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A barista stands in front of a large copper machine, extracting precious drops of espresso while another barista slowly pours water into a contraption with glass tubes and a Bunson burner flame underneath. In a back room, the sound of coffee beans being ground to order wafts into the main room, along with a mixture of wonderful aromas.
This isn’t your ordinary coffee shop.
Near the banks of the Mississippi River in Natchez, Steampunk Coffee Roasters is a hot-spot among locals, who frequent it for the coffee and small talk. It also has become a popular destination for international travelers, many of whom seem surprised and delighted when they stumble into what some consider the best coffee shop they’ve ever visited.
Steampunk is the brainchild of Dub Rogers, a man who has traveled and lived all over the world as an architectural and commercial photographer. He chose a few years ago to return to his Natchez roots. Once there, he longed for the coffee he had experienced in Italy, with the precision and attention that Italian baristas poured into each cup.
Before moving to Natchez full-time, Rogers had a house in Natchez that he called home between travels. His neighbor, Linda Sheehan, was a Minnesota native who had lived in Natchez for nearly a decade.
“I got to know her and decided to stay,” Rogers said.
The couple married and decided, if they were going to stay in Natchez, they wanted to create something they both loved.
“We both loved coffee, and I’d been wanting to do something like this for a while, so we decided to go for it,” Rogers said.
The couple spent five years researching and learning all they could about coffee, including going to barista school. They practiced for a year, just to be sure they knew how to do it all — and do it well.
Finding the right location was essential to the success of the business. They settled on a historic house at 114 High Street. Built between 1864 and 1886, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s one of the first homes built for newly emancipated slaves,” explained Rogers. “This was once a thriving neighborhood with lots of workers who needed to live close to industry and downtown. Ours is one of the few buildings that was still standing in that block.”
The business got its name from the Elektra Belle Époque, a huge copper Italian-style espresso maker that also provides entertainment for those who visit the coffee shop. Rogers put a photo of it on Facebook after he bought it, and a friend from New York commented, saying “that’s so steampunk,” referring to a genre of science fiction that incorporates technology with 19th century industrial steam powered machinery. A lightbulb went off in Rogers’ head.
“We found the name for our shop! Natchez is a real ‘steampunk’ kind of city, so we gave our machine the nickname ‘Punk.’”
The interior of the shop has a sort of industrial-meets-history feel, with re-purposed materials used for furniture and accent pieces. Rogers said it was important to maintain the historic feel of the building. The espresso bar is made from sinker pecky cypress, and the cabinets inside were built from materials recovered in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Steampunk opened on Sept. 13, 2013, and a very organic tweaking of the business has happened ever since. The company was formed a year before the actual open date.
“We were roasting coffee and sold whole beans,” Rogers said. “We had plans to have a cupping room, where folks could taste the coffees.”
A Ferrari-red coffee roaster was in the back room, which made the whole place have a smokey odor.
“From outside it smelled great, like coffee, but inside it was too much,” Rogers said.
With the roaster relocated, the coffee shop opened, serving cappuccino, americanos and lattes.
“We started serving paninis for lunch, and they were wildly popular,” Rogers said. “But the shop smelled like a restaurant, which was not what we wanted. Then we did crepes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., but that moved us farther away from our original concept. So we decided there would be no cooking at the shop — only baking.”
The shop now serves Brazilian cheese rolls, muffins, brownies, biscotti and quiche.
“We do have a food truck and, in addition to coffee, we serve hybrid tacos,” he said.
The coffee served at Steampunk is carefully curated, sourced primarily from Africa and South America. The most popular is the Le Loup Garou, a French Roast blend that features a werewolf drawing on the label, inspired by a little dog the couple had. That label and the others were designed by Sheehan.
Just as carefully curated as the coffee are the people who make it.
“We are very proud of our staff at Steampunk,” Rogers said. “One of the things that makes us so special is the highly skilled people who work here. I invest in their training and try to put their head in a different place. I teach them that work is a lifestyle, and it’s a lot easier when you are passionate about what you do. I believe it makes people more open to learning, and it doesn’t get boring.”
The customers are the beneficiaries of that knowledge — not only through a great drink but also by learning more about what goes into making an exceptional cup of coffee.
“At Steampunk, we talk coffee — period. We’re not a sports bar. We don’t even have a TV. Coffee is really a magnificent commodity,” explained Rogers. “There’s a certain protocol, culture and mystique to coffee. There is a sort of respect and preservation of tradition that we uphold at Steampunk. We make a Southern Italian-style of espresso, with a recipe that’s been passed down for four generations. We do it a particular way so that our customers will feel as if they are in Italy.”
Rogers and Strahan love it when travelers find their way to the shop.
“So many people travel through Natchez and they enjoy stopping, relaxing and enjoying a good cup of coffee,” Rogers said. “What we have done here has exceeded our expectations business-wise. It shows there was a real need and desire for this type of shop in Natchez.”
Another desire has been filled with the place next door. After hearing people say time and time again that they wished they had a place to go to hear the blues in Natchez, the couple opened Smoot’s Grocery a year ago. It’s not a bar. Only beer is served, but the focus at Smoot’s is on the music. The majority of the music is blues-based, and the acts range from local and regional to performers from farther away. Rogers said renovating the building was exhausting.
“It was so run down, but it was important to me to do it right.”
What began as a love of his hometown and a love of great coffee has created even more opportunities for Rogers. He and Sheehan have more ideas for businesses that will change the scenery in Natchez — providing more dining and entertainment options while also preserving the historic value of what makes Natchez unique.
For information, visit www.steampunkcoffeeroasters.com.