So, let’s just
get this out of the way first: Hoo boy, marketing firms know how to roll out a coffee shop. Well, at least MilesHerndon does. The 4-year-old business moved from Monument Circle to Fountain Square in September, and decided to use 900 square feet of lobby space to launch a real-deal coffee-and-cocktail bar. They started posting bits and pieces (and walls and countertops) on Instagram in December, alluding to a coffee space without committing to details. The photos were gorgeous, though not fussy (which any IG photo obsessive understands actually takes some degree of fuss), and before you know it, Indy wanted a seat at Gavel before it knew what was on the menu. Consider it a real-time lesson in how to build buzz before you serve your first cup of coffee, valuable intel in a market where every day brings fresh competition in the food-and-beverage biz.
It must also be said that all of the above would be a little annoying if the big reveal this week was a big dud; a promise of sleek interiors and curated coffee that turned out to be more “perfectly fine coffee served in the lobby of some random building that’s on my way to somewhere else so OK why not, I guess.”
It is not that. The coffee is great. The cocktails are sexy. The menu is small, but satisfying. The space is somehow warm and cool at the same time. How? I don’t know. All I can say is that the blue walls and classic movie on the TV (My Fair Lady, sound off) were a calming change from cable news tickers, and the Tinker Coffee Co. Ethiopian blend served in an individual-size Kalita coffee carafe with a gummi-bear chaser made me feel about 20 percent cooler as a person than I actually am.
Founder and owner Daniel Herndon always dreamed of a non-traditional lobby for his marketing business; a place where clients would actually want to hang out, rather than sit uncomfortably on the other side of a reception desk. When it became clear this was an option in the Fountain Square building, he originally planned to offer the square footage in front to an existing coffee shop owner as a satellite location. As time went on and this seemed less likely, he decided to do it himself. He named it Gavel (a nod to the space’s previous life as a Marion County courtroom), and started planning for an operation that would be open to the public from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., offering coffee, cocktails, and food that showcased local producers and chefs. He hired former Bluebeard bartender Kevin Sanders as the general manager, and started reaching out to local food businesses to round out the menu.
Ingredients for the charcuterie board and sandwiches are sourced from Fountain Square neighbor Turchetti’s Salumeria (on Amelia’s bread), breakfast pastries are from Gallery Pastry Shop, and the soups on the menu are “neighborhood soups,” named for the fact that they’re made by popular restaurants and chefs in the area, and rotate regularly. “Everything that we bring in from outside is because that’s the freshest way to do it,” says Herndon. “And we’re bragging about that instead of trying to pretend like we created everything behind some curtain.” There are also signature housemade items, like the jalapeño dip (a creation of Herndon’s wife, Carrie), and an old family recipe for Cheques Micks.
Herndon and Sanders modeled the cocktail menu after the vermouth bars that intrigued them (popular in France and Italy), and settled on vermouth and amaro as the alcohol building blocks. “Amaro and vermouth are grape-based,” says Herndon, “so your alcohol level is more like a stronger wine, with a lower proof.” There’s no Old-Fashioned on the menu, but there is a cold fashioned, with Tinker nitro cold brew, raw cane syrup, and amaro Angostura.
Don’t go looking for lattes, cappuccinos, or espresso of any kind at Gavel. It’s pour-overs only. You also won’t find a station in the room with dairy pitchers and sweetener packets of all sorts for you to finish “making” your drink. The barista will ask you how you like your coffee and take it from there. Black? With cream? Sweetened? When your coffee comes to your table (or in your blue, Gavel-branded to-go cup), it will be ready to drink. As a fairly high-maintenance coffee drinker with preconceived notions of how I “liked” my coffee (something I’m not proud of, by the way), I was a little nervous when all the barista wanted to know was if I wanted cream and sweetener. “Yes,” I said, and waited for more questions that did not come. (Again—not proud!) A few minutes later my coffee arrived at my table with just enough cream, just enough sweetener (housemade cane syrup), and just enough of a departure from my usual routine to make me question why I thought I knew diddly squat about how I like my coffee anyway. Herndon compares it to ordering a cocktail from a bartender. “You don’t take the drink over to the counter and finish making it,” he says. “We wanted to treat coffee like a culinary experience. So the optimal level of cream, the optimal level of sweetener. And by warming it before we add it to the coffee, it keeps everything really smooth.” (Don’t worry—if this idea of relinquishing total control keeps you up at night, you can request a caddy with cream and sweetener and keep a firm, sad grip on things.)
Herndon has plans to eventually sell some of the house syrups they make, along with curated coffee-making equipment for people who are interested in replicating the Gavel experience on their own. That will include coffee classes and other educational programming for wannabe home baristas.
But even with the ever-present pour-overs on the tables and the traditional visual cues of a coffee shop (bags of coffee beans as a de facto art installation along one wall), Gavel feels like something else, too. Which brings us back to the fact that its owner may be a coffee obsessive, but he’s also spent his career helping businesses differentiate themselves from the competition. “It felt like a bold decision to say we’re not even going to attempt to be like your traditional coffee shop,” says Herndon. “There are lots of places in town that are doing delicious lattes. We want to be something else. If you look at our menu, we clearly have coffee and hope it tastes great. But it’s an eighth of what we have to offer. We’re a coffee shop that became more of a cocktail bar with a coffee emphasis. And of course we’re always learning how this plays out in real life, but we’re doing our best.” Gavel Curated Cafe, 902 Virginia Ave., 317-681-2086