The canopies over the patio at Northtown Coffee flutter above a half dozen people having a late Monday breakfast. Sunshine slants onto picnic tables where diners in beanies and sunglasses hunker over to-go cups, blueberry crumble bars and biscuit and egg sandwiches wrapped in checkered paper.
Inside, a red and yellow menu board hangs emblazoned with the Egghead menu — a handful of grab-and-go sandwiches with eggs, pork belly, greens, some with maple butter — and its logo, a cracked egg with glasses, drooling a little yolk. Beside the pair of glass cake stands packed with coffee cake and the covered tray of cookies is a stack of cards for Patches' Pastries. But this is still Northtown Coffee, right?
The 22-year-old coffee joint has done more than adapt to COVID-19, it's evolved into a three-part partnership, with owner Serg Mihaylo running the central coffee business and maintaining the building and utilities, and Egghead and Patches' Pastries sharing the space under a profit-sharing plan rather than renting from or strictly working for Northtown. So far, the scheme, built upon experimenting with pop-up Egghead brunches at the café, has been mutually beneficial, bringing in customers and helping a pair of budding businesses get their start.
Kevin Dikes wears a white chef coat and glasses that bear a notable resemblance to the ones on the aforementioned cartoon egg. His biscuit sandwiches are a process — the pork belly takes three days from brining, to rub, to slow cooking confit-style, submerged in its own fat, and pressing it under a sheet pan with a brick on top. It's worth it. The flavor of the meat and the richness of the fat are amplified and yield to biting as easily as the creamy egg yolk and the biscuit, a bready rectangle that holds up under the meat, eggs and translucent threads of onion jam.
Raised in Arcata, Dikes served as head chef at Embassy Suites in San Francisco but his appreciation for biscuits and low-and-slow cooking comes partly from his years working at Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. After returning to Humboldt, he tried pop-up dinners at Humboldt Bay Social Club but the pandemic put the kibosh on indoor dining. Northtown Coffee had space for patio brunches and, after a few months of Sundays, Mihaylo invited him to take over the kitchen.
Instead of renting a portion of the space or becoming an employee of Northtown, Dikes pays his way by sharing the profits from his food. The point of sale system, while unchanged on the customer side, sorts all the items according to which business they came from — down to the paintings by local artists on the walls — and the share of profits comes out of the weekly total. "I don't owe anything at the end of the month and the better I do the better he does," Dikes says. It also means he's free of the daunting initial overhead costs of getting a restaurant — even a truck can run tens of thousands — up and running. "It's very beneficial to a startup coming into a space." It also gives him room to spend a little more on ingredients, like eggs from Foggy Bottom Boys farm and Rumiano cheese. Between that and shopping for inexpensive seasonal ingredients at the farmers market, he's able to get the bulk of his inventory from local producers.
"I was looking to partner with people with energy," says Mihaylo, who wanted to pool resources and make the most of the space. He bought the shop in 2013 and updated the kitchen with a new ventilation system two years ago, allowing Northtown to do some real cooking. "It's really a COVID kind of opportunity — because of COVID, all these entrepreneurs were born ... and there was all this retail space." So he looked at his community network and found Dikes through mutual friends. "We just realized there was a lot more opportunity working together," he says.
Patch Fraga was working as a barista at Northtown and looking into running a cottage food business, but he had concerns about running it at the working ranch where he was living. Once he saw the opportunity to make a home for his bakery in the café's shared kitchen, he jumped at it. "It seemed like the perfect storm," he says. A graduate of the Oregon Culinary Institute, Fraga says, "At culinary school you learn to work in a small space so Northtown is a fit."
Like Dikes, Fraga says a stand-alone shop "would have been not affordable for me, at least at this state." The profit-sharing arrangement also offers him freedom to manage the budget for higher quality ingredients like vanilla bean and room to experiment. It makes a difference with items like the Portuguese rice pudding, for which he drew on his godmother and grandmother's recipes, adding his own flourishes like the touch of orange. The pudding is luxuriously thick, not overly sweet and a good reminder that milk is its own legitimate flavor. The perfectly cooked rice holds its shape but breaks at the press of your tongue.
That the pudding gets his grandmother's seal of approval, along with other Portuguese locals, is important to Fraga, who seems at home with Northtown's spirit of community inclusion. That extends to being upfront about Patches' being a trans-owned business, both in solidarity with the LGBTQ community and to expand non-LGBTQ people's ideas about who transgender people are. "You like that cookie? It was baked by a trans person," he says with a light chuckle.
In the back of the café, the wall once covered with event fliers is now mostly bare but for a couple notices and some thumb tacks. It's a reminder of Northtown's life before the pandemic as a hangout and a stage for spoken word, comedy and music open mic events. Mihaylo looks forward to getting back to that role. But for now, he is focused on the connections between his customers, his partners and the surrounding businesses. "We all kind of pitch in on that to keep it all rolling," he says of the expenses and labor in the café. And he's proud to have a core business that can help launch newer ones.
"We don't have to build three businesses from the ground up," says Mihaylo. "The overhead has been built — it's the house that coffee built."
Editor's note: This story has been updated after the Journal received clarification about Patch Fraga's concerns regarding starting a cottage food business at home.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.