In downtown Sarasota’s historic Burns Court district, Project Coffee debuted in July. Nestled in a corner space with large windows and surrounded by the area’s Mediterranean-style architecture, the minimalist spot has more on its mind than caffeine.
Ian Steger, 24, and Emily Arthur, 22, partnered with investors and friends Florian and Kat Schuetz to open the cafe. The offerings are entirely vegan, employees start at $15 per hour plus tips, and sustainability is top of mind in every business decision. It’s clear after five minutes of talking with Steger and Arthur that coffee is merely the vessel through which they are trying to change the world around them.
“Every good thing that has come into our lives the past four years, has been through Ian working in coffee shops,” Arthur said.
That’s how Steger met the Schuetzes, a German couple who have lived in Sarasota for the past 10 years and were regulars at a coffee shop where Steger previously worked.
A European vibe runs through the philosophy of Project Coffee, which like other Tampa Bay coffee spots is focused on more than brews. Project Coffee is in a soft opening phase now, with plans for a grand opening this fall.
“The coffee shop is out," Steger said. “The cafe is cool.”
It’s all very intentional. But while running an entirely plant-based operation is something the owners are passionate about, it’s not exactly something they broadcast. It says “100% vegan” in small black letters under the short coffee and food menu listed on one wall, and that’s about it.
“We’re through and through a regular coffee shop, and an accessible cafe that happens to be vegan,” Arthur said.
Consider how they don’t serve a variety of alternative milks, just oat milk. Why? Because it’s the best one, they said, and therefore the most compelling one to offer those who prefer dairy.
“Oat milk is the game changer,” Steger said. “We’re not trying to convince anybody to be vegan. But why wouldn’t we make the most approachable version of coffee in that space? It’s about giving people the most accessible option.”
If they can convince someone to swap plant-based milk for dairy milk at least once a day with their coffee, it’s a win.
The short coffee and espresso menu at Project Coffee is accompanied by a food list including toasts, granola and biscuits. It’s all vegan, but they chose items that wouldn’t be obviously plant-based, they said. Having good food is a priority.
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“I always hate it when I have to leave a cool coffee shop to go find good food,” Steger said.
They have hired a full-time chef and hope to be able to get a beer and wine license soon. The expansion beyond the bean was built into the business plan.
“There’s a new wave of coffee on the way in,” Arthur said. “Our focus is not on having the most interesting or cool or hip coffees. Having good coffee is essential, but it’s not hard to find, make and serve that. A lot of people have done that work.”
At Steger’s previous barista job, the espresso shots were precisely pulled, the pour overs exactingly crafted.
“You’re spending a lot of time making your coffee taste maybe 2 percent better,” Steger said. “Most people who come into our shop, they just get a latte. It’s freeing. It’s easier for us and for them. They don’t need to prove themselves.”
They buy beans from places like Bandit Coffee Co. in St. Petersburg, coffee they think tastes good and comes from companies they trust. Shelves are stocked with reusable cups, which they encourage customers to bring in every time they order, even if the cups are dirty.
“I will take it to the back for you and wash it,” Steger said.
They’re trying to make sustainable practices like these as natural as possible.
“What we’re focusing on right now is making good coffee, making really good simple food and providing people who come in with an environment that is happy and comfortable," Arthur said.
“We’re very pro-linger,” Steger said.
They talk passionately about paying their employees what they consider a fair wage, enough to live on without working crazy hours. So far in the service industry, they said, they’ve yet to make what they pay their employees. That industry is prevalent in a tourism-based area like Sarasota, but a large part of the young workforce can’t participate in an increasingly expensive food and drink scene, Arthur said.
“I’d rather run the tightest ship possible and be able to do the things we’re doing,” Steger said.
The cost of espresso beverages at Project Coffee are in line with other coffee shops, without the common upcharge for alternative milks. They eat the cost, having factored it in from the beginning, he said.
“We have different expectations for what the business is supposed to make,” Arthur said. “We considered, what is the point of this business? Just for us to make money, or for the benefit of everyone?
“We’re very ideologically driven people. Nothing is accidental. If there is a risk, it should be on us as the owners. Honestly, it was the first decision that was made. And everything fell into place after that.”
She paused, and added one more thing: “When you buy a cup of coffee here, you’re buying into something far larger than yourself."