I’m a coffee tourist. Whenever I go to a new city I get a cup of joe and bag of beans–the best a city has to offer. In most cities determining which coffee shop to patron is an easy decision. Chicago, Intelligentsia. San Francisco, Blue Bottle. Portland, Stumptown. Dallas?
As someone who lives out of a hotel room and whose work day typically takes place on a tarmac or in an event center, I consume an overabundance of bad–even repellant–coffee. Like a lot of modern day road warriors, I have a repertoire of tricks and gimmicks to help improve the nasty single serve mud available in motel rooms. I’ll drink bad coffee. But I don’t like to. When I have a chance to take a break and peruse a city’s coffee offerings. I want something good, really good: something that reminds me that coffee is more than a stimulant, but a beverage with history, with nuance, with substance.
I have a day off between gigs in Dallas, and after chatting with locals, reading the newspaper, browsing the internet, and consulting Yelp I’m having a hard time pinning down Big D’s best coffee. The print reviews offer a steady stream of platitudes. Even the rare negative reviews are vague and subjective. One coffee shop has to stand out above the rest. How’s a coffee tourist like me going to make an informed decision?
I decide it’s up to me; I’m going to take a shot at this. With an afternoon to burn, another single serve pouch of Folger’s on the bureau, and a caffeine-withdrawal headache coming on, I identify a handful of highly recommended shops with a Dallas address (sorry Fort Worth, maybe next time). I build a custom google map and plan my route. I’m going to drink the finest coffee Dallas has to offer in a single afternoon.
I know what I like in a coffee and in a coffee shop, but I’ve never really had to come up with a rating system. I know Cultiva brews the best coffee in Lincoln, Nebraska. But why?
Brewing methods matter. Anyone who has used the same beans in a standard Mr. Coffee flat-bottom drip brewer and a French press knows this (if you haven’t tried French press coffee, do it). Brewing methods like French press, pour-over, aeropress and the like require the barista to prepare a fresh serving for each order, or almost every order. Nothing is nastier than drip coffee slowly decaying in one of those R2D2-shaped thermos pumps. Slower extraction methods foment the subtler aromas and flavors drip coffee machines tend to efface. In addition using the words “pour-over” signifies to the shop employees you actually care about the taste of your wake-up juice. I’ll ask for a pour-over at each shop.
A coffee house could make excellent coffee and not sell beans, sure. But that’s not part of coffee tourism. When I go home I want to take the experience of great coffee with me: a souvenir of my trip in my daily brew. A coffee shop that roasts and sells its own beans makes an argument about the quality of its product. I’m not talking about brightly colored foil sacks that serve merely as a reminder of the brand, but small brown bags–labeled, sealed, and dated by hand by a roast-master who doesn’t just let any bag of beans out the front door.
Maybe there was a time when coffee shops served as a place for casual social gatherings, a venue for struggling singer-songwriters, and rally points for left-leaning political movements, and to some extent they still do, but that’s not why I go to coffee shops. I go because I need a cup of joe and I need work. The logistical necessities of my job have me texting, emailing, researching, coordinating, and I do most of this on the road in the downtime I have between unloading rigs and training local staff. A lot of places offer internet as an enticement, but for me, high-speed access isn’t a perk, it’s a requirement.
Great coffee isn’t worth a shucks if the staff and the shop don’t invite me to stay. Again, I live on the road and work out of hotel rooms. I don’t need comfy chairs or a dark and quiet nook to myself. But I need to feel like I’m welcome and my business is appreciated. I need the staff to be able to carry on a brief conversation about coffee. I need to feel like a human being. Sure, appearance and demeanor don’t make or break a coffee shop–I’ve had horrible coffee in comfortable chairs and incredible coffee prepared by miserable people–but when the last six face-to-face conversations I’ve had have been with the midnight desk manager and the closest thing to interesting interior decor I’ve seen in the past week are the inoffensive, mass-produced still life paintings hanging over my hotel bed, a nice place to sit and a friendly barista matter.
The most important criteria. I’ll order a cup of coffee in a shop with no tables and a can on a fishing line for a phone, from a belligerent misanthrope who uses a barb wire wrapped bowling pin for a grinder, and an old boot as an extractor if the coffee knocks my socks off.
I step out of the sterile, climate controlled lobby of my hotel into the high gleam of a Dallas Sunday morning. I feel the heat radiating from the black interior of my somewhat less than mid-sized rental car before I reach for the handle. It’s my day off and I’ve nothing else to do, but I’m a little worried. I’ve never planned on drinking this much coffee before. Years ago, when I contracted for Xbox on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, I drank a staggering amount of coffee. This was part of the culture. I lived in Seattle. The Starbuck’s thing was happening. I couldn’t have escaped coffee if I wanted to. And I didn’t. But I’ve never planned on an active coffee binge. I certainly never planned on over 160 ounces in 4 hours on a hundred degree day in Dallas.
I climb into the rental, crank the AC, join the high speed ballet of Dallas traffic and head to my first destination.
Tue-Sun 7 am – 3 pm
1146 Peavy Rd.
Dallas, TX 75218
I ask for a pour-over. I get a French press. The guy behind the counter suggests the “roast of the day.”
The beans sit in large glass jars behind the bar. I’m suspicious. I can’t fondle and scrutinize them. Most of the beans are from Africa, medium to dark roasts, and roasted within the last three days. I purchase a batch of Guatemalan.
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It’s a coffee and taco joint. Must be a Texas thing. People wait in lines four deep for both coffee and tacos. I take a seat in the covered outdoor dining area attached to the burger joint next door. Even though I’m not eating anything, nobody hassles me. From my seat I can see into a coin operated car wash. In the bay closest to me, a mostly naked homeless man bathes, spraying his clothes and his body with the high-pressure water gun. Next to him a fit, middle aged man washes an Audi R8. I can’t tell if it’s the V8 or the more impressive V12 model. I’m not sure who looks most out of place.
Bright. I hate that word but I can’t think of any other way to describe it. The beans have been roasted carefully and thanks to the French press, I can detect hints of citrus at the edges of a pleasant earthiness. This is a good cup of coffee.
I finish, bus the cup, and get back on the road. As I pull away I have to dodge a small group of people carrying bags of tacos and take-out coffee cups. I wonder if the coffee boom is over. Between shrinking disposable incomes and increased competition, how do coffee shops survive? Is having a strong morning rush enough? The taco-coffee combo is unorthodox, but maybe not a bad idea–space and energy sharing, customer overlap–I’ve always thought a coffee shop that suddenly starts serving other food and drink is a sinking ship. I’m looking at you Scooters. But maybe these kinds of partnerships will help keep small coffee houses alive. I muse about starting a Foodpocalypse coffee house, sushi bar, and quick lube joint with Mik during my drive to destination number two.
White Rock Coffee
10105 East Northwest Highway
Dallas, TX 75238
The only obvious brewing method: hot drip, but I ask for a pour-over anyway. The barista smiles as she readies the next best thing: a French press. I get the impression most of the customers at White Rock content themselves with the R2-D2 air carafe on the table opposite the cash register.
The barista lights up when I ask about beans. Maybe she works on commission, but more likely she knows coffee and rarely has the chance to talk about it. White Rock purveys coffees from everywhere: every coffee buzzword available in an airtight bag. However, the beans recommended don’t have a visible roasting date and I’m unwilling to throw hard-earned money at questionable beans. White Rock Coffee uses the less familiar roasting terms: “city”, “full city” and “French.” Pretentious in description and careless in record keeping, White Rock, despite the chipper barista, doesn’t convince me to procure any beans as souvenirs.
Allegedly available, but despite my own considerable experience and help from the both the staff and the helpful locals at the table next to me, neither my phone nor my computer will connect.
Situated next to a legal loan sharking outfit, this two story building has the strip-mall je ne sais quoi of a Chipotle burrito joint. Corrugated aluminum lines the walls and an unfinished ceiling exposes duct work. Not a bad place to sit and visit. Cars pack the drive through, even late on Sunday morning, suggesting a profound customer loyalty.
I buy two drinks: A French pressed and a “signature vanilla iced” coffee. Both are good, but nothing to get excited about. If this coffee shop were in my neighborhood, I’m sure I’d be a regular, but the coffee is nothing I’d drive out of my way for.
I’m three drinks into my 10 drink binge and I feel fine. My eyes are a little gummy and my forearms sweat a little, but 18 hour workdays and the Texas summer affect me more than a little caffeine buzz. Somedays I drink three cups of coffee over the course of a lunch. I take I-635 southeast to I-30 and cut back west. With the sun at my back I feel a little bit like a pioneer heading across the great central plain into the unknown. Well, like a pioneer with AC and an iPhone adapter in his stereo. I’m on an adventure so I celebrate with a little bit of …And Justice for All. Today is the 25th anniversary of the album’s release. The opening riff of “Eye of the Beholder” explodes as I pull up at coffeeshop number three.
Opening Bell Coffee
8am – 2:30pm
1409 South Lamar Street South Side Plaza
Dallas, TX 75215
Can I get a pour-over? Unless the barista’s confused laugh indicates I need to speak the password, nope. Thinking I haven’t communicated my request properly and I ask if she has any brewing methods other than the large drip machine behind her. More laughing. Coffee, the barista asserts comes from the large vacuum pot near the register. Didn’t I leave my hotel to get away from this?
No better than the brewing situation. When I ask the barista where she keeps the beans she points to the large plastic storage container behind the bar. Opening Bell Coffee either doesn’t sell beans, I’m having a supremely unlucky barista encounter, or I’ve walked into a coffee shop from the 20’s. Maybe this is her first day.
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Opening Bell has a certain converted-1940s commodities building hip. I feel like I’m treading in an artist’s workspace. I like it. Having worked in the tech sector and in middle America I think it’s kind of cool when new businesses remodel inner city warehouses rather than build new prefab office spaces at the leading edge of urban sprawl.
The single vacuum pot dispenses some kind of flavored coffee, a cardinal sin. If the oily film isn’t bad enough, the coffee tastes like two or three different flavored brews, a sure sign the pot doesn’t get washed enough. On this particular morning my house blend tastes like last week’s hazelnut or maybe vanilla. For $2.71 a cup, I expect more than what I can get from my hotel’s courtesy station.
I take my coffee on a walk around the neighborhood to give my inner customer some time to recover from the horrors of Morning Bell. If this is one of the top ten coffee spots in Dallas, this little experiment might turn out more grueling than I imagined. There are some cool old stores lining the street. It’s getting warmer and the scraggly plants and dust in the air get me thinking about the heat and the drought. I hear thunder and look for clouds. Turns out the rumble is a band soundchecking at the Palladium. If it weren’t for the lousy coffee, I’d enjoy this neighborhood. I wander back to my rental car and finish off the last of the coffee. With each sip it becomes more vile until I taste something like bitter sawdust. I pop off the top of the cup and peer inside. The bottom is covered in grounds, not the fine particulate that makes it’s way through the filter and settles at the bottom of a cup, but large chunks of bean. I contemplate returning to the coffee shop and sharing my discovery with the staff. Then I remember the staff. I pitch the dregs, climb in the car, and head to destination number four.
Mercantile Coffee House
1800 Main Street #1000
Dallas, TX 75201
Brewing Methods: none
Bean Situation: grim
Wireless Internet: nope
I head downtown, near the Main Street Garden park. I’ve been down here to visit friends a handful of times. Here is what I know about this yuppie-high rise-neighborhood: it smells like animal pee; you will step in dog excrement; the Paris Hilton Cloning Project’s secret headquarters are somewhere nearby. Despite the aid of various electronic gadgets I can’t find the Mercantile Coffee House so I pull over and explore the neighborhood on foot. I narrowly avoid frosting both my boots with dung. I ask one of the Paris Hilton clones if she knows where the coffee house is. She says, “It’s closed. Like. Forever.” But she points me in the general direction of Mercantile’s last known address. I look through the window and spot evidence the owners were in the process of adding a frozen yogurt bar, a sure sign things had already gone down hill. The shop does appear to be closed, like, forever. I rethink the Foodpocalypse Coffee, Sushi, Quick Lube project.
Crooked Tree Coffee House
2414 Routh Street
Dallas, TX 75201
They’ve got everything.
This is where Crooked Tree shines. When I ask about beans and roasting one of the baristas grins like I’ve just given him an extra birthday. He trembles with barely restrained affection as he describes all of the roasts. The guy is clearly a coffee nerd. When I ask for something in a medium roast, the barista follows up with “What is your extraction method?” French press. He asks, “Would you like a hint of berries or something citrus.” Hint of berries. He gives me an insider nod. The folks at Crooked Tree don’t just make and sell coffee, they know coffee. I know when I’m back in Dallas, I’ll be back here.
Download speed: 3325.1 Kbits/s. Upload speed: 534.1 Kbits/s. There are at least a dozen people using people using the wireless, most of them streaming audio or video.
Homey, which makes sense. The coffee house is–or at least was–someone’s house. Cozy with plenty of comfortable chairs all over the lower level of the house, the decor contrasts with the drab polos and pressed chinos of grim-faced businessmen pounding away at brand new laptops. Today Crooked Tree feels a bit like the green room at a casting call for Donald Trump’s Apprentice.
The barista suggests that instead of ordering from the menu I purchase a 10 dollar “life changing” cup of coffee. At $10 I wonder who’s life this coffee will change, mine or the barista’s boat salesman’s. The $10 coffee beans Crooked Tree prepares placed fourth of thousands in The Cup of Excellence competition. (Think of it as the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France for coffee.) After the dreck at Morning Bell and the disappointment of Mercantile I decide to splurge. I’m on a mission to find the best cup of coffee in Dallas, not the most affordable. In a typical brewed coffee an experienced taster might be able to recognize 3 or 4 flavor notes. The “life changer” exhibits 6 or 7 as the coffee cools and develops. At first it tastes almost tea-like–light and refreshing–the smoothest finishing coffee I’ve ever had. 10 minutes later the coffee takes on a more aggressive and earthy quality that over the course of another 20 minutes calms and matures to something like cherries and caramel. As I sip and savor I watch the barista prepare several drinks and witness some awesome latte art. This is an outstanding coffee house.
I have made it only halfway through my list of Dallas’s best and the rest of the afternoon looms before me. I don’t imagine another coffee shop will be able to compete with Crooked Tree and I start to feel the coffee jitters tingle at the base of my brain. Five more cups to go.
Oak Lawn Coffee
8am – 7pm
2720 Oak Lawn Ave Ste A
Dallas, TX 75219
Pour-over, French press, whatever I want. At first glance Oak Lawn strikes me as the twin sister of Crooked Tree. The staff is equally knowledgeable, if less enthusiastic, and the two stores sell the same beans.
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Same beans and same roasting dates as Crooked Tree. I already have a bag of this in my backpack.
The coffee house is in the same building as the City Vet. I imagine my coffee beans extruded through the alimentary canal of a civet. I worry about laughing hot coffee out my nose every time I see a dog limp by wearing a cone of shame. However, modern decor and a healthy population of college students put me at ease. Generous air conditioning makes Oak Lawn a comfortable place for an afternoon cup.
The coffee here is the same as at Crooked Tree, minus the life-changer, so I break my rule about asking for a pour-over. Oak Lawn claims to have the best iced coffee in Dallas and I’m sweating. The iced coffee is okay. Better than okay is the watermelon lemonade paired with a strawberry muffin. I’m coming back just for those.
I feel a little guilty about getting the iced coffee and the watermelon lemonade, but just under two-thirds of the way through my odyssey I have begun to think about my imminent death. I’m not sure if it’s the caffeine, the sun, the crosstown driving, or the inevitable approach of Monday morning, but I think about the Dallas County Medical Examiner pulling my body from the twisted wreckage of my rental car. “The deceased, male, mid-30s, Caucasian, died as a result of a motor vehicle accident. His viscera show signs of excessive coffee drinking. Over 96 ounces of coffee extruded from digestive system.” The next stop: a favorite among the locals and highly recommended.
The Pearl Cup
1900 N Henderson Ave
Dallas, TX 75206
Can I get a pour-over? No, but the barista informs me she will make a French press. She also tells me I’ll need to buy two cups if I want her to make it fresh. Fantasy autopsy embarrassment subsides and I order two cups. I tell the barista The Pearl Cup is one of the most highly recommended coffee houses in the Dallas area and that I’ve driven quite a way to try their coffee. She proffers a non-plussed smile. As the barista loads the press, the customer behind me orders a cup from the vacuum pump thermos behind the counter. Sucker.
Download speed: 4655.1 Kbits/s Upload speed: 543.3 Kbits/s The shop is full and every table has at least one laptop. No one appears to be frustrated by a slow connection.
When I tell the cashier that I’d like to take some of their beans home she recommends the dark roasted house blend. I eye the beans and give them a sniff. It’s a very dark roast. I’m not a fan of dark roast coffee. Coffee drinkers fall into two camps: those who like the taste of the beans and those who like the taste of the roast. The two find little common ground. The difference is as wide as between those who roast marshmallows by lighting them on fire and those who toast them. The barista insists the dark roast beans are good. I’m skeptical and put off buying beans until I’ve tasted the brew.
Even though it’s Sunday in the early evening, I have trouble finding a place to park. The place is full as are the surrounding shops and restaurants. The decor inside thrums, it’s young and vibrant, eclectic: a mix of stylish retro and modern industrial like the rest of neighborhood. I can’t find a place to sit inside so take a chair at a small table out the sidewalk. The music from the bar across the street makes thinking difficult. If I were shopping for furniture instead of coffee, I could purchase a two thousand dollar mid-century credenza next door. A few patrons exit and I find a seat inside at Pearl Cup’s1950’s style bar.
Refined coffee tasters sometimes describe darker roasts as “rubber-like”. This particular coffee is just plain rubber. It’s horrible, the worst cup of the day. While I sit at the bar choking down two cups of this swill I watch cup after cup gurgle out of the insidious vacuum pumpers. I had saved the Pearl Cup for later in the day. Based on the recommendations of the locals and online reviews, I expected this place to make a nice capstone to my coffee quest. I take another sip of coffee so burned I assume the roaster screwed up. Maybe the beans sat too long in the carafe before pressing or maybe the grind was off. I decide to buy some beans just to examine them later. Or to prepare and serve to house guests who I want to leave.
Seven stops, eight beverages, and one strawberry muffin into my ordeal I wonder what I’m learning from this whole experience. I imagined the most popular coffee shops would be really good at coffee and the least popular coffee shops would be, well, really bad at coffee. Things aren’t working out that way at all. The Pearl Cup receives a lot of favorable ratings on Yelp. “Amazingly delicious” and “The best latte I’ve ever had” recur on down the reviews page. Many of the Yelpers complain about bad parking and limited seating; more often they complain about inconsistent, even inconsiderate, service. These complaints don’t keep Dallasians from flocking in. I have to battle my way out of the parking lot against a constant tide of patrons. Half the time a coffee house tries to branch out into other provender, the already struggling business fails. Spending blood and treasure on fro-yo isn’t going to make the coffee any better, and people who want dessert are not going to think of a coffee shop first. Yet the coffee-taco combo of Cultivar works. What gives? When Starbucks opened in Seattle in 1971, most Americans had no idea what a coffee shop was. Even when I was in school in the mid-90’s most people drank coffee at home out of a drip pot or in diners out of large urns. The Starbucks explosion, and subsequent coffee house eruption lasted for decades and now even junior high kids know the difference between a latte, an espresso, and a cappuccino. The coffee shops created a market–made us think we needed to buy 3, 5, even 10 dollar cups of coffee in hip corners of urban sprawl. The result has been fun, beneficial even. I grew up with a five pound can of Maxwell House in the lazy susan just under the Mr. Coffee flat-bottom drip machine my parents cleaned with cider vinegar twice a year. Now I can appreciate beans with the knowledge of an afficianado. I can discuss roast, origin, and extraction. And I like coffee now instead of just drinking it. I wonder how long the inertia of the coffee house can continue, though. As disposable incomes shrink and coffee prices continue to rise we will reach a radius of action where the coffee bubble will burst. And then what? Will we go back to five pound cans of mediocre joe in our freezers? Will coffee shops once again become diners? The craziest coffee shop on my Dallas list will address this question, but first:
4343 Lovers Lane
Dallas, TX 75225
Can you get a pour-over? I’m not sure. I talk to the guy tending the espresso machine for quite awhile and he says I can get a French press if I want but he doesn’t recommend hot coffee today. He points out the temperature, which is warmer than I like. Between the traffic, the heat, and the coffee already coursing through my system, I do feel a bit flushed. An iced coffee with a generous splash of milk sounds good. I’m sure the barista is upselling me but he strikes me as a connoisseur, so I accept his offer.
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Drip offers a wide array of single-source beans, all of them roasted within 48 hours and stored in drawers under the counter. The barista recommends a dark roast. I protest but he assures me these are the best they sell. Despite my misgivings and the recent disaster at Pearl, I buy them. All the coffee must finally be interfering with my reasoning.
The shop has a cold, stark white, European decor with clean lines and very comfortable chairs near the front windows. The shadows outside lengthen toward the east and I’m one of only four customers. I drink my iced coffee, grateful for the milk, and watch a photographer try to sell his “unique perspective” in wedding photography to an attractive young couple. The words “luxury boudoir images” and “tasteful nudity” fill the relatively empty space. I consider interrupting and asking to be on their invitation list. I’d best be on my way.
Granted I’m having a cold-brewed iced-coffee, but even with milk the roast comes through as over-dark. Of course, at this point in my adventure my palate has suffered serious abuse. I’m more hopeful about the beans I have in my backpack.
As I head toward my final destination I feel a gut wringing combination of nausea and anxiety. My stomach, wrestling with lactic and acetic acids, protests audibly. The image of the Dallas coroner’s table returns. My stomach contents spilling down a stainless steel drain, detectives and medical examiners describing in pornographic detail the volume of caffeine that killed me. I stop at a Wallgreen’s pharmacy to test my blood pressure. It’s still within the normal range. This arouses more worry than moderate hypertension. I wonder if my body is already shutting down.
316 West 7th Street
Dallas, TX 75208
The chemex beaker for pour-over coffee rests just inches from the beer taps.
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When I ask about the beans used for my brew the bartender/barista (bar-teristaer-ender?) shows me a bag of beans from Austin’s own Cuvée Coffee roasters. I can’t ethically buy beans from a city I’m not visiting. Next time, Austin.
Oddfellows means it. Part bar, part greasy spoon, part coffee shop, the ultimate in coffee shop fusion. I sit in front of a bar tap and sip my coffee. I order fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, wilted greens, and beignets. The bartender pours late art with the same efficiency and grace he mixes cocktails. Oddfellows offers a number of outstanding vices: fried food, booze, joe; all under one roof. To some, such a bodega feels charming and eclectic. To others it’s unfocused and vulgar. While I wouldn’t sit in this coffee house to write up an expense report, I like this place. It’s dinner time. They serve real food. They make real drinks. I’m not sure Oddfellows even counts as a coffee shop, but it sure counts for something.
Great. Just great. I know I’m supposed to get into descriptors that use words like berries, citrus, earthy, rich, nutty, and the like, but I just don’t feel like it. I’m sure at 8 in the morning I could bring myself to describe Oddfellows coffee in a critic’s vernacular, but with fried chicken and mac & cheese settling my stomach, a nice cup of joe steaming on the counter, and a gregarious crowd of drinkers, diners, and sippers packing the house, I’m just not in the mood. The coffee is great. And the Mac & Cheese is the best in Dallas.
Crooked Tree Coffee House
The most flavorful cup of coffee in Dallas prepared by a knowledgeable and courteous staff. If you ask questions, they’ll answer. You’ll leave Crooked Tree a more refined coffee drinker. I’ll be back. I could use some refinement.
The guy working the bar is a practiced mixologist and a competent barista. The food is delicious and without pretense. Coffee and cocktail predilections aside, Oddfellows has something for everyone.
What A Difference a Day Makes:
I went into this project focused on the brewed cup and the bag of beans. I know customer service matters, but I never had the opportunity to compare baristas in such a short time. Generally, bad customer services gets bundled up and stuffed down a memory hole somewhere, and good product will many times send us back to places with lousy service. But a knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff made the biggest difference in each of these coffee houses. I love coffee. When we love something we want to be around people who share a similar love. The best cups of coffee come from people who know and care about what they’re doing. The worst cups of coffee come from people who enjoy coffee only to the extent they are paid to. Effective training, careful hiring, and vested ownership in a product, not a profit, can make any mediocre coffee shop better. Crooked Tree and Oddfellows are the best of the bunch, not just because of their product but also because of the people who make it.
*For the bandwidth mavens, internet speeds were the highest of two iphone speed test applications and one laptop speed test from speedtest.net. Some locations had far more internet users than others and my results might not be typical. Your mileage may vary.
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