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Friday, Sep 29, 2023

Liv, Love, Local: Coffee

It is 8 a.m. on a Friday morning and the town of Middlebury is just waking up and making the pilgrimage to Royal Oak.

Owner Matt Delia-Lobo has opened the shop, and is now manning the bar with another barista, drinking a flat white. There is one customer tucked away in the corner by the window, writing in a journal.

Aless Delia-Lobo, Royal Oak’s co-owner and Matt’s wife, comes in with their daughter Frances to say hello and snack on a muffin before heading out to bring Frances to daycare.

Regulars make time to greet Matt and Aless as they trickle in. One woman orders a large cardamom vanilla latte with whole milk. The next, three 12-ounce americanos to go. Nearly five years in, Royal Oak may seem like it has been in Middlebury forever, but is always evolving. Given the pandemic, the cyclical nature of operating in a college town and other curveballs like a summer of intense rain, the real constant for Matt and Aless has been change itself.

The closure of the Lost Monarch, another coffee shop owned by Matt and Aless, this past year marked one of the most recent shifts in the couple’s Middlebury story.

“It’s been surreal for me,” Matt said of the Lost Monarch closure. “The positive stuff has been, you know, just being able to float. Mainly, it was like, I’d like to see my daughter and be part of my family. But it was hard.”

According to Matt, the overlapping schedules of Royal Oak and the former coffee bar in the Stone Mill made for unsustainably long days, sometimes over 12 hours. Despite the community's love and support for the spot, ultimately, he said taking a step back became the best option, especially with a young child.

“I don't have such an active role here anymore. So Matt was carrying a lot by himself,” Aless said.

“[The Lost Monarch] was a hard shop to run because it was solo. It’s unpredictable traffic. The decision was pretty much entirely … a mental health decision,” Matt said. Since closing the Lost Monarch, the couple have been working to integrate its rotational, experimental coffee offerings into the more community-focused vision they had when founding Royal Oak.

“We intentionally made it more like a neighborhood shop,” Aless said, so that more people would immediately find something appealing on the menu at Royal Oak, making it generally more accessible.

Ownership gives Matt and Aless control over the environment they cultivate in a way that was impossible in their past experience as baristas at coffee shops in Boston.

“It's this central nervous system kind of community that I've always wanted … with a coffee shop,” Matt said. “We've just been able to cultivate a space here. We feel genuinely connected to the community through here, like we've made lifelong friends.”

Matt and Aless prioritize genuine connection when customers come in rather than rushing for customers to pay and leave. “The goal is you feel like you came to our house and we made you a coffee,” Matt said.

Of course, there must be business transactions to make it all work. But for Matt, true success is found in sharing his passion for coffee with others. “We're literally just doing this because this is our thing. It's like when you ask musicians or artists, they’re like, oh no, I don't have a choice. I’m not trying to make it big,” Matt said.

The closure of the Lost Monarch has meant an opportunity to hone in on Royal Oak’s core operations and think about future expansion. Coffee education is one area that Matt and Aless are excited to expand after receiving customer feedback and requests.

With the end of longer summer hours, there is time in Royal Oak’s fall schedule to run coffee courses after the shop closes for the afternoon. Potential subject areas include home brew, coffee tasting, latte art and pour overs.

Aless has previous experience teaching coffee education courses during her time as a barista in Boston, including a class on coffee tasting. “It’s really fun because coffee... is the thing that has the most flavors out of any other thing in the world. And it blows people's minds,” Aless said.

Matt and Aless want to emphasize the iterative, experimental nature of brewing coffee that keeps every day fresh and exciting.

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“That's making coffee in a nutshell. It's just like these incremental changes,” Matt said. “That's why I can do it forever. It's just a puzzle, like another exercise, like using as much of your brain as possible.”

Located at 30 Seymour Street in downtown Middlebury, Royal Oak is open Monday through Saturday from 7:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m., and Fridays from 8:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m..

Olivia Mueller

Olivia Mueller '24 (she/her) is a News Editor.

Previously an Arts and Culture editor, Olivia is an International Politics and Economics major with a Spanish minor. Outside of the Campus, she is a spin instructor for YouPower, an avid runner and hiker, and a member of the Middlebury Mischords a cappella group.