For basically everyone except the sanctimonious tea drinkers of the world, a morning routine isn't complete without a cup of coffee. Most people already have their neighborhood coffee joint staked out, and their order on speed dial in their barista's memory bank. It can be tricky for a new coffee shop to wedge its way into the coffee-drinking routine of a certain neighborhood, especially if that neighborhood, like the Lower Garden District, already has a handful of reliable caffeine power outlets, but Hivolt isn't your typical drip and pour coffee shop. For one thing, Benji Lee's foray into breakfast beverages (he owns and operates The Saint) is more conceptually sophisticated than most of the coffee fare in New Orleans?Hivolt has a five-station pour over bar and an Oji drip (from Japan, so you know it's fancy), which looks like navigational tool for 17th century sailors. For another, Hivolt?thanks to the food prep prowess of Lee's wife Laura?specializes in vegan/vegetarian fare, a fact that sets it up as one of the most unique coffee shops in the city and (quite possibly) a harbinger of a looming coffee renaissance in New Orleans.
At about one week in, how's business going?
It's been pretty good. It's been positive; people in the neighborhood have been really appreciative of the shop. We're trying to do something different here, and I think people are receptive to it.
What's the transition like from doing a bar like The Saint, to running a coffee shop?
It's similar in that it [Hivolt] is a neighborhood thing, and you know basically all the customers. You have a rapport with each of them. When they come in the door, I want to be working on their order right away because I'm gonna know what it is on sight, just like if they come to the bar. There are a lot of similarities like that, and we're definitely approaching things from a bar-owner standpoint. I'm big into craft cocktails and people knowing what they're doing if they're getting back behind the bar, and I'm definitely treating the coffee shop the same way. You've got to know what you're doing to get behind the counter.
The differences are obviously pretty stark. The Saint is open until 6:00 am; we open here at 6:30 am. It's pretty much a half hour window when I'm not in business.
Wait, do you go straight from The Saint to Hivolt?
I try not to, but it's definitely going to be part of the routine here as soon as we start getting busier. But, you know, I don't stay at The Saint all night either. I have three kids, and my wife [Laura] is actually managing Hivolt for me, so there's a little bit of space there, but not much.
Coffee shops seem so built into people's daily routines that it seems hard to sort of break them away from those routines with a new spot. Do you worry that everyone in the area already has their default coffee shop, or are you confident that you're offering something unique?
I think there's enough room at the table for everyone; this is a coffee town. There's definitely that morning ritual for coffee, and it's hard to break people out of that routine. That's cool?I'm not trying to run anybody out of business, we're just doing something different than most places. To be honest, the coffee that we have you can't get anywhere else in this city. We're the only people serving it. I think there may be a few restaurants that serve it for their after-dinner coffee, but other than that, you're not going to get it the same way we're serving it.
How did you get into this more sophisticated way of making coffee?
If you look back at the New Orleans bar scene to seven or eight years ago, there was a bar on every single corner, but every bar was pretty much the same, and no one was really offering anything different. The coffee scene is sort of the same right now. Once I started learning about a better kind of quality of coffee, it was kind of obvious that it wasn't being done down here, at least not in my neighborhood. Half of why I opened this place is for selfish reasons, because I wanted this kind of coffee for myself. I just felt like there was a need for it, and everybody I started talking to, if they were traveling to Chicago or Atlanta, would complain that there was no specialty coffee down here. That's how I started on the trek of figuring out how to do it, just by looking at what other people were doing across the country, looking at roasters, and learning as much as I could.
I kind of put it together as what I thought I could pull off, 'cause I didn't want to stretch too far. I think people are definitely starting to understand more about it, which makes it easier to sell this kind of coffee.
Would you compare it to the craft cocktail trend? Could something like specialty coffee take off as a concept down here?
I think so. Ten years ago, you couldn't get a good sazerac unless you went to the Sazerac bar. Now, there's at least one neighborhood bar where they're making good cocktails with fresh ingredients and good liquor, and they know what they're doing. It's a recipe thing. This town is built for that. I don't think this town has many people who look at something new and say, "Yeah, that's not for us." There's always going to be somebody who wants good coffee.
What are some of the challenges, then, when you go from running a bar to running a coffee shop? Is there a steep learning curve?
My wife used to run Juan's Flying Burrito on Magazine for ten years, so she has that food background. I've never really done that before, and that was a really big challenge for me as far as getting all the orders in and all that stuff. Then it's just logistical stuff. Everyone who opens a new shop has that same nightmare of equipment breaking right away, which has happened to us. We had two ice machines delivered, but both of them were wrong and we couldn't use them, so we're still buying ice everyday. We've had those early logistical problems, but nothing concept-wise.
Looking ahead, what do you hope Hivolt will be like in six months? The new neighborhood coffee place? A coffee destination for Uptown?
I just want to be in business [laughs]. As long as the lights are on, I'm happy, everything's cool. I think we'll get better at handling bigger volume as we go along. That'll get easier naturally. There haven't been any huge hiccups so far, and I think, while we're ready to deal with higher volume, we're also fine with being a quiet little coffee shop.