To say Brew Urban Cafe is a nice spot to grab a cup of coffee is an understatement. Brew is a cultural institution in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where properly trained baristas serve delicately steamed milk to infuse with pulled shots of Intelligensia espresso. It's a hub where denizens and tourists alike gather, connect, and actually engage in meaningful conversations, oftentimes leading to lifelong friendships. I would know, as I worked there from 2007 to 2010.
"How did you two meet?" friends would ask. "Oh, we met at the Brew last month. We're soulmates."
The indie coffee company has two locations, one in Victoria Park and the other in Himmarshee, Fort Lauderdale's nightlife district. As the Himmarshee district continues to transform from indie enclave to a playground where bedazzled bros run rampant, many locals have moved on to find new places to frequent. Unfortunately, this loss in popularity to a once-thriving neighborhood is bad for coffee-shop business, and thus, sadly, Brew Urban Cafe's Himmarshee location is shuttering its doors today at 8 p.m.
The Victoria Park location, however, is flourishing and is to remain open, according to owner Bob Denison, who purchased the two shops in late 2009 from the previous owners and founders, Rick and Dede Hunter.
"Closing the Himmarshee location was one of the hardest decisions we've made, ever," says Denison. "Before we owned Brew, we were loyal fans like most Brew customers. We had a strong connection to the Himmarshee store. Taking over that location was something we felt was a sacred thing. In many ways, we felt it was Rick's baby. Closing it down sucks."
News broke last Thursday about the shop's closing when a notice was posted at the downtown store stating: "We are moving into some new opportunities. Please visit us at our Victoria Park location while we prepare for some new, exciting coffee fun."
Granted, "coffee fun" sounds appealing, but what does this mean? What does this mean for the Fort Lauderdale community at large?
As the shocking news sunk in, many customers and former employees began to lament. Why would they close the shop? We had so many beautiful memories there.
Then rumors began to spread that whoever took over the shop's lease intends to transform the cozy, artsy space into a sushi eatery. Gee, just what South Florida needs, another sushi restaurant.
Longtime Brew customer Pete Sharas agrees Fort Lauderdale would fare better with more indie coffee shops. He's been frequenting the café since it opened in 2005 and even before that, when the caffeine haunt was called Two Street Coffee Garage.
"I'm heartbroken. Brew has been a big part of my life," he says. "To me, this coffee shop is not just a coffee shop; it's a place that provides a sense of community, a sense of Fort Lauderdale. By closing it, we are kind of losing the soul of Fort Lauderdale."
In addition to the Hunters, Jonathan Gundlach and his then wife, Sarah Radar, were founding owners of Brew Urban Cafe.
"I sold out of ownership in 2008 and moved to San Francisco, but Brew is always my first stop when visiting Fort Lauderdale," says Gundlach from his San Fran home. "I met my best friends there -- people who now live all over the world and yet we are still connected through that shop.
"It was a kind of place where people wanted to work. And when they weren't working, they would come in on their days off and enjoy the place. Our customers made themselves at home and would often stop by two or three times a day, treating the store as an extension of their living room, which was great from our perspective."
He moved to Fort Lauderdale in 2002 and stumbled upon Two Street Coffee Garage, which was closely modeled off of Seattle's renowned Caffe Vita. The Two Street owners worked at Caffe Vita and sought to bring quality espresso, proper milk steaming techniques, and latte art to South Florida.
"They were the only good coffee and espresso place in South Florida at the time," Gundlach says. "They had a great product and a small, loyal following but weren't making it financially. Eventually, they went out of business. A good friend of mine, Rick Hunter, and I thought there was potential in that original shop, so we opened the store back up in 2005 under the name of Brew Urban Cafe."
In 2007, Brew Urban Cafe expanded, opening two new locations: one in Flagler Village and the other in Victoria Park. The Flagler Village Brew flopped and closed within six months. Victoria Park slowly built momentum and now draws a steady customer base.
But it is the Himmarshee location that is arguably the most charming, with its tucked-away location situated along railroad tracks. Its atmosphere beckons and invites you to stay. The interior walls are painted with a pumpkin-orange mural, and the plank floors throughout
accented by mixed-wood fixtures and a shiny Italian-crafted Marzocco machine offer an escape from typical South Florida living.
The downtown Brew served selected wine and craft brew before the average drinker knew what an IPA was. Art and music nights transformed the space into an electric destination for creative folks. The staff was close, a crew that treated one another like family.
Lucas Hollar, one of the shop's baristas with the longest tenure, began working at Two Street in 2002 and left Brew in 2009 so he could finish his PhD. Hollar heard about the fateful news yesterday.
"It's a shame downtown Fort Lauderdale isn't going to have a coffee shop," he says. "One thing that resonates with a lot of us is how special the place was to so many people."
In 2004, Hollar met his future wife when he made her a cinnamon-infused latte called an Electric Shock. "Jen walked into the shop one day, and we got married in 2009," he says. "It wasn't unusual as a barista to hear people say, 'I met my girlfriend here. I met my wife here.'"
As today is the last for this little shop graced with a bit of magic, fans and former and current employees are expected to gather there for a farewell around 6 p.m., and the shop will officially shutter at 8 p.m.
"I was always a closer, so it's nostalgic for me to work a closing shift," says Hollar. "I would be thrilled to help the barista close the shop, but unfortunately, I'm in Atlanta and can't be there."
Jonathan Gundlach has launched a Facebook page for fans to share old photos and post their memories of the "best, little coffee shop in Fort Lauderdale."
Looking forward, current owner Denison affirms that big plans are underway. "We're committed to being a part of Fort Lauderdale's coffee culture. We're exploring a partnership with one of downtown's most creative forces and hope to have something really exciting to share soon," he says. No baristas are expected to be laid off due to the closing, according to Denison.
Have you ever been to Brew in Himmarshee? If so, share your thoughts with Clean Plate Charlie in the comments below.
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