The Koffee? Question: An Eccentric Brewhouse Straddles Yale and New Haven
I sit in the back left corner of the shop and recline on the gray chez with a pistachio-colored pillow propped behind my back. The black leather bench on my left reminds me of elementary school piano lessons while the white swivel chairs in front of me evoke an orthodontist’s waiting room. I could not make sense of the room—an amalgam of tables, lights, and curtains scattered around a trapezoidal space. The seating area looks like the twisted love child of a 52nd Street jazz club and Cheech and Chong’s basement with elements of a 1940s diner. I pull my chai latte towards me and admire the poetic chaos. Welcome to “Koffee?”
Walk past Timothy Dwight College on Whitney Avenue until you reach Audubon Street in the New Haven Arts District, a small enclave lined with industrial red brick buildings that you might see in an Urban Outfitters commercial. You’ll notice a white sign that reads “KOFFEE?” in vertical letters. Enter just like I did on a warm afternoon in early November. Enter if you need somewhere to clear your head, talk to strangers, or drink a latte.
Established in 1992 by dancer Candace Balasi, Koffee? boasts a “quirky reputation.” After four years, Balasi sold the shop to Lee and Tracy Jackson, who gave the shop a warmer, more local aura – they woke every morning to bake muffins for their regulars. In 2002, Duncan Goodall ‘95, who studied at Koffee? while at Yale, bought the shop from the Jacksons.
Koffee? is not like the Blue State coffee shops on Yale’s campus — nor does it try to be. Whereas Blue State exudes sleek uniformity — its wooden tables ordered in neat rows against its sparse walls — Koffee? screams with character. Framed 4×6 photos of devoted regulars line the first wall you’ll see. And a parted red curtain in the walkway makes the store feel like home.
Before ordering, I sit at the counter looking out onto Audubon. Knick-knacks, like tiny scarecrows and newspaper clippings, line the window. A bulletin board hanging next to the counter reminds me of upcoming events. I feel as though I’d walked into a community, or maybe a cult.
Bob Marley grooves on repeat as I approach the cash register. I notice that, unlike at Blue State, the baristas wear what they want – no uniform needed. The man behind the register sports a gray vest over a button-down shirt tucked into faded jeans. Long dreadlocks rest bundled on his shoulders. He quickly prepares my chai latte and corn muffin with a smile. I grab my drink and settle into the gray chez in the back corner, the only seat open at 2:30 p.m.
There I relax until 4:00 p.m. as a breeze creeps through the open door to Koffee?’s backyard, a sparse plot with rusty benches. Despite people-watching all afternoon inside the store, I exit as confused about the mismatched couches and tables as when I entered. On my way out, I ask the dreadlocked barista if he has time to talk about Koffee? tomorrow. He agrees.
I return to the shop at 2:30 p.m. the next day and find him stacking milk cartons behind the counter. We walk outside to chat in the backyard. His name is Nate Blair. He is wearing a tattered purple shirt and stained pants with holes, a sharp contrast from his gray vest yesterday. He removes a cigarette from his front pocket as we begin to talk. I ask him to explain Koffee?’s vibe.
“Growing up in New Haven in the early nineties, I noticed that coffee was like a counterculture, catering to non-mainstream, dirty, grungy people.” Blair told me. “Now coffee has become this huge business. Dunkin Donuts is everywhere, and there was even a Starbucks on Tiananmen Square for a while, which blew my mind.
“But Koffee? manages to maintain that 1990s feel in the sense of being a little quirky, having some mismatched chairs, nooks and crannies, and baristas that are encouraged to be individuals rather than robots,” he explained.
This quirkiness fosters camaraderie between customers. Koffee? welcomes all wanderers to bask in its soothing drinks, music performances, and “Koffee? after dark”—when the cafe becomes a bar. And while Koffee? is always open to Yalies, I wonder whether many of us would fit in here.
It’s easy to see Koffee?’s appeal to college students. The place revels in its originality — the kitschy name, out-of-season Christmas lights, flea market curtains, and curved windows.
The Koffee? question is left unanswered. Is the place a cafe? A restaurant? A dive? Most employees probably couldn’t tell you, maybe because they don’t care. The store refuses to conform, especially to the gentrified, Portlandia hipster. Its customers range from middle-aged office workers and grad students to retirees, young wanderers, and indie music junkies. You won’t find bearded, flannel-wearing baristas praising the store’s superior coffee. As good as the drinks are, they seem like an afterthought at Koffee?.
“Koffee? actively tries to be a social place. The environment and spacing is conducive to interacting with strangers and just getting a cup of coffee with a friend and sitting in a comfy chair,” Blair said. “One of the bigger differences between Koffee? and the other New Haven shops is that we have regulars who know each other specifically from Koffee?.”
Koffee? has a lot in common with college life. The store opens its doors to all people and almost demands individuality from those who enter. This message mirrors the one freshmen heard during orientation: There is no right way to do Yale.
Like Yale implores its undergraduates to learn from their peers, Koffee? highlights its community more than its brews. Customers often read the bulletin board more closely than they do the menu. Koffee?, then, seems to embody the college experience. With each eclectic couch and late-night performer, the place beckons students.
But when I look around, I don’t see many Yale sweatshirts. Unlike Blue State, Koffee? does not teem with undergraduates, bumping into each other as they wait in line and jot quick bursts on their phones.
Blair admitted that Koffee? “is out of the beaten path” for students. He added that the store’s culture may not mesh so well with the Blue State crowd. “They act as though Koffee? is an extension of their cafeteria whereas some people act like it’s a place where they have chosen to come to because they actually appreciate the place,” Blair said.
I can’t tell whether Blair is being cynical or brutally honest. Maybe he’s being both. When I first met him, he mocked freshman year introductions. “Everyone in your class is trying to sound like they’re the smartest kid there,” Blair said. “When I worked at Miya’s, I loved the first three weeks because you could immediately tell who the freshmen were because they were trying so hard to impress the other freshmen who are also trying so hard to impress the other freshmen.”
Koffee? forces its customers to chat. The couches arranged in small clusters and the communal tables almost beg coffee enthusiasts to sit and talk. As New Haven residents relax and converse, Koffee? thrums with one voice. Yale students who see coffee shops as a space to work would not find that in Koffee?, which values the social over the studious.
When I approach Roberta, a Koffee? regular, she looks shocked. “You must be pretty brave to come introduce yourself to me,” she laughed.
To some locals like Roberta, the closed-off attitude from Yale students conveys entitlement. Blair claimed to receive different treatment from Yale students and New Haven residents.
“Most students have never held a job in their life, and that means that they don’t know what it’s like to work a long day and to have to see somebody everyday that you have to be nice to even though they don’t treat you as a person,” Blair said. “Young people don’t often appreciate the job that you’re doing.”
While I know that many Yale students do have jobs, I recognize Blair’s frustration.
“Tipping the barista means you care,” Blair stressed. “There’s a guy named John, and every single time he comes, he’ll order a small black coffee and then he’ll say, ‘This is for you guys,’ and he puts in a nickel in the tip jar. If you tip at a coffee shop, you think it doesn’t matter, but it makes a world of a difference because it means that you see the person on the other side of the counter as a human being who has a life and is doing things.”
Blair seems to see Koffee? at the edge of the divide between Yale and New Haven. The place has the potential to connect students with New Haveners looking for music and community. It props its door open for Yale students — and yet some enter with blinders. Koffee?, with its bizarre panache, yells its advice: Explore. Open to the city and it will open to you.
“I’ve worked in New Haven my whole life, and I definitely think I can read people. It’s interesting because the effect of the students is that of entitlement,” Blair said as he stomped his cigarette in the dirt. “If it weren’t that way, there would probably be less of a divide between New Haven and students.”
He smiles, shakes my hand, and bounds up the back stairs into the shop. There is a line of customers waiting.