot of rivers flowing through every plantation,” Josely tells me. “Our bean is pretty dense because of the altitude and water so you get a lot of caramel hazelnut notes, and a little nuttiness comes from the banana and a lot of chocolate.” While the family had previously roasted for themselves in a pot over a fire. Josely decided to look into roasting in a larger roaster so they can have more control over their product and move to a direct trade format. “I learned how to roast on an old Ambex roaster that was hollowed out and made a wood burning roaster, because everyone thought that was the biggest novelty instead of the big pot. It was really really old, and it still runs. It runs on a bike chain,” she says. Once she came to the US she obtained a better roaster that a NASA engineer, a family friend, tweaked for her to improve it. She now roasts their own coffee beans as well as beans from other regions and it is the only coffee that Paper Co uses through their direct trade agreement with Mueva. They will be soon be bringing in a new larger Diedrich roaster and produce their coffee onsite at Paper Co.’s shop.
The stories will continue to grow naturally out of Paper as they have recently signed a contract to begin build out of a cafe. They hope to model the cafe menu after the “pay what you can” system. With this model they aim to maintain dignity in what you eat no matter how much you end up paying or not for your meal. ”Also you want really good food because you can’t have an argument over really good food. Maybe before or after but not during.” Good coffee, good food and good people are all perfect ingredients to inspire sharing old and new stories. “It’s always nice to give life to a building,” he says. “Like a church building, in particular, outside of place where most people just go to church on Sundays. How do you make the place more alive? The coffee shop is the best solution for that. I think that the big goal we have eventually is to make it an even playing field across any social economic class.”