Bolt in Place: Fastening a coffee fixture in Providence
Almost a decade before founding The Dallas Morning News, in 1876 A.H. Belo installed the first commercial telephone in Texas, registering the line to a local coffee merchant whose sons worked for his Galveston newspaper. More than a century later, when A.H. Belo Corporation purchased The Providence Journal in 1996 for $1.54 billion, the Dallas-based media group acquired not only the newspaper, but also several television stations and properties in downtown Providence, including the Parkade, a four-story parking garage on Washington Street. The local affiliate of environmental nonprofit Groundwork USA occupied the sole office space on the ground level. After their lease went unrenewed, the storefront sat vacant for years. Before offloading The Providence Journal for $46 million, A.H. Belo Corp. put its real estate up for sale. In 2010 Cornish Associates bought the garage and retrofitted a streetside swath for retail.
For Ellen Slattery, founder of Gracie’s fine dining (194 Washington St), the new space was less than a quarter-mile from her restaurant. In late 2012, she announced the forthcoming arrival of “Gracie’s little sister Ellie’s,” hosting a soft opening before the year’s end. Built into the ground level of the Biltmore Garage, as the Parkade had been renamed, Slattery described Ellie’s as an “intimate” bakery “inspired by the Parisian way of life.” With less than 900 square feet, she anticipated Gracie’s patrons stopping in for takeaway bread and baked goods, such as braided orange and anise brioche dusted with pistachio and rhubarb-custard galettes. Instead, counter seating for eight people inside and sidewalk seating for another eight outside stayed in demand year-round. Ellie’s customers requested a more robust menu.
“There was a craving for some sort of community, coffee, food establishment in that location,” said Slattery.
After Ellie’s opened, the stretch of Washington Street a block from Providence City Hall went on to feature Red Fin Crudo + Kitchen, Figidini, Ken’s Ramen and Downcity Outfitters. The businesses’ staff often met in the back, where shipping containers served as dry storage. In their kitchen, Ellie’s reassessed their menu to include breakfast and lunch sandwiches and specialty coffee with a commitment to sourcing their ingredients from local farms and producers.
“We’re not going to cook things for our own egos,” said Max Hodge, hospitality and service director at Ellie’s. “What do you want to be part of this community?”
After nearly six years on Washington Street, Ellie’s closed in April 2019 to relocate into a larger space (225 Weybosset St) across from the Providence Performing Arts Center. The adjacent unit once rented by Downcity Outfitters had become a workshop and storage space for Big Nazo Lab’s life-size foam puppets and extraterrestrial creations. Cornish divided the creatures’ lair to create two larger units. Urban Fellow barbershop claimed half the space when it moved from Warwick in May. In October, Bolt Coffee Company announced plans to open its first standalone cafe in the other half, returning food and coffee to the former home of Ellie’s.
During winter, strips of white papering covered floor-to-ceiling windows to allow for electrical, plumbing and carpentry work behind the scenes. Besides the permits on display, the sole exterior indicator of Bolt’s intentions was its promise of “coming soon.” By the end of February, sawdust covered an unfinished and unfurnished space. Within a week, however, Bolt finished its interior set-up and posted a photo on Instagram of a table and chair set captioned, “pretty much ready.” The following morning, a Reddit post announced Bolt was set for a soft opening.
On Friday, March 6, when Bolt co-founder Bryan Gibb and his team unlocked the doors to 61 Washington Street, the Instagram and Reddit teasers and word of mouth had spread awareness of the cafe’s preview mode. Customers, both planned and passing, stopped in. At times, a line stretched outside.
“Getting open always takes longer than you hope,” said Justin Enis, coffee director and barista at Bolt, “but welcoming our city into our own space is a very special thought for us all.”
Bolt co-founders Bryan Gibb and Todd Mackey met before working together at New Harvest Coffee Roasters in Pawtucket in 2011. Gibb had remained close to home, having grown up in Foster. Mackey moved to Rhode Island after graduating from the University of Connecticut. Bolt started as a mobile coffee cart in 2012. Mackey registered the business, and Gibb secured the requisite license from the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles to hitch the 6-foot trailer to his car. They started out serving Madcap Coffee from Grand Rapids, Michigan, while catering weddings and other events, then setting up at a pop-up space at 745 Westminster Street on the west side of Providence.
When ASH NYC, a hotel design firm headquartered in New York whose CEO, Ari Heckman, grew up in Providence, announced plans to purchase the Sportsman’s Inn downtown and convert the adult-entertainment lounge and pay-by-the-hour motel into a boutique hotel, the project led to Gibb trading his mobile cart for dedicated counter space. The Dean Hotel (122 Fountain St) opened in April 2014 with Bolt intact in its lobby. Gibb said he worked seven days a week after The Dean opened, and baristas Kacey Silvia and Justin Enis soon joined the effort. The momentum and revenue, said Gibb, enabled Bolt to grow and hire.
By 2016, Gibb and Mackey looked to expand. A proposal for a Biltmore Park waffle bar and coffee stand in the former NBC 10 WJAR kiosk, once a lounge for bus drivers, failed to materialize, but Bolt opened its second location at the RISD Museum that June. Café Pearl honored Pearl Nathan, a former English teacher at Barrington High School who had volunteered as a docent at the RISD Museum for more than 60 years. A month before she passed away at 103, Nathan joined family for a passionfruit doughnut at her namesake cafe.
Alongside Bolt’s expansion, a separate venture co-founded with Adam Lastrina, who had worked at Seven Stars Bakery, led to the 2016 debut of Knead Doughnuts (32 Custom House St) on the ground level of apartments redeveloped by ASH NYC, the firm behind The Dean. Wetherley Rouleau, also of Seven Stars, headed Knead’s kitchen. In 2018, the doughnut shop opened a second location on the East Side of Providence (135 Elmgrove Ave) with a play kitchen for children in the back and a rotating display of old-fashioned cake, brioche dough and fritter specialties with drip coffee up front.
After six years of serving other independent coffee brands, in February 2018 Bolt roasted its first batch of beans in a 2,400-square-foot former auto-repair shop turned interior-design studio leased in Smith Hill (96 Calverley St). Mackey worked as a training manager and trader at Olam Specialty Coffee, a Providence-based division of the multinational food and agricultural distributor, Olam International, headquartered in Singapore. With access to wholesale coffee beans, Bolt’s team began to explore the taste profiles they wished to create. Their own roasts began to appear at their locations at the Dean and the RISD Museum as well as at Knead. They later made their way to the shelves of Nine Bar Espresso in Somerville, Massachusetts; Silk City Coffee in Manchester, Connecticut; Third Rail Coffee in Manhattan and Ugly Duck Coffee in Rochester, New York. Under the moniker Calverley Club, Bolt has also experimented with toll-roasting, a process of roasting beans to set specifications, with custom work done for the Nitro Bar inside Dash Bicycle Shop (228 Broadway) and Beautiful Day, a granola company employing refugees.
In May 2019, Knead opened a third location and moved its production to the West End (55 Cromwell St). As part of the process, Knead founded the Providence Kitchen Collaborative as a commercial kitchen for startup food businesses. There, Knead’s bakery shares space with Big Feeling ice cream and sorbet, Brown Paper Bounty charcuterie, HG80 tacos and sodas, and Weenie Wizard hot dogs. Serving another center for entrepreneurship, in October 2019 Bolt set up a weekday espresso bar at District Hall, a free, drop-in workspace run by Venture Café (225 Dyer St). Knead also hatched Good Egg as a separate project to serve as a wholesale distributor of baked goods. With its latest cafe, Bolt employs more than 30 people. Together, Knead and Good Egg employ a similar number.
“My mission statement for doing business generally is to bring people together,” said Gibb.
The soft opening at Washington Street will help Bolt to refine its process and staffing needs, said Gibb. The cafe’s eventual hours of operation will be 7am until 10pm seven days a week, with breakfast, lunch and evening nibbles served alongside a lineup of beer, wine and saké. Drip coffee will be brewed during the day, with espresso drinks and pourovers available until late.
“This is the first time we are calling a space our own,” said Enis, “so it was super important to us for it to hit the mark as to how we see Bolt looking and feeling.”
PRŠIĆ & PRŠIĆ, an architecture and design office that neighbors Knead’s bakery in the West End, worked with Gibb to construct the layout. Longtime customers of Bolt at the Dean, the firm’s co-founders Almin Pršić and Cara Liberatore had Bolt cater coffee at their wedding.
“The project emerged from a series of simple, clear ambitions, to create a space where people can gather throughout the day and night, to foster community by blurring the boundary between employee and customer, and to unify two storefronts that had previously been separate spaces,” wrote Liberatore in an email.
High ceilings and expansive windows reveal a C-shaped bar as the central fixture in a room defined by a sense of symmetry. A Linea PB espresso machine from La Marzocco rests at its center, with steel counters set into terracotta hues. The bar was hand-finished by Joshua Kampa, who runs Providence-based PRAXIS Art and Design, a studio and fabrication shop. Bolt’s walls are unadorned beyond potted plants on overhead shelving and spare lighting developed by New York-based Rich Brilliant Willing, a manufacturer founded by three RISD alums. Leon Ransmeier, another RISD alum in New York, designed the bar stools for Danish design firm, HAY. Amidst the contemporary touches are vintage wooden chairs from Germany.
PRŠIĆ & PRŠIĆ also attempted to replicate Bolt’s communal table at the Dean, wrote Liberatore, to encourage “both friends and strangers to informally commingle.” The furnishings can be reconfigured depending on the needs of the day or to accommodate special events or pop-ups. While sidewalk seating has not been set up, the city’s board of licenses approved outdoor dining. As of its first weekend in preview mode, a Bolt Coffee sign hangs out front from the garage overhang, in line with neighbors Red Fin, Tori Tomo, Figidini and Urban Fellow.
“They’re moving to such a fun part of that block,” said Hodge of Ellie’s. He said when the bakery moved to Weybosset St, he forgot to remove a plastic bag filled with clean kitchen towels hidden in the ceiling, a tactic to ensure staff would never be without a backup supply.
“We didn’t find the towels,” said Gibb, “but we did keep some of their graffiti in the kitchen.”
As chef, Trinity Auriemma leads Bolt’s approach to food. In his role behind the counter of Café Pearl at the RISD Museum, he worked with a single convection oven and standard refrigeration to maintain a limited, vegetarian- and vegan-friendly menu with his own takes on avocado toast, whipped ricotta toast, and grits mixed with marscapone, scallions, and chimichurri. At the new cafe, Auriemma has access to a custom-built kitchen and line staff, which he said will enable Bolt to have greater capacity and room to be creative.
For the soft opening, a simple menu features four choices: egg scramble with kale and hot sauce on brioche, kale salad in a coconut vinaigrette, a mackerel and pickle plate, and butter bean and parsnip soup finished with kale and charred lemon. A more expansive menu will be available when the cafe opens in full. Auriemma credited local growers Wishing Stone Farm in Little Compton and Moonrose Farm in Cranston as well as seafood from Point Judith along the Narragansett Bay for their fare.
“It’s kind of outrageous to think about what can be grown here in such a small radius,” said Enis.
“I’m trying not to be like a kid in a candy store and grab everything at once,” said Auriemma. “I really like food to be super collaborative because it just comes out better.”
Growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey, Auriemma got his culinary start while in high school, working at Thirty Acres in neighboring Jersey City. The Kickstarter-launched restaurant started by Momofuku alums introduced him to the kitchen work required when preparing an 11-course tasting menu. He moved to Providence to study at Johnson & Wales University. During his sophomore year, Auriemma was hired at North Bakery (formerly 70 Battey St) and began to organize pop-up and private dinners, experiences he said showcased a spirit of community and creativity. He started at Bolt’s RISD Museum location in 2018.
“There’s something to say about Providence as a whole,” said Auriemma, “where I think if you are passionate about something, even if they don’t share your passion, they’re passionate about your passion.”
“I feel like Trinity, when he talks about food and lights up, it’s like me with coffee,” said Enis, who recalled his first day training as a barista at Seven Stars Bakery when Bolt’s future co-founder Mackey introduced him to an Ethiopian pourover made with a Chemex coffeemaker.
Enis later became a quality control technician at Equal Exchange, the largest fair-trade coffee distributor in the United States. He said tasting 25,000 samples of coffee within two years at Equal Exchange informed his palate and now influences his approach to roasting beans with Bolt. He competed in the US Barista Championship twice and in the US Brewers Cup once.
“If someone comes in and just wants your large regular, all day, let’s do it,” said Enis. “If they want to come in and geek out about anaerobic fermentation, great, let’s do it.”
At Bolt’s Smith Hill roastery and headquarters, Enis and other Bolt staff lead coffee tastings and home-brew workshops open to the public, with advance registration requested. At District Hall, Bolt barista Casey Belisle explained a custom-made system to work around water limitations. Without a hookup to the building’s piping, Belisle stirs mineral packets into distilled water to ensure the right qualities for pulling an espresso. At Bolt’s new cafe, a reverse osmosis filtration system protects its espresso machine from the corroding effects of Providence’s water supply.
“Just like our coffee,” said Kat Bishop, who oversees Bolt’s beer and wine selection, “we’re focusing on small growers and sustainable farming and high-quality product.”
Bishop moved to Providence from St. Croix, one of the US Virgin Islands, to study illustration at RISD. She joined Bolt from New Rivers (7 Steeple St) and remains a member of the cooperative Fortnight Wine Bar (79 Dorrance St). She said Bolt will serve “crisp whites, deep reds and weird, funky orange wines,” as well as beers that are both creative and accessible.
While no current craft-beer collaborations are on tap, Bolt has worked with brewers in the past. Integrating coffee from Bolt, Proclamation Ale Company in Warwick released its Moon Destroyer and Zzzlumber imperial stouts and Buttonwoods Brewery in Cranston breathed life into Death + Co, a coffee stout. Enis said he’s looking forward to working on roasts for lighter beers as well.
Bolt maintains a relationship with Night Shift Brewery in Everett, Massachusetts, supporting its move into coffee roasting. At the request of Dolores (100 Hope St), a restaurant from the Meza family behind El Rancho Grande (311 Plainfield St), Bolt developed its Peñas Negras roast, sourcing beans from Pluma Hidalgo in Oaxaca, Mexico. A nascent program to support local businesses and organizations includes an upcoming blend to benefit the Montessori Community School of Rhode Island and another under development for Lang’s Bowlarama (225 Niantic Ave, Cranston).
“We’re a hospitality business,” said Kamila Garay, general manager of operations for Bolt’s new cafe. “We get to facilitate that through coffee, through food, and through beer and wine.”
Garay attended RINIMC High School, a nursing charter school in Providence, located across a parking lot from Bolt when it opened at the Dean. She sometimes skipped class to stay longer, she said, sitting in her nursing scrubs with a cup of coffee while getting to know the staff and customers. When the RISD Museum location opened in 2016, Gibb offered her a job as a barista. Garay said through her work with Bolt she believed coffee could bring people together and good service could play a role in giving people the respect they deserved.
“We just want people to feel like they belong somewhere, like this is a place for them,” said Garay. “Our business is more than just a business. It really is a community.”
At the end of the 19th century, the Washington Street building was home to Snow & Farnham publishing house, which emerged from the Providence Press Company. While Texas publisher A.H. Belo was getting The Dallas Morning News off the ground, his Providence contemporary Joseph Ellis Coffee Farnham published a travelogue of a trip he took from Providence to Dallas. Over the years, other tenants specialized in elastic stockings, billiard supplies, engraved stationery and women’s hats. The Good Luck Tea & Coffee Shoppe sat upstairs, advertised before World War II as “a quiet place to lunch and rest.” On the back side stood Fay’s Theatre, a vaudeville house and cinema, torn down in 1951. After the block was demolished and rebuilt as the Shoppers Parkade during the 1960s, Winkler’s Steak House and the Buttery Coffee Shop found homes in the parking garage. The Buttery became a Mister Donut before the franchise faded after its acquisition and conversion into Dunkin’ Donuts.
“It was an eyesore,” said Slattery of Ellie’s, “but once they put the awning up, it was amazing how that entire space transformed and I just loved how they were taking a parking garage and turning it into a multifaceted building. So it was really an exciting project to be part of.”
Before Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo declared a state of emergency due to coronavirus (COVID-19), Bolt held internal meetings about the topic, cancelled an upcoming public cupping at its roastery, and instituted policies of wiping down surfaces every hour with alcohol rub sanitizer and prohibiting the use of refillable travel cups. Enis said Bolt’s other locations will follow the lead of the Dean, the RISD Museum and District Hall on staying open and will determine any changes to their hours or operations based on risks to public health.
“A lot of businesses are in the same position,” said Gibb. “We’re doing our best to keep our staff and customers safe and caffeinated.”
During the first week of Bolt’s soft opening, a steady flow of customers placed their orders. One customer set a helmet on the table beside her lipstick and coffee, leaving her Genuine Buddy 50 scooter parked out front. Another asked a Bolt barista whether a malfunctioning meter out front was a valid parking space. Even with the Biltmore Garage overhead, many of Bolt’s customers walked. Espresso drinks crisscrossed the counter, and a selection of doughnuts from Knead and pastries from Good Egg sat on display plates. Featured roasts included the Pasto from Colombia, the Ramiro Caballero from Honduras, the Sero Bebes from Papua New Guinea, and others packaged for home use. Printed on each bag is Bolt’s ambition: “Hopefully this coffee can help bring people together, or at least make it easier to be around the ones already here.”
Bolt Coffee Company’s new downtown Providence location is currently open in preview mode at 61 Washington St. The cafe will be open from 7am until 10pm seven days a week.