Story by Mike Shaw | Photos by Heidi Hodges
So it’s beneficial that regular customers, locals and out-of-town visitors alike, know full well that this destination stop seven miles north of Sturgeon Bay offers cozy, sit-down dining, too.
That saves Vicki Wilson, the shop’s president and co-founder, from adding “Breakfast and Lunch Cafe” to fully describe the goings-on inside the white-bright exterior walls at the Carlsville Marketplace on Highway 42.
“Some people are still surprised to find (the food service) and that we are a genuine restaurant,” Wilson said.
But Wilson thinks the level of table service sets her cafe apart from other coffeehouses. Door County Coffee offers full table service where traditional wait staff will scurry out to service the eight hardwood tables, which seat about 30 maximum.
“(In earlier days) we had a coffeebar serving espresso drinks, coffee and bakery (serving) muffins and pastry, and we had the tables and chairs but only so people could relax (with their drinks and treats),” Wilson said. “When we first started offering food, we would have customers pickup at the counter and we used disposable cups and plates, typical of a coffee shop. But we started thinking that our customers deserved a better experience…a real Door County Coffee experience.
“When we decided we were going to listen to what the customers wanted, it was a slam dunk—buy silverware, buy real mugs and have table service—we became a full-fledged restaurant.”
Door County Coffee made its name first as solely a small-batch coffee roaster, offering coffee blends available by the cupful on the premises or by the package via takeout, mail or in other retail stores. In fact, food was not part of it’s offering until the operation moved from its original quarters in Forestville north to Carlsville in 1997.
The lunch menu came along in 1997, perhaps a surprising choice given that the shop specializes in a breakfast beverage and sells rise-and-shine bakery goodies. But it was only a year or two later, Wilson said, that the staff concluded they were “being silly” by not helping wake up their loyal following with breakfast selections to pair with their coffee.
Samantha Johnson, Café Manager, explained that the morning menu started small with an oatmeal parfait, eggs, sausage and bacon—and, as with the lunches, all of the items are baked or grilled, not fried. The plan with the cooking method involved more than simply putting forth the lighter, healthier menus that characterize a cafe.
“We wanted to preserve the (coffee) aroma; the aroma was sacrosanct for how we do business,” Wilson said. We didn’t want to fry anything because we still wanted it to smell like a coffee place and bakery.”
The food is available year-round, every day. Breakfast is served from 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., two hours before the coffee shop closes its doors.
Noontime diners can choose from a variety of salads, specialty sandwiches and wraps made from various combos of chicken, turkey, roast beef, ham, pork and different cheeses. Although the lineup can change, a recent menu also offered a pot roast melt and Reuben and Rachel sandwiches, the latter stuffed with oven-roasted turkey rather than corned beef.
Housemade chili with a ground-chuck from Marchants is always on the menu, along with two or three housemade soups. Either of those can be paired with a half-sandwich for a lunch that’s lighter on the pocketbook as well as the waistline.
Morning guests can pick, among other choices, a quiche of the day; hashbrown potato bake; a cinnamon-roll twist on French toast; breakfast burritos; or just splurge on the Kitchen Sink – a waffle heaped with sausage, bacon, eggs and cheese, and, of course, butter and syrup, too, to give the taste buds even more to process.
Head chef Tanya Martinez whips up a daily special available nine months out of the year and occasionally on weekends during the slower wintertime. Her kitchen lab and imagination have produced specials including a pork burrito, authentic Mexican tacos and an Italian wrap.
“Some are repeats, but I never do them in a row,” Martinez said. “I may have come up with it that morning—just do whatever and go by the seat of the pants.”
Johnson oversees the restaurant operations and coffee/bakery drive thru window on the building’s south side, one of four major expansions for Door County Coffee in the 20 years since moving to Carlsville. “Tanya knows all of the (frequent) customers’ orders as they’re pulling up,” Johnson said.
Other than the espresso drinks, coffee, pastries and cookies, DC Coffee doesn’t serve hot food at the drive-through since fresh-off-the-grill is a priority.
“We want to serve our customers as quickly as possible and can’t create a lineup there when most people are going through quickly (for beverages),” Wilson said. “And we don’t have the area to make allow them to pull forward, like a Culver’s, or enough staff to run it out to them.”
DC Coffee “shakes up” the menu twice yearly, Wilson said, when it switches between spring-summer and fall-winter offerings—the former heavy on cold dishes, the latter on warm comfort food.
“Our pumpkin soup is seasonal in the fall, but it’s our most requested recipe,” she said. “It tastes like pumpkin pie in a bowl, more sweet than savory, served hot with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Whenever we do see a new item at a food show, we always ask, ‘Do we love it?’ not ‘What does it cost?’”
Smash hits at lunchtime include the Ultimate Grilled Cheese and Chicken Salad Croissant, Wilson said. During the morning hours, DC Coffee takes preorders for its Almond Batons, almond-glazed French pastries resembling a long john, but flaky and not-too-sweet. You can get lucky and find them in the display case most days – if you get there early enough.
Cupcakes are made in house, as well as all of the other bakery items which are baked on premise each morning. DC Coffee works with a variety of local vendors from south of Sturgeon Bay to the peninsula’s tip, including Bley’s Grocery in Jacksonport (for bacon); Seaquist Orchards in Sister Bay (cherry pies); Bea’s Homemade Products in Ellison Bay (cherry jams); Sunflower Artisan Bakery in Sturgeon Bay (cookies); the Marchant’s Foods butcher shop in Brussels (ground beef); and Country Ovens of Forestville (dried cherries for baking and salads).
More than two decades later, DC Coffee in Carlsville has graduated to must-see status on the peninsula and is seeing a second generation of employees come aboard. Stability is strong. Chef Martinez has been with the company almost nonstop since high school and Café Manager Johnson and Retail Manager Teri Stauber worked their way up from barista.
“Sons and daughters of employees work here now; an older sister will work here, then come the two younger sisters,” Wilson said. “We consider it a compliment when our employees recommend Door County Coffee as a good place for their own family to work.” Of course, it helps to keep family close, after all the goal is to form a family atmosphere.
Doug Wilson Sr., Vicki’s husband, is Chief Financial Officer. Sons Doug Jr. and Conrad are, respectively, Director of Grocery/Mass Retailing and Plant Engineer. Amanda Wilson, Conrad’s wife, is Human Resources and Safety Director. All except Doug Sr. started with the business in high school as kitchen help, a barista or both.
About 20 of the 53 staff are involved to some degree with the food preparation/restaurant side of the business and the retail store, featuring over 100 coffees, gourmet foods, home décor. Teri Stauber, Retail Manager oversees the retail side of the business which too has been enlarged over the years. The rest are in Sales & Marketing or work in coffee production and distribution that guests can witness through glass partitions gawking in wonder at the nearly floor-to-ceiling roasters and packaging machines. “We’re like the Willy Wonka of coffee,” said Wilson.
Wilson tells new hires for the front of the house, the ones dealing directly with customers, that “we pay you to be nice” and deputizes them to try anything within reason to please a customer or to fix a problem.
“We can always teach people to do any (specific job), but they have to come with that core of being good and nice and happy to serve,” she said.
Another way DC Coffee has upped its food game is through an annual online recipe contest. Entries must use a Door County Coffee blend among the ingredients. The winning chef, amateur or pro, represents the company at the World Food Championships (the so-called “Ultimate Food Fight”) in Orange Beach, Ala. Door County Coffee is sold in department, grocery, on line in every state in the US – so it made sense to support this World Food Championship to help promote the brand. That was the brainchild of Randy Morrow, Chief Marketing Officer.
The best-of in the 2014 contest, a Highlander Heaven Cupcake, was so delectable it was placed on the menu, Wilson said.
“Our foodies scour (the entries), then we will prepare the top 10,” she said. “Then we all spend a day eating and voting and getting (stuffed).”
As for the daily “judging” that patrons do of Door County Coffee’s food and drink, the offerings seem to be winning the contest for palates and stomachs.