There are a lot of things to notice the first time you walk into Story Brooke Craft Coffee Bar, which opened just south of downtown in late January: the bright turquoise walls, the reclaimed wood pallets that hold clear bottles of syrups and teeny espresso mugs, the long line of matted photographs hung from the ceiling with jute.
None is more crucial than the long, tiled bar behind which owner Story Stuart stands. It's a specific choice, her place behind the bar, customers on stools in front of it, that nods to Stuart's dream of one day owning a space that serves martinis instead of espresso.
"I've always been into drinks," she says the first time I stop in to chat about the new space at Fourth Street S and 14th Avenue S. "Even as a little kid, every holiday party, my sister and friends, we would make a Thanksgiving drink, a martini, and sort of play bartender."
Stuart, 24, whose middle name is Brooke, most recently worked as a food and beverage experience manager at the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World and Gaylord Palms Resort, where she helped develop cocktail programs, traveled with spirits companies, and worked on a drink menu that debuted just after she left at the end of 2016 to open Story Brooke.
The coffee shop taps into a larger trend happening in Tampa Bay — coffee purveyors crafting drinks that draw their main inspiration from the harder stuff, Manhattans and mint juleps and more.
"Eventually my dream is to have a bar, but the coffee shop was a good place to start," Stuart says. "It's a way to blend all the things I'm passionate about, and something I can do while I'm still young."
Stuart grew up in Tampa, moving to Orlando to attend the University of Central Florida with the intent of pursuing a job in the medical field. In 2012, a gig working as a bartender on Disney's Boardwalk got her started on a different career path.
"I caught the hospitality bug," she says.
The Disney work ethic goes deep.
The first time I visit the shop, Story Brooke is in its soft opening around the end of February, and Stuart is manning the place by herself. Already, she has a few regulars. As we talk, she makes cappuccinos and iced teas and waffles — the latter a signature item for her, featured daily in a different flavor that Stuart posts tantalizing photos of on her social media accounts.
As she froths milks, she asks two women how their Zumba class was, then laments that she should have closed the shop for National Margarita Day last month ("It's a national holiday!"). She compliments another customer's nail polish. She seems to know most of the people who walk through the door, and if she doesn't know you, she's really good at making you feel like she does.
It's like this every time. One young guy lingers after finishing his drink, asking Stuart questions about the shop. Another woman who lives in the neighborhood wonders how she passed this place so many times before stopping in.
For Stuart, this camaraderie is just as important as what's in the cappuccino.
"The best part of this place is getting to be a sort of chef of drinks, where you're able to create your own juices and syrups, and then you're also able to present them to the guests, that interaction there," she says.
She credits that mind-set to Disney, where the guest experience is paramount.
Her front-and-center bar is key.
It's a symbol of not only Stuart's emphasis on customer connection but of her plucky do-it-yourself spirit: She and a couple of friends built the bar from scratch in just three days. Mismatched wooden slats painted in hues of white, maroon and turquoise are from an old church in Alabama; Stuart tiled the top of the bar herself in a haste that lends a quirky charm to off-kilter tiles.
Behind the bar, pallets come together to form little cabinets; the tables and chairs and stools that line the bar were all handmade using mostly reclaimed materials.
"I think a lot of vintage stuff is more interesting; you don't want the same stuff as every other shop," she says about her decor. "Also, it's way cheaper to make a table than it is to buy one."
Since purchasing the space at the end of August 2016 ("I knew I wanted it the first day I saw it; I sat in Ceviche and drank martinis while I waited to get approved"), she's acquired the space next door, which used to be a salon.
"I think there's so much potential in this neighborhood," she says of her shop near the Roser Park Historic District. "It's not quite happened yet, but it will. I thought it was an exciting time to join this neighborhood. Everyone on the south side has been so welcoming."
Her plan for the new space, likely to open this summer, is a draft room that will feature coffee and things like kombucha on tap. It'll also be a space to bottle her signature cold brew coffee, which has gotten interest from other vendors.
Every time I walk into the shop, Stuart has another creation she wants to talk to me about, to taste. The first time, it was one of her signature drinks, the Campfire Story, a clever play on s'mores made with espresso, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla syrup and chocolate bitters in a smoke-infused glass. Another time it was a housemade hibiscus berry tea mixed with jasmine kombucha, a light and effervescent drink that's strikingly balanced.
Most recently, there was a non-alcoholic play on a Manhattan, made with TeBella Bourbon Breakfast Tea, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth syrup and bitters. Her next concoction may involve a small batch of bourbon barrel-aged coffee beans she recently got from Cycle Brewing.
"Everything I do is themed around what I did as a bartender and bar manager," she says, "so I'm used to making everything from scratch."
That includes syrups (vanilla, almond and some made with Stevia) and her own bitters, like a recent chai tea-flavored batch. There are also shrubs, vinegar-based fermentations used most often in cocktails that may be one of the most unique things on Stuart's menu. Most places don't make their own shrub, as the fermenting process can make them time- and labor-intensive. She's working on a couple of versions made with organic jasmine vinegar, which have been infused with cherries, Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves or mulberries, fresh sage and lemon peel.
Her goal is to create Italian sodas, adding the syrups to carbonated water. Lots of customers ask about soda, but she's never wanted to serve the traditional stuff. This way, she can make a scratch version that will hopefully still quench customers' thirst.
The spirits-centric menu continues even to the food.
"I've done a Nuts and Berries Waffle that uses Frangelico sauce and raspberries," she says. Another popular flavor is one topped with Sazerac rye sauce. "I usually think of a cocktail that's really tasty, then figure out how I can convert that into a waffle."
As Stuart continues to come up with new ways to bring a cocktail flair to her menu of noncocktails, those martini bar dreams are top of mind.
"Whether it's infused drinks or smoke drinks — there are so many things you can do with cocktails, and martinis are an excellent vehicle for that," Stuart says. "They're not such a focus anymore, but I think people really like drinking them."
It's not surprising that her answer also includes a detailed description of how such a bar would fit into the local community.
She conjures a Cheers-like place that could become a popular after-work spot, somewhere with an eclectic drink list, snacks and a guaranteed good time. A place kind of like Story Brooke.
Contact Michelle Stark at [email protected] Follow @mstark17.