By Aaron Retherford
Sometimes a café is just a café. You might stop in for an early morning cup of coffee. And while enjoying a flaky pastry, you check out the calendar section in the latest issue of The WORLD.
Other times, a café is so much more than that – it’s a community builder. That’s been the inspiration for North Branch Café.
When North Branch Café opened in Montpelier in April of 2013, Lauren Parker, her husband, and daughter saw the space at 41 State St. as a blank canvas.
Lauren, who sold her medical billing and consulting company in order to focus on this dream, wanted to create a peaceful place where anyone could come and relax.
“I’ve always loved tea, and I started learning about the health benefits of tea,” she said. “Healthcare became a little more insane, so I started dreaming about how nice it would be to have a tea shop.”
Her daughter, Becky, an artist and designer of the café, helped make Lauren’s dream of creating a gathering place for people in town a reality. Beyond the dining area, they created a “library” room where community groups gather for their regular meetings, students can study, or families can even rent out for birthday parties. Becky also showcases her paintings throughout the café during times of the year when there isn’t a local artist featured.
“We still have people who walk in after three years and say ‘I walk by this building every week and I haven’t seen you here.’ It’s still a little bit of a challenge, but it’s become much more of a gathering space,” Lauren said. “It’s been a really great experience. It’s completely energizing for me. I didn’t realize when I started how much there is to know about tea.”
While you can purchase around 90 varieties of loose leaf teas or simply enjoy a cup in the café like other tea shops, North Branch Café offers so much more. North Branch Café breaks down barriers to tea and wine by centering around education.
It quickly becomes obvious Lauren knows her tea and she just wants to pass on that knowledge to whomever she can. She teaches an Introduction to Tea class, where attendees get a crash course on everything tea; such as where different teas come from, how to brew teas so they aren’t bitter, the health benefits of drinking tea, and more. Participants are able to sample different varieties of teas.
“You really are always looking forward to introducing people to things they don’t know…Our focus is to making it more hands-on, fun-loving, interesting and knowledgeable,” Lauren said. “Our job is to bring tea and wine to the community in a way it brings people a source of education and a better understanding, so they can appreciate it the way they’re meant to be enjoyed.”
North Branch Café also holds wine classes, taught by Lauren’s business partner Donia Prince. Currently, anyone looking for Thanksgiving wine suggestions can stop by the café.
“What we’ve been doing is changing wines every two months or so and try to do a mix of things that people would be kind of familiar with but also hoping to broaden people’s perspective a little bit and their experience,” Prince said. “We’re trying to educate people and take the intimidation factor out of it by allowing them to try an ounce here and an ounce there.”
North Branch Café utilizes an Enomatic wine-dispensing machine that allows pours of one, two, or five ounces. It also keeps wine at the correct temperature and fresh, so you know you’re enjoying the ideal glass.
The café includes a retail space where customers can purchase tea accessories, wine, local crafts, and more.
All of this is still only on one side of the café, however. The adjacent office space really completes the unique package that is the North Branch Café.
On the surface, it might seem odd for a tech services company to team up with a tea and wine café. But the partnership has created a great deal of synergy between the two businesses.
Patrons at the café might come in for a cup of tea, but end up needing tech help with their phones, laptops or tablets. Or on the flipside, someone might come in for tech help, and he or she can have a cup of tea or glass of wine while waiting.
Wes, Lauren’s husband, said that with all that is offered, the café has the feel of a small Barnes & Noble.
Wes, who has been working in IT for over 30 years and consulting for about eight, also makes house calls.
“It’s just a lot of fun meeting people from Montpelier and helping them with their computer questions,” he said. “We help with a lot of different problems.”
And to top it all off, North Branch Café is supporting other local businesses by selling their food. The café offers selections from local cheesemakers, Vermont Cheesecake Company, Against the Grain Gourmet wraps, and soup from Joe’s Kitchen at Screamin’ Ridge Farm in Montpelier; among others.
“What we’re known for in town is that our food is almost entirely organic and as local as possible. A lot of people suffer from food allergies, so we wanted to have options that satisfied a little bit of everything,” Lauren said. “A lot of parents who have kids with celiac disease love coming here because they can get really delicious tasting gluten-free food, which is a treat. Both my kids have celiac disease and my husband has a gluten allergy and you can’t really get good dessert many places. We have really good gluten-free options, and we’re really careful about it because we understand the problem with contamination.”
So if you’re looking for a great cup of tea, a perfect wine pour, answers to your tech questions, or just a great place to hang out and maybe grab a little something to eat, head on over to the North Branch Café at 41 State St., Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.