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April 13, 2010

The $13 cup of joe reviewed

Pisa cupDonna Beth Joy Shapiro tried out Spro's $13 cup of java. Her take in this guest review. Thanks, DBJS! LV 

UPDATE

Full disclosure: I don't drink coffee. Not much anyway. Life is stimulating enough.

But I thought a $13 cup of coffee could not be ignored. I asked Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, a former cafe owner who knows coffee better than I, to have a cup with me. DBJS, who sometimes freelances for The Sun, volunteered to do a guest review, so I took her up on it.

So it's her review, but I was along for the ride. As were my kids, who probably splashed $4 out of DBJS's cup by jiggling that jiggly table. Don't worry. That'll come straight out of their 529 funds, reducing them by half.

If you really want my two cents, here it is. As a non-coffee drinker, not to mention non-synesthete, I can report that the coffee tasted like coffee. No rusting girders on my part. Nor did I pick up on condescension on the part of Spro's barista. I thought he was perfectly pleasant. There were some awkward moments, however, stemming from the fact that Spro believes cream and sugar dispensing should be left to the pros, and DBJS believes, as I suspect many customers do, that they're up to the task. 

Now, finally, here's DBJS's review. LV

My calculator shows Spro's $13 tab for a 12 ounce cup of Aida's Grand Reserve coffee isn't unreasonable considering the beans cost four times as much as regular joe. Still, it's not a casual cup of coffee, so I was delighted to be someone's guest.

Spro is so serious about coffee that I was confused to learn, in answer to my query, that the beans for the $13 cup were roasted at the end of January and then frozen - though, I was assured, in a special manner (cryogenically?). But coffee is at its best for about three days after roasting and never after being frozen.

With milk, sugar, etc., conspicuously absent, I asked of their availability and was greeted by a few seconds of silence, then "I'm sure we can work something out" from the male barista.

We placed our order for two cups of the Aida's Grand Reserve, requesting their choice of the most appropriate of their seven brewing methods; one regular $2.50 cup of coffee for my friend's husband; and pastries for their two tots, which were delivered quickly.

Though Spro was empty but for us, things took a pause at that point, so I will, too, to say that I owned a cafe for 13 years and have definite ideas about how to serve customers and make them feel welcome. Also, as a cheesemaker, I approached this tasting with the benefit of much sensory evaluation training; coincidentally, my sensory mentor, a professor of food science, was formerly a professional coffee taster. While I am not, I have been a serious coffee maven for more than 30 years and am confident in my tasting abilities. It's important to note, however, that there's nothing right or wrong about likes or dislikes.

After a bit, the husband was served and when our coffees didn't arrive, we asked him to go ahead before his got cold. More than 10 minutes later, coffee was placed in front of me, but not my companion. I requested sweetner; its method of delivery was a heaping demitasse spoonful (enough for several mugs) of unidentified white stuff carried the length of the cafe with the barista's free hand cupped underneath. I declined to accept it as he offered to dump it into my cup. My coffee cooled considerably as we waited and waited for my friend to be served, during which time the unsteady table caused jolts of at least a dollar's worth of java from my cup.

Feeling incredibly rude, but not wanting to miss at least the lukewarm taste of this coffee, I took a sip and experienced a lot of cherry, some lemon, and a little chocolate. As a synesthete (Google it), I always look forward to tasting new things, and in that way this coffee did not disappoint, as the numbers 5 and 9 and the image of a horizontal rusting steel girder rushed about my head with each ever-more citrusy and chilly sip.But mostly what I experienced was coffee that tasted annoyingly of cherry.

Verdict: I'm glad the $13 didn't come from my pocket, and for reasons more than just the coffee. My friend's coffee finally arrived (she tasted what I tasted - minus the numbers, colours, and shapes) and next we overheard the male barista's f-word-laden conversation from his perch at the counter.

Even without children present, that's not acceptable. Not using a tray to serve customers is unprofessional. Making customers ask for cream, sugar, etc. in a coffee shop and then dispensing it (oh, excuse me - dosing it) with attitude or condensation is not acceptable. Not serving coffee to all members of a party at the same time, and worse, serving it at 10-15 minute intervals - not acceptable. And wobbly tables in a coffee shop?

I am thrilled to support locally-owned coffee bars and cafes. Baltimore City desperately needs more of them. I give Spro credit for offering this $13 coffee experience, though for that price, the beans' roasting date and storage method should be disclosed up front. But unless Spro's service becomes customer-friendly and more professional, all the intriguing brewing methods in the world (which it seems they have) probably won't make this a go-to place for regular folks and coffee geeks alike.

Posted by Laura Vozzella at 10:49 AM | | Comments (86)
        

Comments

Well, Jay did give a response about the cream/sugar thing at my article. I know that Dunkin' Donuts does the same thing, but it might be a cost containment issue rather than a customer service issue.

However, I don't see the sugar service at even the finest hotels and restaurants, so I personally would yank that "service". It's not working and you certainly don't want to irritate people drinking $13 coffees in this economy.

The coffees are hand brewed to order. I don't know if mulitples of one variety can be made at once... I'm no barrista.

I do know that a World Barrista judge I talked to in North Carolina named Jay as one of the best in the world.

Wow. Well written, Donna. Don't think I'll stop by Spro any time soon.

DBJS,

I think you're describing "condescension," unless we're talking sweaty palms or the like.

Thank you to Donna for braving the $13 coffee, saving me the trip, and what would have been the ensuing crankiness of a 35 year old. Nothing like a mystery granulated substance to perk up one
s coffee, right?

It's a sad note that "the f word" has replaced "um" and "like" in common parlance. I can think of some truly offensive things to say without resorting to profanity, but i guess that's what makes me unique.

Locally owned coffee in hampden?

There is only Common Ground. Please, Let no one confuse this place with one of the best little shops in Baltimore.

Well, this coffee geek will certainly continue to frequent Spro, a very new cafe that is a concept in progress.

I think there are a lot of points in your review that the Spro baristas can take away. However, I have been to Spro many times and the baristas are always very professional.

There are a lot of myths about freezing coffee that home-baristas (aka "coffee geeks") have started to test. For those interested, check out this article on freezing coffee.

Finally, there appears to be an emotionality in this review that makes me wonder about the writer's objectivity - am I alone on this?

SMT - the emotion you're probably picking up is one of a very frustrated customer.

If I'm taking the trip to Spro to drop 15 bones on a cup of joe, I'm doing it not only for the coffee, but the overall experience. Shoddy service clad in condescension is not what I'm looking for.

I hate having to add places to the list of "Places I'm not cool enough to get decent service" Spro, please don't make me add you too.

Spro, a very new cafe that is a concept in progress.

Now that's a mouthful.

Taste is so personal, I really don't know what to make of this review.

Haven't been yet, but I'm looking forward to it! Unlike the much-touted Common Ground, this place is actually open in the evening, which is the only time of day I'm ever available and looking for a place to relax with a cup of joe!

And telling people to 'google' your vocabulary isn't condescending? I apologize for not being so aristocratic.

$13 and condescension. $13 buys a lotta coffees with the clown at McD's. Condescension can be had anywhere and you don't have to pay for it.

I've been to Spro twice during the lunch hour and ordered an iced coffee each time. I was asked if I'd like cream, milk, or sugar both times, to which I declined.

I asked about the cold brewing towers and was given the story of the process in a very deferential manner. The coffee was great and I plan on going back.

I'm a synesthete too! The smell of $13 coffee causes me to visualize condescending cheesemakers.

So I suppose a latte would be out of the question.

federal hal FTW

I'm a sin-esthete. Just ask Jesus (the pool boy).

The next time Jesus goes home, I may have him swallow some balloons full of Aida's Grand Reserve beans and smuggle them across the border.

While the Spro experience sounds annoying, this review is equally as annoying.

This post and the ensuing comments have attitude, and I'm loving it. Fight fight fight!

Likes the leaning Pisa cup.

M&M, I was thinking the same thing.

Don't understand why you would put anything (milk, sugar, whatever) in rare coffee if you were really tasting it for review. And what about the other two people? Certainly having two rug rats doesn't bode well for a serious taste adventure.

You don't taste wine by adding 7-Up or gnawing on a Slim Jim at the same time.

I've been to Spro at least 10 times in the past several weeks and have been asked if I want cream and sugar. My bottom line is that every coffee on Spro's rotating list of offerings was properly roasted and prepared that neither is needed. Some customers may want sugar and/or cream, but I would encourage them to taste the brew (or shot) before putting it in the cup.

I have not had the Grand Reserve, but if I recall, the notes on Spro's tasting card did disclose that it is a 2009 coffee, and some of the last of it available.

@ voodoo pork Just like adding a cube of ice into a bourbon -- first recommended to me by Col. Michael Masters -- cookbook author and bourbon expert -- or munching on a cracker for water tasting (which I've done professionally as a judge), cream and sugar help me drink the brew in enough quantities to enjoy it and judge it.

It's perfectly valid and done ALL the time. Truly.

I simply don't understand why you would want cream or sugar if you were tasting the coffee with the intent of writing a review. I would think you'd want coffee at its purist form in that case. Also, I have been to Spro a few times, and they have sugar in the raw, so you must have had an artificial sweeteneer- which confuses me even more, because they taste like chemicals and would ruin any sensory experience if I were a critic, especially the kind so very in-tune as to taste numbers.
Also, the staff has always been very polite and professional in my experience.
I think this review is slightly biased, because of the history between Jay and this column....

Bah! I likes me coffee like I likes me women ... short, hot, and on the run.

I thought the preferred method for bourbon was a splash of spring water. ice usually means city tap water and that's a no-no.

DBJS - Your review was articulate and edgy, I liked it.

VoodoPork wrote: "Certainly having two rug rats doesn't bode well for a serious taste adventure."

You're kidding me right. Are you saying you can't have kids around and enjoy (or evaluate) a cop of coffee? It's called multitasking, you get good at it after awhile.

Agreed. I'd hate to think my taste buds won't function until my own kids are grown. LV

JZ, tongue was firmly in cheek.

Cream or no cream, sugar or no sugar, if my coffee were lukewarm I'd have to ask them to stick it in the microwave for a minute before I could drink it.

Hmmmm could DBJS be EL? Don't for get the bias of this blog by deleting all of JC's posts.

Regardless, Spro still serves the Best coffee in Baltimore, try it out for yourself. The staff makes great recommendations, I have never been disappointed in any of the coffees or teas I have tried.

Wow, there are so many things that make me want to claw my eyes out about this "review" and comments by certain individuals that I just don't know where to begin!

Let be start by saying that as a small business owner myself, this lady is my worst nightmare. An unhappy person with a chip on their shoulder that comes into a joint ready to rip it apart if said joint is a tad bit out of their comfort zone. People like this cannot be pleased, I have learned this the hard way. What a shame that one may be swayed by this lopsided, mean spirited "review" by someone so vastly knowledgeable (laying on the sarcasm pretty thick here).

I mean come on she studied with a sensory mentor and visualized the numbers 5 & 9, and rusting steel girders.
Really? Come on, get a grip lady! Don't be a baby over spilled coffee. I am sure that she is a swell human being but reading her "review" made me shake my head in disappointment. No more guest writers please unless they can
(a) actually write and (b) provide thoughtful, useful insight instead of
vapid, condescending drivel.

I will end my rant with this. I applaud anyone who dedicates themselves to a craft, excel at that craft, and selflessly spread the wisdom and love of that craft to others. Jay, of Spro infamy does that with charm, ease, and good humor. I can't wait to sip on my thoughtfully prepared cup of joe at Spro tomorrow morning!! And I won't be adding Slenda.

"Austin Carpenter", when you're not shilling for Jay C. you should read up on synesthesia. It's not something that DJBS made up.

Perhaps I went at quieter times but I found Spro to be serious about their coffee and their service. I enjoyed that they treated me like the food geek I am and yet did not hesitate to serve up a coffee half full of dairy and sugar for those that requested. If people want to pay 3.50 for something they are going to ruin, let em - but those folks shouldn't complain about their experience later.

Isn't there some sort of adage about "no publicity is bad publicity."

It's no secret that I've been widely trashed by the Sandbox loyalists on this blog, and it's absolutely true that my posts have been categorically deleted (I've even got screen captures to prove it).

What has not been disclosed in the above article is that Ms. Shapiro was the guest of Laura Vozzella (the "companion" who my staff reports and being very nice and friendly) and her family, who accompanied Ms. Shapiro during their visit to Spro and Hampden on Saturday, March 27th at 9:24am - at least that's what her transaction ticket reads.

My first comment for Ms. Shapiro is that if you are attempting to visit an establishment with the intention of reviewing that establishment it would be ideal if you didn't give yourself away by challenging my staff on their knowledge and ignoring their attempt to discuss with you the producer, Ms. Aida Batlle and the methods and qualities that make the Aida's Grand Reserve priced at $13 a cup.

And while I certainly can respect your work 13 years ago as a cafe owner and cheesemaker, who I presume critically tasted numerous coffees and cheeses, I find it odd that you would tell my staff prior to ordering your coffee that you wanted artificial sweetener and cream in a coffee that you intended to taste critically. I state this mainly because I taste coffee critically on a regular basis and accepted industry protocol is to taste the coffee "black." As a former coffee professional herself, I would have expected Ms. Shapiro to know and utilize these practices.

I'm sure that a number of reasons are wondering how I am able to give this much data concerning Ms. Shapiro's visit to Spro some three weeks ago. The answer is simple: she made such an impression on my staff that they've been talking about her ever since. Even Laura's children made an impression on my staff because they were so polite when receiving their two chocolate croissants.

Certainly, I do not condone the use of foul language behind the bar or within our establishment by any of our baristas. However, I've been training these baristas since September and know them very well and I'm hard-pressed to believe that these baristas behaved in the manner that you assert. Reviewing our logs, in the hour following your arrival, twenty more customers were served and while I will not make excuses for misbehavior of our staff, the antics you describe could easily have been those of other customers.

One of the challenges that we face at Spro is our actual production methods. At Spro, we make each cup of coffee by hand, to order. We do not utilize batch-brewing and holding techniques common in coffee shops worldwide. For the Aida's Grand Reserve, we have specified the vacuum pot brewing method that I talked about last year on Midday with Dan Rodricks. It is a labor-intensive brewing method that requires a barista's full attention, meaning that when a table such as yours orders two Grand Reserves, it takes a bit of time for us to make both beverages. While I understand the concern over the time lag, it is a concern of mine and something that we are constantly addressing, refining and improving.

Let's also talk about our storage methods for the Grand Reserve since that has been made an issue by Ms. Shapiro. It is true, the Grand Reserve that we are serving was roasted on January 18, 2010, which was one of the last days that our roaster, Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, NC, offered the coffee. Each 8oz quantity was sealed in mylar bags and stored in metal tins before being deep frozen immediately upon arrival at -20F.

Between my friends in the industry, we have collectively over 30 years of experience freezing roasted coffees. Done properly, a roasted coffee can be held frozen nearly indefinitely. A recent test in October 2009 by the baristas who served you tasted coffee roasted and frozen in April 2009 whose flavor profile closely matched that of the coffee six months previously.

Granted the practice of freezing roasted coffee has it's detractors and critiques - mainly old industry stalwarts who refuse to believe anything new has any value to our business.

On wobbly tables - It's true. You and Ms. Vozzella's family sat at tables 3 & 4 by the front window. And while we've installed floating and self-adjusting table feet, there is little we can do about how the 1920s era pine floor slopes upwards towards the window, causing table 4 to be canted and slightly off-balance. Sadly, we are unable to level the floor out to eliminate this problem.

Finally, I do want to state that I am well aware of the typical condescending attitude people receive at many coffee shops across America and I am vehemently against that kind of treatment of our customers. It was the first topic I discussed with our baristas back in September and it is a continual discussion within the company today. It is our goal to offer friendly and deferential service to our customers at all times and I do not tolerate the kind of Third Wave attitude sported by many baristas today. That said, should you be a customer who comes into Spro and is met with attitude and condescension, I want to know about it because I will rout it out.

That said, I do thank the many supporters and well-wishers who have defended our baristas in this blog and invite everyone else to give our baristas the opportunity to share with you our vision of coffee by visiting us in Hampden.

And yes Sam Sessa, you're welcome to visit us too.

Yeah, Austin Carpenter doesn't seem credible. That being said, having a synesthete review flavor is comically absurd.

For those curious about synesthesia, it is a neurological disorder where sense recognition areas of the brain misfire and bleed into other sense areas. This was made famous by neurologist Oliver Sacks in his pop-medicine book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat in the 1980s.

BTW I know another person who is a synesthete and a beautiful person with exquisite taste and comprehension of flavor. I believe that synesthetic perception is an added sense and doesn't take away from "normal" perception. It's still hilarious to have it in a food review, since it's not transferrable

I am fascinated by synesthesia, and I believe that it is a matter of having extra connections in the brain. I do not have those abilities, but I do get very vivid experiences with acupuncture: light shows, taste sensations, etc. I guess it makes up for all the acid I didn't drop back in the day!

I don't always drink coffee, but when I do I prefer Spro. Stay smug my friends


Even Laura's children made an impression on my staff because they were so polite when receiving their two chocolate croissants.

Evidence that Jay C has a heart.

I don't think I'd want to hang with Jay, but he is right that a serious review of his product that involves artificial (REALLY?) sweetener or any addition is absurd.

I am very sad to hear that LV was the host of this event. That seems, well, very dishonest.

This "review" makes me sad and I feel betrayed.

I'm confused about why you sat at a wobbly table for over 10 minutes when you claim the place was empty and then were surprised when you placed your coffee on said table and it spilled. Were you confined to this particular table b/c it was the least condescending of the bunch?

I am very very very sad.

I feel like an idiot for supporting LV IF IF IF IF this is true.

We need to know the truth, We deserve to know the truth.

Wobbly tables aren't necessary even in old buildings with unlevel floors. Just get tables with adjustable feet.

This review and subsequent post of said review is agenda laden and apparently involves some calculated lies. Its eerily similar to a certain Bush (LV) handing out lies in order to finish his predecessors business (EL) in destroying their enemy (JC).

I need to consult with my sensory mentor. Something does not smell right.

Something is very rotten in Denmark.

I'm not a shill for Jay. I don't even know him. His product is good and I'll keep on going when I'm in the city.

Can't you look at it this way -- as an aspirational luxury in this economy? I can't get the best car in the world, but I sure as hell can get the best coffee in the world. I don't drink booze, but I guess one of the fancy coffees is the same as two crappy cocktails. Or less than a steak. It's $13. Whatever.

I do think that LV should have done the review herself. She should not have farmed it out and supervised it. Once she did, though, she should have been open about it. Was she embarrassed to be at a place the blog talked about so much? I suppose she'd do the same thing about Milan? Not the very highest level of journalism. Now the story is about her. Kinda on the level of one of the free Baltimore food mags you find on the floor of restaurants.

Major, major misstep.

Bad

Needs a response

my friends and I went to spro on sunday, and I have to say that we knew nothing about coffee. I can only assume it was Jay C at the counter, because basically we were "teach us coffee, whats this whats that?" and he knew EVERYTHING and went on at great length about producers and methods and all that. We made it pretty obvious that we didnt know what to order etc and I felt very comforted by his wealth of knowledge.

And you know there is the $13 cofee but all the others are like less than four bucks so its not really that big a deal to have one super special coffee. Zekes has the civet cat coffee right?

Also, the "review" was pretty ridiculous as you spent maybe three lines about the coffee and three paragraphs about your life and your experiences and history and your synesthesia (GOOGLE IT!).. you know how like once people see a thing on PBS about being a supertaster, omg hey I think Im a supertaster too!

If I wanted to read "reviews" that focused on how awesome the reviewer is, I would read chowhound.

Allow me to clarify a bit here.

Prior to her visit and the subsequent postings to this blog, I had spoken to Ms. Vozzella a couple of times. Once for an article about Bryan Voltaggio and the second time about the $13 coffee.

According the accountings of their visit that I have heard, it seems that Ms. Vozzella brought Ms. Shapiro along as a "coffee expert" to evaluate the $13 coffee and our level of service. Ms. Shapiro stood out that morning not only because they were the only customers in the shop at 9:20am but also because Ms. Shapiro was very rude and condescending to my staff, challenging them outright on their knowledge then dismissing their responses when it did not calculate with her own expertise, having owned a coffee shop 13 years ago.

And the "male barista" in question is a gentleman by the name of Devlin Rice, formerly a roastmaster for New Harvest Coffee in Providence, RI, bassist and all-around nice guy. I've seen Devlin perform in tight situations and his performance has always remained courteous and respectful. And while me may have made some missteps in the actual service of bringing the coffee to the party's table, I am hard-pressed to believe that Mr. Rice treated the party with anything but deference and respect.

On the note of our cream and sugar service - it is true that at Spro we prepare your drink for you. This includes us adding however much sweetener and cream that you desire. Of course, we prefer that you try the coffee our way, but we are more than ready to accommodate your desires.

I understand that many customers are initially off-put by this approach because they've become accustomed to the impersonal method of the messy (and always out of cream) "condiment bar." This is something that we eliminated when we built Spro Towson nearly four years ago and a tradition that we are continuing in Hampden. For those concerned about not being able to get your usual condiment fix, rest assured: the amount is completely at your discretion and our service is designed so that you can focus on drinking what's in the cup rather than preparing your cup.

Josh wrote above: "If I'm taking the trip to Spro to drop 15 bones on a cup of joe..." He's right, if you are spending that much money on a cup of coffee then you most certainly should expect something different and something hopefully extraordinary. I believe in that ideal. My staff believes in that ideal and we are attempting to fulfill that ideal on a daily basis.

Another thought I wanted to share is that the $13 Aida's Grand Reserve is not for everyone. Even though it's from El Salvador, it's quite a departure from the bright, acidic coffees that Central America is known for. Aida Batlle is a very progressive coffee farmer who's pushing the envelope in coffee production, The Grand Reserve is the cream of the crop from three of her farms. Utilizing a natural process that enhances sweet and fruity tones, the coffee is reminiscent of cherry, berries and very sweet that brings to mind some of the great East African coffees.

However, because of this sweetness in the cup, some drinkers are just not into it. It's not their thing. One customer remarked to me the other day after drinking the Grand Reserve: "I could taste the fruit, but it's just not the kind of coffee I liked." This gentleman preferred the bright and acidic notes that are typical to Central America.

In the end, it all comes down to your specific tastes. Even though I travel the world training baristas, judging coffee competitions and tasting new crop coffees, I still bear in mind that our average customer just wants a tasty coffee and can easily be intimidated by all the flowerly language we use to describe a coffee. They're just looking for something tasty without having to invest a lifetime of serious, critical tastings and it is our job to guide them towards something they will enjoy.

I'll cop to it: I treated DBJS to her $13 coffee. And those were my children who scarfed down the pastries and jiggled the jiggly table. I'll post a full explanation later this morning, after I get the younger of the aforementioned kids to preschool. LV

boring people to death is no way to get business. I got cobwebs all over me!

Link spam at 12:33 AM! (Another shill for a Chinese purveyor of merchandise of dubious provenance.)

A synesthetic (?) cheeemaker''s review of coffee? D@L you just jumped the shark. I look forward to future stealth reviews. Perhaps a clairvoyant could be next. Mmm... yes, hints of cherry and ... DEAD PEOPLE. Boo.....

Whenever I witness this type of behavior I too become trapped by synesthesia- my slightly acerbic but generally polite self becomes---ARCHIE BUNKER---the effect is nearly immediate. I see men and women frothing coffee in aprons called "barristas" and effete urbanites proving how upscale and discerning they are by standing in line to pay exorbident amounts of money for a f'ing cup o' coffee. It's like a Disney cartoon.. My sneakers morph into construction boots, my face grows a five o'clock shadow and I see myself lining all parties up against the wall-customers,food critics,barristas and lawyers-and giving them ALL a collective kick in their (incredibly snide) posteriors...after which I too will taste just "a little too much cherry."
Hint: 7-11....a buck. drink it-dump it-get on with the incredibly important business of nation building.
Meathead.

Inspector Gadget is on the case....

psychic restaurant reviews? cool.

@End User at 7:24 PM: No, Donna Beth Shapiro is not the same person as Elizabeth Large. DBJS ran the Old Waverly History Exchange & Tea Room for 13 years (a longer term than Jay's Shave Ice, by the way). That experience, rather than her cheese-making skills, would give her some basis on which to assess her visit to Spro. (True, tea and coffee are different beverages, but her business presumably involved serving hot beverages and a limited food menu, just like Spro.)

I went on Saturday, got a $3 cup of coffee from Burundi. I was not impressed. Thought I would like it from the description, but it tasted sort of tart and bitter. I am not a supreme coffee snob, but buy a variety of beans and can sniff out a good cup. The space is nice and they were polite, but I take issue with a small cup of coffee for $2.50 or $3.00, not letting people control their own sweetener/cream (most people like theirs a certain way, and it communicates that the shop owners know better than us) and just the overall pretention of the place. I went to a coffee shop in NYC recently, which roasts their own coffee and got a large, individually brewed cup that tasted amazing for $2.50. hmmmm... I live in the neighborhood and will continue to support the Common Ground.

Do they take Euros?

Jay JUST announced a special today on the coffee - $10!

I've proudly worked for Jay as a barista for the past 3.5 years at his location in Towson, and while I'm decidedly the least industry "geeky" of our staff, know Jay to be one of the savviest minds in the business (and as said non-geek, even I know to cup your coffee black).

First, we need to eradicate "sides." When Jay first talked about opening the Hampden location and mentioned that it was practically on top of Common Ground, I expressed the appropriate hesitancy, which was eradicated with his measured response. No one suffers angst over different restaurants sharing sidewalk with each other simply because it can be agreed upon that they're offering completely different things. Why should coffee bars be any different? In my opinion, it is easy to support 'Spro while still supporting Common Ground because you're comparing apples to oranges - both equally tasty, but not suited for everyone.

Finally, even all the way out on my Towson perch, I heard about the infamous visit made to Hampden by DBJS and Co. weeks ago. Why? Because the staff was so appalled by her discourteous manner, and was stunned to learn afterward that she was a food critic.

Though they did take the time to comment on the pleasantness of the accompanying children. :-)


Wow. Just wow. I'm a coffee drinker who finds her coffee place and sticks to it. For years my two coffee places were Stone Mill at Greenspring Station and Donna's in Mount Vernon. This started out in the '80s because of where my children were in school and where I worked. And they're locally owned. When Jay opened Spro at the Towson Library, my coffee drinking changed. Jay and his staff make divine coffee, nectar of the gods stuff, and it's always hot enough, which makes a big difference in the taste. Going to the library now means sometimes going only for coffee. Jay is such a sweetheart of a guy, so I don't understand all the negativity in the comments. He and his staff are knowledgeable, which doesn't mean condescension. They make coffee intensely, with great enthusiasm.

Readers of this blog were not served well by this reviewer. Remember that her brain produced a mishmash of senses, so I doubt that she was having a good day anyway. (Fake sugar .... what "expert" does that?) And LV, we'll chalk up this review to a one-off on your part.

Spro rocks! And the adventure continues.

Jay is such a sweetheart of a guy

Does not compute.

Jay poisoned the waters here with very abrasive comments calling for Elizabeth Large to be fired and beheaded. That's why.

Maybe he has multiple personalities?

Maybe he has multiple personalities?

One normal and one amped up on Costa Rican java juice. KaPOWWWWWWWW..........

Now that actually makes a lot of sense, Robby the Robot!

LV, have you provided the full explanation regarding this blog post?

Hi, Hal. Well, I certainly thought so. But perhaps I neglected to mention this much: I am not, and never have been, an artificial-sweetener gal. Nor did I add sugar. I will cop to cream. Is there something else you're still wondering about? LV

Phony reviews. Deceptions. No trust.

Is that a haiku yet?

Have been to Spro twice. Great coffee, especially the honey macchiato (sp?) and the service has been attentive. The barristas want to share their knowledge and are enthusiastic about their product.
Restaurant reviewers should be anonymous. Being conspicuous and condescending serves no one.

Have been to Spro twice. Great coffee, especially the honey macchiato (sp?) and the service has been attentive. The barristas want to share their knowledge and are enthusiastic about their product.
Restaurant reviewers should be anonymous. Being conspicuous and condescending serves no one.

The 9th Circle

"I was never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together again and tell myself that the mended whole was as good as new. What is broken is broken, and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it and see the broken pieces as long as I lived"
-Margaret Mitchell


In Dante's Inferno, Hell is described as nine circles of suffering within the Earth. The very bottom circle, The Ninth Circle, is reserved for those who have betrayed a special relationship of some kind. At the very center of Hell is Satan, waist deep in ice, with three heads, each one chewing on a traitor: Brutus, Cassius and Judas Iscariot. It is a perverted trinity of Satan's impotence, ignorance and hate, contrasted to the all-powerful, all-knowing and loving nature of God.

Betrayal by a trusted loved one is the most painful of all.

All the people who are critical of DBJS might want to realize that she is doing a "guest" review on a BLOG which people just can't seem to absorb. It is an open forum for disccusion and opinions. Not the NYT review.

In addition, Jay C. I would trust your description of the 9th circle of hell. I'm sure you awake in it daily.

LV, Jay C was often critical of EL. This blog post featured a guest author and rather unfavorable review of Jay C's establishment. You were there and paid the bill but this was not disclosed (not that it had to be). It's just a curious thing.

I love a good conspiracy theory as well as the next guy, but I did not sample Jay's $13 coffee to somehow avenge whatever it is he's claimed to have done here as a Dining@Large poster. That was before my time, and I honestly don't even know, or care, what transpired.

Please note that I wrote two perfectly positive blog posts about Spro before that review. One announced that Spro would be selling a $13 cup of coffee. The other described all the brewing methods Spro would offer. I talked to Jay on the phone before posting those items. He was friendly. I was friendly. No problem.

I even got a complaint, which a Dining@Large reader made by way of an editor, that I'd given Jay too much positive "ink." But I maintained, and still do, that a $13 cup of coffee was a legitimate curiosity. I had, and still have, nothing against him.

And so, even after two posts, I set out to milk a $13 coffee for a third. As I've already explained, I planned to write a review myself and include comments from a drinking companion because I am not a regular coffee drinker. But when DBJS volunteered to write the review herself, I took her up on it. I should have made it clear that I was along for the ride when I posted her review. But there was no grand conspiracy to cover up my involvement. If there had been, I would have slipped into the shop more inconspicuously (read: sans kiddos).

Finally -- I've got a story and blog to write today, so I'm really hoping to move on -- let me state again that I found the barista pleasant. I think he would say the same of me. I have no personal beef with the barista or Jay or a $13 cup of coffee. I wish them all well. LV

No frothing gun! Looking forward to the post you're writing for today. Sorry to be a pain.

Not at all. If I'd been clear from the start about how the review came about, this wouldn't have happened. My fault. LV

LV, when you posted on the blog that is, at this time, yours at very negative review of a coffee house experience - and then to be unveiled as having been personally involved in that experience really stamp the entire unpleasantness with your - personal - Seal of Approval, since you do determine what is posted here.

There has always been a certain level of credibility here that has, of late, been called into question.

I have only occasionally read this blog, so this has been a learning experience for me. If I'm understanding these comments correctly, people have strong opinions about their coffee. I know nothing of the suggested history between Jay and the former blog writer, so that will remain a mystery to me. What I do know is that this Ms. Shapiro review is just plain weird, outer space weird. Perhaps she should not be asked to help out again.

Right on, Ms. Caldwell. Thank you. And come again.

Oh good grief. Who gives a flyin' rat's patoot whether or not the owner of an eating (or, in this case) coffee drinking establishment "prefers" that one taste one's coffee in a particular way? First of all...it's COFFEE. As someone wise once pointed out to me, PEOPLE ARE DYING out in the world. In the grand scheme of things, whether or not someone wants their coffee with a pat of butter on top or black is only the business of the person purchasing the coffee. Even if they're reviewing it. If that's how they like it, that's how they like it.

Secondly, I don't doubt for one minute the veracity of the reviewer's description of the service. There are too many places in this city where one has to negotiate through a phalanx of chip-on-their-shoulder, know-it-all hipsters to get their food (rockettovenuscoughcoughcough...). Even if the food is good (or, in this case, the coffee is good), by the time you're finished with Mr. Potty Mouth Skinnyjeans' attitude, your appetite is probably long gone.

There's no excuse for bad service. None. You're not dealing out Truth (with a capital "T"). You're not serving us communion. You're not presenting us with Ambrosia. You're serving coffee and food, for God's sake, and how we want it is our business. Just because you failed out of art school for not going to class (or had to drop out when the trust fund ran out) doesn't give you license to judge the people you're waiting on.

Well, OK: you can judge all you want. You still should serve those you deem unworthy with the same care and respect you'd give your Ironic Knitting instructor if they showed up on Open Mic Night just before you went on stage with your Yuke.

Ironic Knitting. Oh god, seanc, I'll be laughing all day about that one.

Between Spro and Golden West Cafe, it sounds like Hampden has become the center of the universe for waitstaff with attitudes.

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Secondly, I don't doubt for one minute the veracity of the reviewer's description of the service.

Except that LV completely refuted it.

So RoCK bought me a cup this Saturday. Here's how it tasted + a slideshow. It was a surprise present, but I guess RoCK was fueled by the controversy. We and the couple behind us drank the last of the last. In a non-gross way, I kinda feel like I'm wearing an albino tiger cape.

I'm sure from the physical description that we got the same server as DJBS, but he had a lovely personality. He was professional, informative, and just well... a cool guy. The place was crowded and he was completely in control.

And yeah, I tasted it without additives. It's not my normal way, my cup of coffee, so to speak... but I wanted to appreciate this rare breed full on.

I'd rather have one really exquisite cup of coffee than a whole sack of 8 O'Clock in the cupboard. RoCK shakes his head when we run out of things and I say "Carpe diem!" or when we don't have fancy cheese in the house, I say "Seize the cheese!" My dad warned him about me. ;) He told RoCK about a million times that when I was little, I'd push away hamburgers and hot dogs, demanding escargot.

Spro's coffee is the escargot to Dunkin' Donuts' hot dog.

Conveniently enough this article on kopi luwak appeared in the NYT this weekend.

For those of you still unconvinced of the refinement that goes into a hot beverage harvested from civet poop.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/world/asia/18civetcoffee.html

The free coffee at my hair salon tastes better than this coffee, the brown colored water they sell under the name coffee at this joint.
The people were rude, did not make me feel like a welcomed customer at all. We were there at 5:30pm. We ordered the cup of coffee with hints of fish and chips or peanut butter and jelly, an odd set of flavors the coffee could of tasted like, and a chocolate croissant then We asked the distracted young woman behind the counter for a coca-cola and she replied no we don't have any cinnamon. We got our coffee in a to-go cup but our pastry on a dish. Clearly we were staying. All in all we left to try and make it to a well known coffee shop before they closed to try and make up for the horrible experience we had. Would never go to spro again.

Looks like an amazing place. I think I'll stop by anytime soon. Thanks for posting!

I was going to try and taste this coffee sometime, but after reading this article I doubt I will.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.
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