Mark Hayward's City Matters: Get a shot of culture with your morning joe
Queen City street corners abound with purveyors of Dunkin' Donuts coffee. If caffeine were illegal, Dunkin' would by far be the biggest drug kingpin in the city, if not the state.
Welcome to downtown. Odd, isn't it, that the big-business epicenter of the state — crammed with its bank headquarters, corporate lawyers and sharply dressed executives — offers no corporate coffee. No Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks or Panera.
Some give just the basics, while others provide atmosphere as thick as a cappuccino with two shots of espresso.
"I took away their customers who were maybe looking for something a lot better," said Jim Whitney, owner of J. Dubs Coffee, located across Elm Street in the New Hampshire Plaza building.
What follows is my quick guide for coffee drinkers the next time they venture downtown, based on atmosphere.
The south wall has a wood panel that matches the bar. Three flat-screen TVs play on mute at the bar, while Sinatra and jazz waft from speakers.
• Northwest grunge. The Bridge Cafe on Elm has been tucked away in a storefront just south of the former Bank of America building for five years. Alt-rock plays in the background.
Owner Roi Shpindler said he'd never think of getting in a price war over coffee.
Coffee: a cool $2.
• The Salesman. J. Dubs Coffee squeezes itself into 517 square feet of storefront at the New Hampshire Plaza. There's no room for restrooms, so the city won't allow tables inside his shop.
The shop sells its own signature blend of coffee, and the owner compares coffee to wine when it comes to flavor subtleties, aroma and balance. Whitney, the enthusiastic, middle-aged owner, opened the shop five years ago, after ditching a sales job with Verizon Wireless in Massachusetts.
Sale price for coffee: $2.25.
• The Left Bank. Cafe Le Reine opened this April on Elm Street across from City Hall.
"I think we all offer something different as far as the atmosphere of the product," she said. The French trappings include curtains on the windows, a few easy chairs, a three-spout espresso machine and dark, moody interior lighting.
Tasse coffee: $2.13.
Daniels said most of his customers work in the skyscraper where his business is located. His biggest competitors are the law firms and marketing firms themselves; they provide free K-cups for their employees.
"Today's workday, you're up and down the elevator, grab a sandwich in 15 minutes. If they have a 15-minute lunch break, we're happy to help them," Daniels said.
Such is Manchester downtown's coffee culture.
It's great to have all the choices (after all, on some weird morning in the future I might want a martini with my muffin). And besides Daniels, no one's interested in starting a price war.
"The pie's only so big," Daniels said, "you just keep cutting it up. Some aren't going to make it."
Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. Half of this article was written by coffee-torqued fingers.