Could a new wave of boutique coffee, beer and bao buns remake ‘Silver Sprung?’

By , on December 31, 2014


Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

SILVER SPRING, Md.—The tables are from Etsy. The music, obscure offerings from labels such as Electric Cowbell and 1432 R, comes in only one form: vinyl. The slickly packaged, whole-bean, single-origin coffee is local, of course. But, full disclosure on the bearded guy behind the espresso machine: He was sourced from Portland, Oregon.

Bump ‘n Grind , a chic coffee-shop-meets-record-store, wouldn’t raise an eyebrow on 14th Street or in a tucked-away alley in Shaw. But here it is, a bright and modern little hangout with room for about 50, loudly pumping funk music on a desolate stretch in Silver Spring.

“D.C. has 40 specialty coffee shops, but there’s not a lot out here,” said the beard, Ben Rowland, who is Bump ‘n Grind’s “head of coffee culture.” The human compulsion to explore could explain what drew him from Dupont Circle, the site of his former job, out to East-West Highway.

To the north, there’s makeup emporium Ulta and the Fillmore, the corporate-run music venue where you might have seen the likes of Iggy Azalea performing on the cusp of her airwave domination. Scattered among them are excellent hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants, the kind of places that cut their lights at 9 p.m. But there’s not much else because, well …

“How much time do you have?” said Mike Diegel, nursing a cold D.C. Brau at the coffee shop’s recent opening party. Diegel, chairman of the Silver Spring Arts and Entertainment District Advisory Committee, sat on a task force last year that addressed Montgomery County’s big First World predicament: It’s not cool. Not in the way exuded by Petworth, or Shaw, or Logan Circle, or even Clarendon, which is where all the Montgomery natives seem to be fleeing to.

In fact, a decade after the county wooed the AFI Silver theatre to the neighbourhood, installed some parking garages and declared Silver Spring “sprung,” it’s clear that the springing of Silver Sprung hasn’t been quite so pat.

Bump ‘n Grind was born at Burning Man. Joe Liehr remembers this much: After spending a week bonding with his friend David Fogel in the sweat lodge of the Nevada desert, the two convened a meeting in another sort of desert—Fogel’s neighbourhood in Silver Spring.

Here, all around him, Fogel sees missed opportunities. One rainy morning this month, while the La Marzocco hummed and Rowland and barista Rob Johnson perfected their caffeinated-beverage-making, Fogel pointed to a complex across the street where a grocery chain had once been slated to open. The 30,000-square-foot retail space still sits empty.

Here, in the midst of a half-dozen high-rise buildings and a whole lot of nothing, is where Fogel brought Liehr post-Burning Man. “What do you think about opening a coffee shop here?” he said.

Liehr, who lives in Petworth, was working in mortgages, doing “kind of soul-sucking work,” he says, “sitting behind a desk all day.” But he wasn’t all stable jobs and retirement plans; he was a DJ, too, and the idea slowly began to appeal to him. Mind you, he trusted Fogel, a onetime urban planner who had worked for Gateway Georgia Avenue Community Development. Fogel struck out on his own in 2007, launching a new-media marketing firm, then a co-operative office space. Adding to his trifecta of curious new-economy businesses is Bump ‘n Grind, which he hopes—employing urban-development-speak for a coffee shop—will become this area’s much-needed “third space.”

It’s also precisely the sort of place that the county and developers are hoping for. “As neighbourhoods change character and get redeveloped, the thing that’s hard to avoid is having a certain blandness and sameness,” said Don Hague, senior vice-president for development for Home Properties, which operates the residential building above Bump ‘n Grind and is the coffee shop’s landlord.

National chains, he concedes, don’t usher vibrancy into neighbourhoods. They give off a kind of eau de Columbus, Ohio.

In New York’s once admirably ratty hipster neighbourhood of Williamsburg, that’s exactly what artists are afraid of: With an Apple store and J. Crew due to open in months, they just staged an elaborate, histrionic funeral for their enclave. (Even as some whispered that it might actually have died when all those condos and investment bankers moved in a decade ago.)

In Silver Spring, things could be working in reverse. Bump ‘n Grind closely follows the arrival of a new Montgomery County brewery and, a few doors down, a shop selling bao buns.

This summer, Julie Verratti and a handful of others opened Denizens Brewing, a brewpub that lobbied successfully to see the laws changed so that it could compete as a brewery and bar.

The task force just happened to be doing some serious hand-wringing about why the coveted 21-to-34 set was moving to Petworth and Arlington and Alexandria but not to MoCo. Standing in the way, Diegel said, was bars’ requirement to close earlier than those in the District. And getting a license to open a bar was next to impossible. But that’s changing, opening the door, perhaps, for more Denizenses, more Bump ‘n Grinds.

From a business perspective, it makes sense to head north of the District. For a shop the size of the storefront they were standing in front of on East-West Highway, Liehr said, “there’s no way we would have gotten close to securing a space in (the District) with the backing of the landlord. It would have been too expensive for us.” And there would have been a lot of competition. With five or six busy coffee shops in as many blocks, 14th Street is basically one giant “third space.”

But in Silver Spring, there’s more than enough love to go around for Jackie’s, with its house-made doughnuts and fried-chicken dinners, and, more recently, Urban Butcher (temporarily closed for repairs). Kaldi’s Coffee Bar opened last year in another part of the neighbourhood and plans to add a rooftop lounge. In the past year, the owners of Dupont Circle bistro Scion opened a location, and then took the adjacent space, too, to dish out Hong Kong-style buns and dumplings. A few blocks away, a business aiming to open a winery amid high-rises has staked out a space.

Reemberto Rodriguez is Montgomery County’s man on the ground, appointed by the county executive to lead Silver Spring. “It has been a struggle to fill in some of the retail since the economy tanked six or seven years ago,” he said. But he sees hope on this stretch.

“They can’t help but succeed,” Rodriguez said. “My God, they’re surrounded by around 5,000 people in those high-rises.”

Although the record shop is their passion, Liehr said, he and Fogel know it’s the coffee and food that will keep the lights on. (But the sound system is killer.)

Verratti’s dream for her home town is that of a walkable neighbourhood with businesses built upon what she sees as the “social economy.”

“Winery tasting rooms, distillery tasting rooms, breweries, and then also really cool coffee shops, performance spaces, bookstores, things in a very clustered area—I would love to see something like that in Silver Spring,” she said.

Hague has thoughts on where to begin.

“That whole strip,” he mused, “could use a good yoga studio.”

Information from The Washington Post