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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Get a shot of culture with your morning joe

July 10. 2013 8:21PM

Throughout our city, is there a Dunkin' Donuts more than a mile away from another one?

Queen City street corners abound with purveyors of Dunkin' Donuts coffee. If caffeine were illegal, Dunkin' would by far be the biggest drug kingpin in the city, if not the state.

Yet, there is one spot in Manchester where coffee dealers are street level. Where the owner of the business could very well be pouring your morning jolt of java.

Welcome to downtown. Odd, isn't it, that the big-business epicenter of the state — crammed with its bank headquarters, corporate lawyers and sharply dressed executives — offers no corporate coffee. No Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks or Panera.

Rather, downtown runs on a mix of locally owned coffee shops, all with their little quirks.

Some give just the basics, while others provide atmosphere as thick as a cappuccino with two shots of espresso.

"I can get away from the ordeals of the world. I can have coffee, chat with the staff, although it would be nice to have couches," said Ben Sherry, a student at Southern New Hamsphire University, as he worked on homework on his notebook at the liquor bar of the Baked coffee shop/bakery/bar.

Not too long ago, Dunkin' Donuts was downtown, sharing a space with Papa John's at the corner of Elm and Concord streets. It closed 15 months ago.

"I took away their customers who were maybe looking for something a lot better," said Jim Whitney, owner of J. Dubs Coffee, located across Elm Street in the New Hampshire Plaza building.

Patricia Lincoln, vice president of operations for Dunkin' franchisee NGP Management, said the company owner decided to close the Elm Street Dunkin.' (It operates about 15 other Dunkin' franchises in the city, Lincoln said.)

She can't explain why the company dumped the downtown Dunkin', and it may possibly open another downtown location. But Lincoln doesn't know when that will be.

What follows is my quick guide for coffee drinkers the next time they venture downtown, based on atmosphere.

• Manhattan. Baked Downtown Cafe and Bakery opened at the Dunkin' Donuts/Papa John's spot a little more than a year ago. It brags it is the only bakery with a bar in the state, and it serves breakfast, lunch and light dinners.

"We're a little bit of everything, a Panera on steroids," said Dale Keough, executive pastry chef and a co-owner.

The south wall has a wood panel that matches the bar. Three flat-screen TVs play on mute at the bar, while Sinatra and jazz waft from speakers.

It sells organic, free-trade coffee. A 16-ounce cup of coffee with tax is $1.91.

• Northwest grunge. The Bridge Cafe on Elm has been tucked away in a storefront just south of the former Bank of America building for five years. Alt-rock plays in the background.

The daily breakfast and lunch menus are written on chalkboards, and the staff wear jeans and black T-shirts. Walls are mango colored, and a few broad-leafed, potted plants grow in the window.

Owner Roi Shpindler said he'd never think of getting in a price war over coffee.

"I think you decrease the worth of your business when you try to give away something for nothing," he said.

Coffee: a cool $2.

• The Salesman. J. Dubs Coffee squeezes itself into 517 square feet of storefront at the New Hampshire Plaza. There's no room for restrooms, so the city won't allow tables inside his shop.

While it offers pastries, bagels, fresh fruit and sodas, coffee makes up 85 percent of sales, the largest by far of any of the merchants interviewed.

The shop sells its own signature blend of coffee, and the owner compares coffee to wine when it comes to flavor subtleties, aroma and balance. Whitney, the enthusiastic, middle-aged owner, opened the shop five years ago, after ditching a sales job with Verizon Wireless in Massachusetts.

"Sales is sales, whether it's wireless or coffee. It's all about customer experience," he said.

Sale price for coffee: $2.25.

• The Left Bank. Cafe Le Reine opened this April on Elm Street across from City Hall.

Alexandra Puglisi, a recent St. Anselm College grad, said she wasn't intimidated by the number of nearby coffee shops.

"I think we all offer something different as far as the atmosphere of the product," she said. The French trappings include curtains on the windows, a few easy chairs, a three-spout espresso machine and dark, moody interior lighting.

But there are no baguettes or Edith Piaf on the stereo. Puglisi said the French emphasis is on café culture, which calls for lingering and taking your time to enjoy a coffee or flatbread sandwich.

Tasse coffee: $2.13.

• Average Joe. At the City Hall Plaza, Ahh-Some Gourmet Coffee has been in business for more than a decade. Its sign boasts Green Mountain Coffee, but owner Dave Daniels said he now sells Fairwinds Coffee. And unlike his competitors, he wants to compete on price.

"You go to McDonald's, 99 cents; Mobil on the Run, 99 cents," he said.

Daniels said most of his customers work in the skyscraper where his business is located. His biggest competitors are the law firms and marketing firms themselves; they provide free K-cups for their employees.

So he relies on the lunch trade, which is as frenzied as the third cup of morning coffee.

"Today's workday, you're up and down the elevator, grab a sandwich in 15 minutes. If they have a 15-minute lunch break, we're happy to help them," Daniels said.

His 16-ouncer: $1.64.

Such is Manchester downtown's coffee culture.

It's great to have all the choices (after all, on some weird morning in the future I might want a martini with my muffin). And besides Daniels, no one's interested in starting a price war.

But the cup you are enjoying today, may not be around tomorrow.

"The pie's only so big," Daniels said, "you just keep cutting it up. Some aren't going to make it."

Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and Half of this article was written by coffee-torqued fingers.

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