Retro Gas Stations Transformed into Epic Cafés

The exterior of a gas station turned into coffee shop by Tandem in Maine.

We learn more about two gas stations-turned-coffee shops, plus a former brake shop.

BY SAMANTHA TAMPLIN
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Cover photo courtesy of Tandem Coffee Roasters

We’ve all enjoyed a cup of coffee in the cozy setting of a traditional sit-down café (and some of us are still longing to return to those days), but lately some coffee businesses have developed a different kind of take on the traditions of the sit-down element of a “coffeehouse.” Over the years, unique café concepts have emerged out of other spaces like bookstores, bike shops, music venues, and many others. I spoke with three businesses that converted (or are in the process of converting) old-school gas stations and a brake shop into eccentric coffee hangouts.

Tandem Coffee + Bakery

Tandem Coffee Roasters offers locally made pastries and single-origin coffees in the town of Portland, Maine, out of a building that was previously a gas station and a laundromat. Its origins have been mostly preserved aesthetically. Tandem began as a roastery in 2012, and owners Will and Kathleen Pratt said the building was the perfect place to pursue their dream of opening up their own coffee company.

“This rad late ‘60s building is now a beautiful, bustling café,” Will and Kathleen said. “Our hope from the beginning was to create a community for people, and to make customers feel like they were stepping into our home when stopping by the café.” They say that Tandem’s mission, other than serving coffee, of course, is to spread joy to their customers and their community. They said there are moments where they can see strangers come in and fit right into the friendly atmosphere.

“These are the moments where we feel immense pride in the community that has been created through Tandem,” Will and Kathleen said. They said that due to good timing, they didn’t run into nearly as many problems as they expected when opening up the café. They also said that despite the obstacles, sometimes you just have to go for it.

“When we found the space for the roastery in the Bayside neighborhood of Portland, we jumped on it immediately and hit the ground running. Despite zoning rules, we convinced the city to let us put a small café along with our roastery and began building out. That summer, we managed all of the construction on our own, and Tandem Coffee Roasters [and Little Tandem] was born!” The Pratts say that, at the end of the day, all they want is to create a space for people to connect and hang out as a community.

A man wears a bike helmet and holds his bike upright with him on it in front of a coffee shop with big windows.
A cyclist poses on his bike outside of Upshot Coffee.

Upshot Coffee Roasters

Another community-focused café is Upshot Coffee Brake Shop in St. Charles, Mo. This location is a former car brake shop that was converted into a sleek and welcoming café. Owner Conor VanBuskirk said he wanted to bring the uniqueness of café culture outside the city limits.

“We were tired of driving to the city to experience something outside of the existing chains and coffeehouses,” Conor said. “Somewhere so special, people from the city would drive out to the suburbs once in a while and enjoy what we have to offer.”

Upshot features a kitchen stocked with breakfast foods, healthy bowls, and a variety of pastries including vegan and gluten-free options and café originals. Conor said it’s the goal of Upshot to bring a new way of looking at coffee to the community. Our favorite part has been working with talented staff and customers and the creative spirit they bring to our work environment every day,” Conor said. “It inspires us to keep pushing forward and evolving.”

Conor said that one of the more challenging aspects of running Upshot Coffee Brake Shop, other than hardships brought on by the pandemic, is training new team members to adapt to the way they do business. “We have had to learn how to hire and train up completely novice baristas since we are located in the suburbs,” Conor said. “We don’t run into trained baristas out here so we start from the ground up and really invest in our baristas as they take on a whole new career.”

Over the next few years, Conor said they plan on growing Upshot and their sister company, Beets & Bones, at cafés and farmers markets.

Three people stand in front of a torn down gas station. It has not started with construction yet.
The construction site of Junior’s Roasted Coffee and Upright Brewing. From left, Mike Nelson, Alex Ganum, and Caryn Nelson.

Junior’s Roasted Coffee/Upright Brewing

Junior’s Roasted Coffee and Upright Brewing are two businesses that plan to share a retro gas station in Portland, Ore., to house future locations. Caryn Nelson co-owns Junior’s Roastery with her spouse, Mike; they started the business in 2014 as well as their café Guilder in 2017. Caryn says their new location will offer their unique coffees alongside pastries from Shoofly Vegan Bakery and independent food carts. She adds that working alongside the brewery will be a great addition to their business.

“We’ve had the pleasure of knowing Alex Ganum, founder and owner of Upright Brewing, for the past five years or so and really respect what he’s created at the brewery,” Caryn said. “Their beer is some of the best in the world and they are also some of the nicest people in the beverage industry. Both businesses have an opportunity to create a vibrant space to serve the community and deepen ties to a neighborhood that a few of the owners live in or close to.”

Caryn said that Junior’s goal is to make sure that specialty coffee means more than just a great taste, but helps their community grow through environmental and educational efforts as well as wholesale partnerships. And she says that, so far, feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We are in the very beginning stages of building the taproom and café. It’s been fun to work with Alex and the design/build team that he has assembled,” Caryn said. “Ever since we were introduced to the space we’ve been brainstorming the decor for the coffee counter and how we can incorporate the retro gas station vibe. Guilder is a Princess Bride-themed café, but this space will be named for our coffee brand, Junior’s Roasted Coffee.”

She says that the city of Portland is installing a new greenway road that will intersect the café and taproom. It will connect new sidewalks and bicycle paths to their businesses as well as schools and parks nearby. Caryn says she anticipates welcoming customers to the new space as early as 2022.

“It will be our first experience co-locating with another business,” Caryn says. “It may take some time to get used to, but we see it as extremely beneficial. It’s a win-win having both coffee and beer side by side!”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Samantha Tamplin (she/her) is a recent graduate from Eastern Kentucky University with a B.A. in journalism. She spent her time in college writing and editing for the university newspaper, the Eastern Progress, and traveling abroad with the EKU Honors Program. Currently, she works as a barista for Cincinnati’s Coffee Emporium, and plans to begin teaching art lessons this summer.
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