If you’re on the road, looking for a place to stop and get a cup of coffee in New Hampshire, you’ve got plenty of options: Dunkin Donuts, McDonald’s, every single gas station.
For this week’s Foodstuffs, we visit a tiny, drive-thru coffee shop in Newmarket that's managed to carve out a niche despite this crowded field.
Not far from downtown Newmarket, there’s a little red building in the middle of a small parking lot. You probably wouldn’t notice it if you drove by. But you probably would notice the long line of cars waiting to get to it.
“A lot of people don’t know the name of it," says owner Michael Wheat. "They all call it the shack or the hut. So if you ever hear someone call it the shack, this is it. But our actual name is The Coffee Station.”
Wheat is giving me the tour on a recent Sunday morning.
Actually, I’m just trying to stay out of the way. The Coffee Station isn’t much bigger than a walk-in closet, and along with Wheat and me are two employees frantically scooping ice and grinding beans to make The Coffee Station’s specialty: flavored ice coffee.
“A lot of people don’t like flavored coffees, many people say ‘oh I don’t like flavored coffees they hurt my stomach, blah blah blah,' " Wheat says. "And I tell them, think of it not as a flavored coffee but as a coffee milkshake. And they love it.”
And they do seem to love it. There are drive-thru windows on either side of the hut. On this morning there are about a dozen cars in two lines that spiral out across the parking lot. You can get a regular cup of joe here, but the reason customers sometimes wait upwards of half-an-hour is to order flavors like Swiss mocha almond, strawberry banana crème, and red velvet cake.
The flavors here are actually roasted into the coffee beans themselves – no syrups. The beans come from a roaster in Chicago, but Wheat isn’t eager to tell me its name or even show me how he prepares the coffee.
“I’ve already got one person copying me," he says. " 'Cause it is a unique way of making coffee. It’s just labor intensive and as you can see, we’re just going, going, going.”
It wasn’t always boom times for The Coffee Station, though. Before the longs lines of cars and the threat of culinary espionage, Wheat says he was just trying to make ends meet.
“I started off 14 years ago. I was in here by myself; I had just a couple kids helping out every now and then. I remember many a day waking up from sleeping in the stool and somebody at the window laughing at me. It was so slow, it was brutally slow.”
So slow, Wheat says, that The Coffee Station almost went out of business a few times.
But then he made a few changes. He raised his prices a little and starting accepting credit cards. And then The Coffee Station found its core audience: students in UNH sororities.
“Oh yeah, they’re like 90 percent of my business during the school year," Wheat says. "Without them, I’d be out of business. Once a year I bring them pizzas and tell them how much I appreciate their business – I really do, I go out to sororities and let them know I need them.”
“Honestly, I just think it’s pretty cute," says Madison Zapatka.
Zapatka, and fellow UNH students Noelle Dolan, Morgan Gaudissart, and Kirsten McDonald are waiting a few cars back from the window. They say, on campus, everyone knows about the coffee shack.
“It’s nice because you get a nice little drive over and it takes a second and it feels like you’ve done something with your day," says Gaudissart, "but you haven’t.”
Now that The Coffee Station has made a name –or in this case, several names– for itself, Wheat says he’s hoping to spend a little less time working in the hut and a little more time relaxing in his other unusual building: a yurt, which he’s building for himself in Maine.
Luckily for him, one of those employees scooping ice and taking orders is his son Nicholas. And he’s eager to take over the family business – be it a shack, a hut, or a station.