Don’t get Matt Pipinich talking about coffee.
No, actually, do. He’ll talk about coffee in a way you’ve never heard, most likely, touching on the science and craft of roasting and brewing and how coffee should be served and consumed. He might veer off to talk about synergy and community-building and the importance of relationships.
Sometime shortly after the start of the new year, he hopes to be funneling all that knowledge and passion into a downtown business he’s starting with two partners—MoAv Coffee House at 2501 Montana Ave.
They are converting the old Carlin Martini Bar into a big-city coffee shop with its own roasting operation and classroom and seminar space. In addition to coffee they will be serving locally brewed beer, wine, kombucha and “drinking chocolate.”
“Think high-end whiskey-bar feel,” Pipinich said, with the old Carlin’s nightclub-size space sprinkled with lounge furniture, a long booth, high and low tables and servers taking orders from seated customers. By next summer they hope to add food—food not normally associated with coffee shops, at least not in these parts—to the menu.
Pipinich is partnering with Adam Feldner, an architect with CTA Architects Engineers, who is designing the new shop, and Jeff Hosa, a photographer who is serving as the marketing and brand guy and the logistics expert. On Thursday, Hosa was in Boston buying some used roasting equipment.
Pipinich previously worked for City Brew, the Billings-based coffee chain, and in June he left his job at Rock Creek Coffee Roasters in downtown Billings, where he’d been for the past two years. He continues to work at Angry Hank’s, a downtown microbrewery, where he has also been for two years.
A self-described “coffee geek,” Pipinich had been thinking of having his own coffee shop for 10 years or so. He began to share his passion for coffee with Hosa and Feldner, both of them Rock Creek regulars, and Hosa in particular was soon a full-fledged coffee geek himself. At the moment, Pipinich said, all the coffee brewing equipment he has amassed over the years is at Hosa’s house.
Last spring, Hosa and Pipinich decided it was time they partnered up and opened a coffee shop. Pipinich said they had been considering locations downtown, on the North and South sides, the Heights and Lockwood.
Then fate intervened. Last April, Pipinich was flying to Portland, Ore., for a Specialty Coffee Association of America event at which coffee industry people could meet the farmers who grew their coffee. At this event, the guest of honor was a farmer from Honduras.
Seated next to Pipinich on the plane was Jennifer Mercer, executive director of the Billings Depot, coincidentally heading to Honduras on vacation. They got to talking and Mercer, whose enthusiasm is a force to be reckoned with, had a suggestion for him.
Or, as she put it, “I told him I knew exactly where you need to put your business.” She said he needed to lease the Carlin Martini Bar, which closed in 2012 and had been used sporadically for special events since then. Pipinich said he wasn’t aware the building was available.
Well, as Mercer explained, the man who owned it, Montana Avenue entrepreneur and property owner Mike Schaer wasn’t really aware of that either. And when she called Schaer to say he’d be getting a phone call from Pipinich, Schaer confirmed that the building wasn’t on the market. But he took the call, listened to the proposal and a week later they had a deal, Mercer said.
“I’m just so excited to have them,” said Mercer, whose depot is barely a block from the Carlin. “I have been a huge cheerleader for them.”
Pipinich and Hosa soon enlisted Feldner, and after months of preparation they recently began demolition inside the old Carlin. Their website has a countdown clock, and when the renovation is complete they’ll post a time-lapse video of the whole process. They are also posting updates on their Facebook page.
Pipinich thinks the timing is perfect for their venture. When he moved here from Great Falls in 2001, people his age, 18- and 19-year-olds, all talked about being stuck here or having been “sucked back” to Billings. But Pipinich was here by choice and he had high hopes.
And by about 2006, he said, things had really begun to change, and there were actually lots of people who talked about loving this place. That sense of community and optimism has only grown, he said.
“We’re on the precipice of something great and we’re not going to wait for it,” he said. “That’s been a great group to be a part of.”
Pipinich said the MoAv (for Montana Avenue, duh) is going to start as a “third-wave” coffee house, that being the term adopted by similar businesses years ago in places like Portland and Minneapolis. “Third-wave” meant their businesses were built on relationships—relationships between baristas and customers, between owners and employees, between the industry and the farmers in South America, Asia and Africa who grow their coffee.
“We’re relationship-based,” Pipinich said. “We’re relationships first.”
He feels the same way about interacting with other coffee shop owners, like Joel and Peggy Gargaro at Rock Creek Coffee Roasters.
“We can create a scene as opposed to being competitors,” he said. He likens it to the microbrewery scene. Who would have guessed 10 or 15 years ago that downtown Billings could support six microbreweries? It works because each one brews distinctly different beers and offers a unique atmosphere.
“You can feel free to bounce between them and they encourage that,” Pipinich said.
He wants people to love coffee they way they love beer. He plans to work with individual customers to determine exactly what kind of coffee they like and the best way to brew it to suit their tastes.
“Coffee should taste how it smells, and quite often it doesn’t,” Pipinich said, which explains the widespread use of flavored syrups and other additives. He wants people to enjoy the coffee itself.
Or the beer, wine and kombucha, as the case may be. The partners have secured a restaurant beer and wine license, which requires table service, as opposed to ordering at the counter. That’s something they would have preferred anyway, Pipinich said, to encourage people to think of drinking coffee in terms of fine dining rather than fast food.
The raised stage at the old Carlin, and the space behind it, will be used for the roasting equipment, and there will be space for putting on classes for customers and other coffee people, as well as competitions between roasters and baristas. The idea, Pipinich said, is to “really perfect the craft and the profession of coffee.”
Most of the main space—from the front of the stage to the front door, it’s about the size of the Off the Leaf coffee shop, Pipinich said—will be used for seating. They plan to show movies on occasion, to have live music, lots of board games and special events. There is also an expansive deck, on the east side of the building across North 25th Street from the McCormick Cafe, that will have its own coffee bar in nice weather.
To save money and be socially responsible, they are using as much recycled and repurposed material as possible. All their roasting equipment is used, and the interior will be finished with wood salvaged from an old barn in Choteau.
By next summer, Pipinich said, they want to become a “fourth-wave” coffee house, which refers to a new emphasis on food, something beyond the high-carb pastries typically served in coffee shops.
He said they hope to serve more protein, in the form of cheese and nuts, for instance, and to work with area restaurants to offer some of their appetizers at MoAv. They also plan to have “rotator” beers and coffees—featured brews offered for three months at a time.
Pipinich envisions featuring coffee roasts from shops in Portland or California, but also from local shops like Rock Creek.
“We just want to expose people to the variety that’s out there. And it’s definitely OK if it’s not just us,” he said.
And it’s OK with Joel Gargaro from Rock Creek. He said he hasn’t spoken much with Pipinich about his plans, but he likes the idea of collaboration.
“The idea is to build a more suitable coffee culture,” Gargaro said. “There is definitely nothing wrong with that.” Rock Creek, which has been in business just over 11 years at North Broadway and Second Avenue North, is on its way to a record year, Gargaro said, which is partly attributable to the rebound of the downtown.
Pipinich wants to be part of that rebound, part of that business community. He mentioned some of the exciting additions to the downtown in recent years, including Big Dipper Ice Cream and Art House Cinema and Pub.
“All these business owners really want to work together,” he said. “For the first time in a long time in Billings, a lot of people want to work together.”