January 03, 2023 —
Julie Merritt opens the Koffee Kat Espresso Bar for business on a chilly December morning. She turns on the lights, casting a warm glow on the brightly colored walls and mosaic floors. Then she prepares two large coffee pots, prepares the sink for the dishes and rinses the espresso machine.
Next, it’s time to choose the music. She still uses Pandora and likes to alternate between a John Mayer station and one that plays artists like Odesza and Flume.
“So either it’s going to be EDM (electronic dance music) or it’s going to be a really soothing Norah Jones style,” she laughs. “It depends on the crowd and the energy I need today.”
The song she chooses fills the cafe with a calm, laid-back vibe. A few minutes later, Matt Dunbar is one of the first customers to arrive.
“Guten Morgen!” he says in greeting. “Hey-yah!” Merritt replies.
Dunbar is a new regular at the Koffee Kat. He is also a photographer, hiker and one of the resident artists.
“People from all walks of life come to the Kat,” he says. “Some people are a little different from others and it’s a very welcoming place for them and they feel very comfortable here. They’re really good people and they feel safe here.”
‘Come as you are’
And that’s kind of the very essence of the Koffee Kat. It has that “come as you are” reputation that has been built over the past 24 years by its former owner, Patty Waldron.
“It’s like being a bartender, but it lets you know how people really feel there,” Waldron said of owning the cafe when she ran for re-election to the Legislative Assembly. from Clinton County in 2017. “They talk a lot about addiction because it’s a safe place to go when they’re…recovering.”
That reputation for acceptance was something Merritt and her husband, Durgan Zappala – who is also Waldron’s son – wanted to preserve when they took over the business in October.
“There are a lot of people who would come here, who come here and might not feel comfortable anywhere else,” Zappala says. “We’re kind of like the worker’s cafe; come as you are, come in your pajamas and slippers and we’ll serve you black coffee.”
Play “a tricky game”
Although he grew up with the company, Zappala says taking the reins wasn’t always part of the plan. But a lot of things fell into place: Waldron wanted to retire, and he and Merritt had the means and the lifestyle, even with two young children.
Merritt says it’s been a pretty seamless process. She and Zappala went there with all sorts of ideas for growth and change.
“But we had to play a bit of a tricky game, making sure to preserve the 24-year history of the Koffee Kat while developing that and bringing it more – I don’t mean up-to-date – but growing it ( in) what we wanted the Koffee Kat to be in a way, and the balance of the two.
This balance means things like keeping menu items that people know and love, and do new things. You can pay with a credit card now; it was cash only. They brought in new artists to sell their work, but kept the iconic yellow “buy 10, get one free” cards. And they added CBD (cannabidiol) products.
Merritt and Zappala describe the Koffee Kat as a sort of town hall or clubhouse where people bond. Over the years, it has hosted everything from political debates and fundraisers to client meetings and first dates.
The new owners wanted to add another kind of nightlife to this mix.
“Downtown has lots of restaurants and lots of bars,” Merritt says, “but there aren’t really many other places where people can hang out and relax without being exposed to alcohol.”
Welcome to Kat — Nightfall
Armed with a guitar and a harmonica, Will Scheifley plays in front of an intimate audience at the Koffee Kat café. But on the back porch, the garage door is open, letting in fresh air and a view of glowing streetlights and mismatched buildings.
The room is lined with neon lights, giving it a warm, zen-like glow. It’s the Kat — Night fell. The cannabis lounge.
“People can go to bars and restaurants and socialize around alcohol,” says Ricky Stewart. “They did for years, but, you know, cannabis hasn’t been that way.”
This is Stewart’s second time hanging out at the cannabis lounge, which opens after 5 p.m. every day unless there’s a very family-friendly event.
The Koffee Kat doesn’t sell marijuana products (those that contain tetrahydrocannabinol or THC), but it’s probably the first place in town that lets people bring their own. — as long as they are 21 or older.
At another table, Michael Lacy is smoking, the tip of his blunt occasionally turning orange and turning to ash as we speak. Like Dunbar, he is a regular and resident performer. He also owns a local tattoo shop.
“We come here, there’s light music in the background, there’s people having smart conversations,” Lacy says. “You have your crowd during the day. They come here, they drink coffee, you even have kids who come here and they do crafts some days.
“You have people coming from (Champlain Valley Educational Services) and they’re learning how to operate the cash register and stuff,” he continues. “But then at night it’s a different crowd and it’s so crazy to see all these different things under this same roof.”
To buckle the buckle
When I ask Merritt about her relationship with the Koffee Kat, she talks about how her family grew up with her.
She and Zappala used to come here as customers when they first met eight years ago. Then, pregnant with their first child, she helped make milkshakes and smoothies. The memory makes her smile.
“And now it’s really become…we now have two kids, and we own the Koffee Kat and so our kids are experiencing almost the same lifestyle that Durgan grew up with, full loop,” Merritt says.
“It makes me so emotional to think about it because I look at my son and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s like the same thing Patty went through,’ and I think that’s really good. I think it’s beautiful and it makes me really happy.”