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March 18, 2024

CT market is attracting more big, small coffee retailers

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Jill Interlandi owns DoNo Cafe, across the street from Dunkin’ Park in downtown Hartford.

In the 1984 film, “Moscow on the Hudson,” Robin Williams stars as a musician for a Soviet Union-based circus who defects to the United States.

Following his U.S. arrival, and after having to stand in long lines for toilet paper and bread in his native land, Williams’ character Vladimir Ivanoff visits an American grocery store. As he slowly walks down the coffee aisle reading the brand names, he is overwhelmed by the selection.

“Taster’s Choice. Decaffeinated. Maxwell House. El Pico. Chock Full o’ Nuts. Espresso. Cappuccino. Cafe Francais. Sanka. Folgers. Cafe Caribe. Coffee … Coffee … Coffee …,” he shouts, falling to the floor.

Coffee lovers across the United States and in Connecticut may very well feel as overwhelmed by the choices when they drive down the street in search of a cup of Joe.

Hartford, for example, not only has 15 Dunkin’ locations — not including Dunkin’ Park, the Minor League Baseball stadium where the Hartford Yard Goats play — and four Starbucks, it also boasts a growing list of artisan coffee shops that include Aroma Cafe, DoNo Cafe, Semilla Cafe + Studio, Story and Soil Coffee and Victus Coffee, to name a few.

If you thought that was enough, just wait — at least two more national or international vendors plan to expand in the region.

Café Nero, a London-based artisan coffee retailer, plans to add a location in West Hartford Center, its second in the state, while 7 Brew, a rapidly expanding Arkansas-based drive-thru coffee shop franchisor, plans to add its first location in New England on Route 5 in Wallingford, with more likely to follow.

The growth in coffee shop options shouldn’t come as a surprise, since coffee is the drink of choice for a majority of Americans.

According to the National Coffee Association (NCA), some 63% of Americans in 2023 chose to drink coffee each day over any other beverage, including water.

The NCA also reported that Americans drink an estimated 440 million cups of coffee every day. They spend an average of $301 million on coffee and related goods daily, or $110 billion per year — and $32.9 billion, or nearly 30%, of that annual total is spent in coffee shops.

Quality isn’t enough

Needless to say, the competition for the coffee drinker’s dollar is fierce. Yet, that has not deterred artisan coffee shop owners like Michael Acosta.

Acosta and two business partners opened Story and Soil Coffee in July 2017. They now have two locations — one at 387 Capitol Ave., in Hartford, which recently closed temporarily for a renovation and expansion, and the other at 413 Main St., in Middletown, near Wesleyan University.

Story and Soil Coffee in Hartford recently reopened after renovations that included expanded seating.

Between the two locations, he employs 18 people, both full- and part-time.

Having worked on the front lines of the coffee wars, Acosta said the landscape has changed “quite a bit” over the past seven years.

“I think people are a lot more familiar with the industry,” he said. “People had Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts as their reference points, and education was necessary to convince people of the value of the product we’re selling.”

The coffee served at Story and Soil may cost more than consumers are used to spending, he said, “but it’s more of a personal touch, not as convenient or commercial as they were used to.”

His customers generally seek out more than just coffee, he said.

“We find that our core base of people who come in daily and weekly … will seek out small local cafes,” Acosta said. “In large part, that’s because of the kind of experience they receive,” including “the more personalized” service or eccentric baristas.

Which is not to say those customers don’t also come for the coffee. “The coffee you are serving makes you a destination,” he said.

Acosta is careful to note that the idea of artisan coffee had been in the Hartford region before his shop existed, “but just not in Hartford proper.” The goal of opening in the city was to offer a “level of craft” that did not exist in the market, he said.

It exists now, and has forced major national retailers like Dunkin’ and Starbucks to keep a close eye on what local artisan shops serve, such as nitro cold brew, “or drinks that include matcha or cold foam,” Acosta said.

“The certain markers that were nods to the kind of business you were, the mission and values you had, were then co-opted by the bigger brands,” he said. “It made it more difficult to distinguish who is doing what. It’s no longer good enough to compete just on quality alone. You need to be able to provide an exceptional experience.”

In an effort to improve that experience, Story and Soil Coffee closed for a few weeks in February to renovate a lower level and add 20 seats.

“We’re going to be able to expand our ability to host guests and do various community-oriented things that we started with and then halted during the pandemic,” Acosta said. “We’re hoping that we can enhance our experience and further distinguish us.”

‘Espresso snobs’

Jill Interlandi, owner of DoNo Cafe, also hopes to separate her coffee shop from the others.

Opened early in January, the cafe is located at 1212 Main St., essentially across the street from Dunkin’ Park, a location that she describes as “one of the best in the city” because of the property development in the area.

DoNo Cafe is located on the ground floor of The Pennant, a recently built 270-unit apartment building at 1212 Main St., which is the first phase of the broader North Crossing development around the ballpark.

A former bartender in New York, Interlandi said she saved enough money over the past seven years to invest in and open the cafe.

Though open just over a few months, the cafe already has its regulars. Her clientele is “very mixed,” she said, mostly a combination of those looking to get their coffee or tea and go, and “espresso snobs.”

“They’re more kind of coffee connoisseurs,” Interlandi said. “They want a good roast. I’ve had a few people who have literally just named themselves ‘espresso snobs.’ It’s not even me calling them that. But they enjoy a good solid cup of coffee or espresso.”

There also are customers who prefer the cafe’s atmosphere and just want to hang out with friends.

While her cafe lies in the shadow of Dunkin’ Park, Interlandi said she’s not intimidated by the national chains.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, “a lot more people appreciate small businesses and try to support small businesses,” she said.

“If you want something super quick on the go, those chains are still there, and they’re good for that,” she said. “But if you want more of an experience, then you’re going to go into a local coffee shop.”

Seven Energy

The latest national chain looking to establish itself in Connecticut is 7 Brew, a strictly drive-thru coffee shop.

According to Manraj Parmar and Rohan Kapoor, managing partners of Drive Thru Brew LLC, which own the franchising rights for a location in Wallingford, 7 Brew started in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2018. It has since grown dramatically, adding its 100th coffee “stand” in June 2023.

The company’s annual revenue is estimated at more than $160 million, according to, which tracks the performance of fast-growing private companies and startups.

Parmar said he grew up in Connecticut, attended UConn and served in the state Army National Guard. After pursuing a corporate career out of state, he has returned to work with his brother-in-law, Kapoor, to establish 7 Brew’s first New England location.

“Wallingford is really this vibrant center of Connecticut,” Parmar said. “And, its town motto is ‘choose kindness,’ while (7 Brew’s) is ‘cultivate kindness.’ Once we saw that, we’re like, ‘Let’s go here.’”

If approved, Drive Thru Brew will first demolish the existing building at 905 North Colony Road — currently home to Captain Seas restaurant, whose lease ends in March and is looking to relocate — and then truck in a new one.

According to Parmar, the coffee stand is just 510 square feet and is built off-site. It is then delivered in four pieces, assembled and hooked up to utilities. The so-called building drop is targeted for this summer.

He said he expects to employ 50 “brewistas,” with the majority part-timers.

Parmar stressed that 7 Brew is unlike any other coffee shop in Connecticut.

“The drive-thru is actually different,” he said. “There’s no menu board like you would go to at any other coffee drive-thru. It’s just face to face. The people that work for us, they come out and greet you. Even your coffee is hand-delivered as well. It’s not a ‘drive-thru’ window. People are walking up to you. It’s very different than anything Connecticut is used to.”

While the numeral in 7 Brew refers to the seven original coffee blends sold, the stand also sells tea, smoothies, shakes and energy drinks, including the self-branded Seven Energy.

“We’re able to customize our drinks 20,000 different ways, which I don’t think any of our competitors can say,” Parmar said.

It’s for that reason, combined with the unique business model, that Parmar is certain there is a place for 7 Brew in the market.

“We feel very positive about being in this space,” he said.

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