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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Scene in South Bend: Zen Cafe

JOSEPH HAN | The Observer
JOSEPH HAN | The Observer

As a college student, it’s often easy to slip into the habit of considering coffee as a means to an end – a jolt of liquid energy, necessary to propel your sleep-deprived person from dorm room to DeBartolo without crashing in the middle of South Quad. In a pinch, when the selections in Waddick's are particularly slim, I’ve been guilty of mixing random roasts together in my cup with reckless disregard for the integrity of flavor … as long as I get my full 16 ounces. It’s all just coffee, right?

Well, not exactly. Zen Cafe reminded me that coffee can also be an art form, and an exciting one at that.

This past Sunday, a fellow Scene writer and I attended the grand opening of Zen Cafe’s new permanent location inside LangLab, a multi-use workspace facility and concert venue located approximately 10 minutes south of Notre Dame’s campus. This is the Zen Cafe’s first permanent retail and tasting space, although they’ve been roasting and selling coffee in South Bend since their founding in 2010. The new cafe shares space with Violet Sky Chocolate, another small business native to South Bend.

Getting to the cafe was a bit of an adventure — the sun had already set, and raindrops pelted down from the inky sky as we scrambled from parking lot to the building. From the outside LangLab bears little resemblance to a place you’d typically expect to find an espresso machine. The only indication that you’re in the right place comes from a sign for “Event Entrance,” with another sign underneath that reads, cryptically, “You’re now here or you’re nowhere.”

Upon walking inside, we were immediately greeted by a warm and buzzing atmosphere. We chatted with the extremely personable owner, Shaun Maeyens, and agonized over latte orders. Treading cautiously so as not to ruin the perfectly crafted foam hearts in our drinks, we sat down near the edge of the room in some cushy chairs, next to an old Super Nintendo circa 1990. Super Mario All-Stars was paused mid-game. We made a few half-hearted attempts to play the video game, but I kept getting distracted by the need to take sips of my latte every other second.

And let me tell you about this latte – I selected Rosemary syrup for my latte at the suggestion of Shaun, and absolutely loved it. The pairing of the mellow, creamy coffee with strong but not overwhelming rosemary was both surprising and familiar, not to mention absolutely delicious. Other options for syrups that night included the Vanilla/Black Pepper Syrup made from Ugandan Vanilla Bean, Black Pepper, and Vegan Sugar (also highly praised by our group) and a Honey/Sage Syrup made from fresh sage and honey straight from South Bend’s own Unity Garden.

The opening night festivities included three local bands from the South Bend or Northwest Indiana area – in order of appearance, VAC, Analecta and Cloakroom. The aggressively loud music from the bar next door occasionally drowned out our voices and made it nearly impossible to carry on a conversation – but that was fine by me, because I was able focus on observing the eclectic and often surprising surroundings.

The space is spare and industrial, with a coffee bar on one half and a comfortable, quirky mix of mod seating arrangements on the other. Across from the coffee bar, there’s a beautiful mural of a tree that spans the length of the wall. Painted by Zen Cafe’s own Kelly Stombaugh, it depicts the genealogy of the coffee plant. One of the Zen Cafe team members and ND grad, Bret Colman, noted that “We like [the mural] because it reflects both our commitment to continual learning about coffee and our fascination with its complexity.”

The artwork echoes another larger goal of Zen Cafe: to source their coffee ethically and transparently. Zen Cafe delivers only organic, fair and direct trade products to their customers. The business also makes an effort to develop personal relationships with its suppliers, in regions ranging from Ethiopia to Nicaragua. Says Colman, “Our biggest focus is making sure our customers are drinking a delicious product, and that said product is reflective of ethical and sustainable business practices … the direct relationship we have with Rudy Carcamo [a farmer in La Union, Honduras] is a good example of how this sourcing methodology can bear some real fruit; there was no middle man in our transaction with Rudy for coffee this year, and we were able to pay him more than he's ever been paid for his crop.”

Zen Cafe is located at 1302 High Street, South Bend, IN. They are open 10 AM to 6 PM Monday through Thursday and 10 AM to 8 PM on Friday. In-house coffee offerings range from 2.5 to 6 dollars. In addition to their new café, they sell coffee at the South Bend Farmer’s Market (hours for the market can be found here) and you can buy bags of coffee online on their website.

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Photos courtesy of Caitlyn Jordan