Years ago I took a trip to India that redefined the phrase “kill them with kindness.” Over the course of 12 visits to long-lost cousins thrice removed I had been forced to ingest no less than 12 cups of coffee and chai. Despite the sultry monsoon season, hot beverage was chosen to extend a warm welcome.
Warm, sweet, soothing and stimulating—a cup of coffee embodies the comfort and warmth of a hearth. Coffee and hospitality have been bedfellows for centuries and the folks at Oddfellows have taken advantage of this to create a concept that works for the community around it.
Co-owner Matt Spillers pointed to a cup of black gold and said, “Number two commodity in the world. So everyone either drinks it or has some type of connection to this beverage itself. The great thing about the product is that it’s an affordable luxury—when you do it right, I would say it’s a luxury—but it’s still under five dollars so the majority of the people out there can afford something under five dollars. Having those components to a café or a coffee shop are what I think make it a good solution [for Oak Cliff], but the main thing is that it stays a communal place where it could be friends, it could be dates—it could be just a place where you can spend time with other people, essentially.”
Located in the rapidly gentrifying Bishop Arts district, Oddfellows fuses café and cuisine with award-winning offerings such as their macaroni and cheese with buffalo chicken, fried chicken and, of course, their coffee. There are dozens of cozy spots in and outside of the restaurant are perfect for communal lunches or private conversations. The sign on the door proclaims “food for all”—the principle driving their push to bring affordable food and hospitality to a well-deserving neighborhood.
“The neighborhood over here always has had this potential attached to it,” Spillers said. “So when they would go out and do these different events they would always be like, ‘Oh, well we need this. We need a coffee shop. We need a flower shop. We need a bike shop.’ And each one of [the ten co-owners’] skill sets kind of complimented the other and so collectively we all said, ‘If we want it, we have to do it. We can’t go out and entice someone to come in.’ From that collective effort we were able to really start with a coffee offering and espresso offering that was different than anything else that was in Dallas. That was our starting point…that started to be part of our DNA for Oddfellows but also for Oak Cliff. I think having something coffee-centric in Oak Cliff was really a need, it wasn’t a want. All these people who can appreciate that privilege which is traditionally a part of their day—the beginning of the day—didn’t really have a true option to go to.”
Many people appreciate coffee well enough when its aroma wakes them as it drifts from an automatic coffeemaker in the kitchen. Oddfellows has invested in a slightly more expensive machine. In fact, they were the fourth in the US to own the hand-made espresso maker and the second coffee shop in this series to be using it. The La Marzocco Strada is the boon of baristas, as Oddfellows’ bar manager, Benji Pocta, explained:
“The baristas love it. It gives them a little bit of control over the flavor profiles of the coffee. It personalizes the shot to their exact likes because it’s a lot less binary, I guess you could say, and a lot more analog. They control the highs and the lows of the shot and kind of craft it from beginning to end to just be a balanced shot…Baristas really like that because they feel like if it’s a craft they’re doing this is a tool they can use to do their craft better.”
Another piece of important hardware is a sexy glass flask with an hourglass figure, girdled by a wood collar and leather tie. Unfortunately it bears the unattractive name “Chemex,” a reminder that it originated in a chemistry lab and not in an Italian workshop. The Chemex produces all of Oddfellows’ pour-over coffee. A filter is placed in the top cone of the hourglass and the coffee is first “bloomed” (moistened) and then hot water is poured over it for four minutes straight by a barista. The golden brown medium roast is the farthest thing from a bitter cup of coffee brewed in the office kitchenette. Cream and sugar aren’t required to nurse this cup to a palatable state.
The beans come from Cuvée Coffee, an Austin-based roaster that worked closely with the owners of Oddfellows to bring their dreams to reality. The roasts are rotated out by Pocta, who readily savors the chance to try something novel. We talked of toddy, a cold-brewed coffee taking up to a day to make, and of our differing brewing styles. Whether the coffee is bloomed in hot water or not, the result is fascinatingly sweet even without the presence of cream or sugar.
“It’s kind of like a scotch. The first time I had it I was like, ‘Wow, this has almost like a peaty note to it.’ I like that aspect of it. It’s not like any kind of iced coffee that I’ve had previously because it’s a little more complex … Complexity is an important part of it. You want it to have the brightness. You want it to end with sort of a creaminess. There’s a lot of flavor to get out of these beans. And if you’re going to do coffee as a toddy you might as well take advantage of the flavor profiles we have to work with. I feel like the toddy when it works that way—when it comes across as almost alcoholic—I think that’s a good thing. It’s interesting. It makes it to where you’re not just drinking it because it’s cold you’re drinking it because it’s an experience and it’s refreshing.”
The truth about good food is that much of what we taste is dependent on the subtleties of our experience in a restaurant. Pocta noted that his brand of hospitality isn’t overt or gimmicky. Waiters don’t shout, “Welcome to Oddfellows!” in unison as you walk in and neither do they hide in a corner and wait to be called on. They have hit a middle of the road this is right for most of us—an experience that is warm whether or not the coffee is served hot or cold.