PORTLAND, Maine — “Brakes and shocks, our specialty.”
These words emblazoned across the front entrance of 742 Congress Street will take on a new meaning this week, when Tandem Coffee and Bakery opens in this long-defunct gas station.
With expertly prepared espresso paired with blueberry, nectarine and apricot pies cooling on the marble counter, Tandem is arguably poised to become the West End’s ultimate coffee break.
The team behind two-year-old Tandem Coffee Roasters in East Bayside is behind the new bakery, which is aiming to open its doors soon. (They are aiming for Thursday, Aug. 28). In the latest iteration, baked goods will share top billing with craft coffee, roasted a few miles away.
“We wanted to grow, not stamp out the same cafe,” said Kathleen Pratt, who founded Tandem with her husband and roaster in chief William Pratt. “It’s not our dream to have a Tandem on every corner; the growth has been organic.”
Starting with three employees when they transformed the office of a scrap yard in August 2012; they now employ 18, including themselves.
The couple, who moved here from Brooklyn, helped spark the revitalization of East Bayside, which led even bigger roasters, like Coffee By Design, to move in.
Now the Pratts and partner Vien Dobui are helping to extend the business mix on Congress Street with a 1,500-square-foot cafe and bakery. Baker Briana Holt is the new addition.
Holt and the Pratts have been friends for years, meeting in Martha’s Vineyard and living in Brooklyn at the same time. When Tandem was ready to expand its offerings beyond caffeine, “we tried to woo her like crazy,” said Kathleen.
The wooing worked. Holt moved to Portland last fall.
While working as a barista at Tandem, she started making pies on the side for pop-up dinners and events. Her fruit pies so impressed Portland restaurateur Jay Villani that he asked her to take over a space he’d rented with plans to open his own bakery, she said.
The Pratts, who had long loved the vacant spot with a giant portico that resembles a 1950s drive-in burger stand, jumped at the offer.
They announced in March their plans to expand to the West End. Since April, the Tandem team has rehabbed the space into a mod, sleek coffee bar with ample room for socializing.
With 14-foot-high ceilings and a community table, standing drink rails and scattered low tables and benches; the layout invites socialization, which they cultivate at their tiny original cafe.
“We have hi-fi, not wifi,” said William Pratt, as a record player spun vintage tunes on a shelf above the new high-end coffee grinder.
“At first people are upset that we don’t have wifi,” said Kathleen, “but when they leave they thank us because they make new friends.”
One side of the cafe is Holt’s baking station, where sacks of flour and a double-stack convection oven will be in constant use. Heady aromas will envelop customers at the door. She plans to bake “coffee cake, fruit scones, biscuits, breakfast-y cake in the morning,” and shift to pies as the day wears on.
For lunch, egg and potato omelettes and cured meat with cultured butter will be served on homemade focaccia and brioche. “Just very simple, using whatever is fresh,” she said.
A few non-coffee drinks are “being workshopped,” said William Pratt.
So, in this food-mad city where bakeries for dogs and vegans exist, how can one more survive?
“By keeping it as fresh and as close to the seasons as possible,” said Holt, who shops farmers markets in the a.m. for stone-fruits like plums to add to her evolving recipes.
Combinations such as a local blackberry and honey corn oat crumble is a fresh take on sweet and salty. “Things that remind you of other things. Things warm and familiar,” said Holt, a self-taught baker who worked at Pies-N-Thighs in Brooklyn and various gourmet kitchens in her native Martha’s Vineyard. “I have a touch of a 50’s-style housewife,” she said, her dirty blonde hair piled on top of her head and fastened with a colorful hair band.
Her secret is real butter and combining familiar ingredients in unfamiliar ways to leave a lasting impression. With nostalgia trending at the moment, digging into a juicy pie with Tandem’s malted iced coffee on an outdoor picnic bench may be the best fill-up on the peninsula. “I want it to be about the pie. I have a tight aesthetic,” said Holt.
Holt’s pastries are not “too crazy or over-the-top,” which complement Tandem’s “straightforward, but fun,” philosophy, she said.
In the coffee department the third-wave roaster has upped its game with a Mahlkonig EK43coffee grinder, which Dobui says is “all the rage” in the coffee industry now. Their East Bayside cafe and roastery will remain, but the more visible location, between Neal and Carleton streets, will be the new perk on the block.
Pour-over bars will make an occasional appearance, but batch coffee designed for quick service is the main brew.
Hours are Tuesday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.