Sometimes things just come together. Like Tandem Coffee + Bakery in Portland. The best visual evidence is the Instagram pic of the married couple, Will and Kathleen Pratt, on their tandem bike. There’s the two locations. The roastery, once an office in a scrap metal yard. And the bakery, in a building that was obviously a gas station in a past life. But before all that, the native Mainers left home for an odyssey in the land of coffee. They worked in big cities. They learned about coffee. About people. About business. They also learned they really loved Maine. The rest is a classic Maine story, with a right now vibe stirred in. And then there’s Tandem’s Coffee & Vinyl Club. Join and they’ll send you a curated album and special bag of coffee each month. Both places spin vinyl all day. The Maine Quarterly caught up with Will and Kathleen recently to chat about this and that.
MTQ – Maine is known for its entrepreneurial spirit and making really good stuff by hand. Sure sounds a lot like you. How did you create a roastery and bakery business from scratch?
Kathleen – We had been working in coffee for a long time, so we had the know-how. We had lived in bigger cities, but we wanted an easier lifestyle in a place that would support what we wanted to create. Wanting to be on the coast, and also hearing the buzz about the food scene, we came to Portland. We inherited a tiny bit of money from my grandma and we were like: maybe we could do this. So we just went with it. That was the coffee roasting. As far as the bakery, it was sort of another organic process. We are really good friends with an amazing baker, Briana Holt, and we had talked about doing this forever. That first building landed in our laps and we essentially jumped on it. It was really a little bit of luck, a little bit of know-how, and just kind of diving in headfirst.
MTQ – Bon Appétit recognized Tandem Coffee + Bakery as one of America’s Best New Restaurants. How did that feel? And how did it affect your business?
Will – Well, it was great that they had even heard of us. I mean, that was a great honor. It was nice to get that recognition. Because at that point our bakery was slow. We were kind of scratching our heads. Then to have Bon Appétit come out and say: “Hey, this place is great.” Things got much busier after that.
Kathleen – The first thing we thought when we found out about being on that list was: “Oh, my gosh, we’re just this little bakery in Maine and there’s all these amazing other restaurants all over the country. We would get calls asking, “Oh, can I make a reservation?” I think what’s impressive is that if our bakers want to try something new, they’re just so creative. And to get recognition from Bon Appétit – it was a big turning point for us.
MTQ – Bon Appétit had their comments on “What To Order.” What are a couple of your recommendations?
Will – Get pie.
Kathleen – Yes, definitely get pie. Briana, the baker, actually made a ton of pies for our wedding. She’s a stellar pie baker. Any of the pies that are coming out of there are just amazing. And coffee and pie? They go together so well. Breakfast sandwiches too. They’re dynamite.
Will – Scoooones.
Kathleen – Yes, actually scones. When Briana was talking about making scones, both Will and I thought, “No.” We just thought of crumbly, dry scones. But Briana’s scones are a totally different beast. They’re just delicious. She’ll make a scone that’s like apple and feta with a bunch of black pepper. They’re totally different combinations. They’re just delicious.
Will – The chocolate chip cookies.
Kathleen – (laughs) Okay, Will.
MTQ – If there’s a secret ingredient in Tandem’s success what would it be?
Will – A lot of it is that we’re owner operated. We’re here all the time. We keep up the consistent quality and vibe. It’s a place that we created as a place where we want to be ourselves. It’s very sincere. We only do things that we would want a café to do. A lot of it just comes from our gut. It’s honest.
Kathleen – I think the first thing is that we take what we’re making very seriously. We try really hard. We’re constantly trying to improve. Yet we really like to have fun. So we want it to remain fun. Our crew feels like a little family and everybody’s involved. And we just also wanted to have a great place to work and be at. We want everybody that walks in to feel like they’re a part of that.
MTQ – In addition to amazing coffee and bakery, what do you want customers to take away from a visit to Tandem?
Will – We want people to really love the place before they’ve even tried anything. So we really try to set the stage so that as soon as you walk in, you’re like, “Oh I like it here.” We just want it to be a great memory. And from reviews we see and stuff like that, it does seem to be the takeaway. It’s rare that people just mention the food or the coffee.
Kathleen – Our friend Steve said it feels like a very inclusive club. That you’re a part of something when you come in. Like the music that we play, or the way that we set up our shop. It’s about the kind of community we can create, how people end up just talking to each other and hanging out. The vibe is very important to us. Not just the food and the coffee. We want you to feel it immediately. And we want everyone to think, “Man, those people were nice.”
MTQ – So you mentioned inclusiveness. How does that play out in the Portland coffee scene?
Will – Most of the places in town roast their own coffee too. It’s definitely a top-notch, high- quality scene. There’s a bunch of places to go to get great coffee. Great people too. We’re pretty close with a lot of them.
Kathleen – I remember when we first opened, people said things like, “Just so you know, there’s a lot of coffee shops here.” And we just said, “Yeah, but we’re gonna do ours a little differently.”
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