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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Liv, Love, Local: Specs Café

Specs uses Abracadabra Coffee Co. for its drip and cold brew offerings, and Moka for its espresso.
Specs uses Abracadabra Coffee Co. for its drip and cold brew offerings, and Moka for its espresso.

Vermont resident and cocktail professional Sam Nelis is working to realize his full vision of the Specs Café: a café by day and cocktail bar by night, with an associated retail space for local beverages along with café and bar equipment. The Winooski, Vt. space opened as a café in December 2023, and currently operates from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. As renovations continue, Nelis hopes to expand the concept to add cocktail service by this coming summer.

“My vision was always to create a bar that was also a cafe,” Nelis said. 

He drew inspiration from European café-bars, where the concept is popular. As the son of international teachers, Nelis grew up in various countries — including Ecuador, Pakistan and Macedonia. He spent his formative high school years in Eastern Europe and Greece, where he was inspired by the café culture he experienced there. 

“People will go to work from home and then they'll go downstairs to the local coffee shop with their colleagues and have their first cup of coffee with a few people where they sit down and they need to do a little bit of work or relax,” Nelis explained. “I've always been drawn to that sort of culture, of being in a community space while eating and drinking. It's also, I think, kind of the epitome of what culture is.”

When Emma Rose of Rosie’s Market & Cafe decided to sell the café to focus on her chocolate production for Rosie’s Confections, Nelis seized the opportunity to take over the space on Canal Street in downtown Winooski. Kyle Palmer, who served as the barista at Rosie’s, has stayed on as lead barista at Specs. 

Nelis has worked with the Vermont Small Business Development Center for the past two years to plan his venture. He was able to use the center’s resources to help narrow down specifics like square footage and sales estimates to keep the business afloat. The Small Business Development Center also helped Nelis with the financial side of the business. 

Continuing to renovate while simultaneously operating the café has been a challenge, but Nelis hopes that placing the cocktail bar toward the back of the space will not only keep the café side running smoothly but also provide a natural day-to-night transition for customers when the cocktail bar is open.

Nelis has years of experience in the cocktail and restaurant industry in Vermont — he helped to re-open Waterworks Food + Drink in Burlington in the 2010s and served as the beverage director at Barr Hill Gin in Montpelier, Vt. In that role, Nelis assisted with building out the bar program at the distillery, which was nominated for a James Beard Award this year and achieved semifinalist status. 

The café serves local coffee from Woodstock, Vt.-based roaster Abracadabra for their drip coffee and cold brew and uses Moka, the same roaster with whom Rosie’s worked, for its espresso.

The name “Specs” comes from “specifications,” the detailed recipes of each drink. 

“You would ask someone, what are the specs of your Manhattan? You know, what are the specs on those coffee beans from Abracadabra?” Nelis said. 

The concept, Nelis described, is to bring the technical focus and precision of cocktails to all the drinks in the space, including the coffee. He also plans to create a local market in the adjacent space formerly occupied by Catland Vintage, a clothing store that recently closed. 

The market would offer the relevant supplies for customers to craft their own drinks, from coffee beans and brewing equipment to soft alcohol like cider and wine, as well as cocktail ingredients, tools and recipe books.

Nelis has been intentional about creating an elevated, quality experience in the café without eliminating some of the favorite flavor combinations Rosie’s customers enjoyed most.

“We can focus on classics mostly, you know, and do them really well… but then also make our house made syrups and fresh squeezed juices, and so we kind of brought that kind of cocktail attitude to the coffee bar,” he said. 

All of the coffee syrups at Specs are homemade with real ingredients rather than from plastic pump bottles. For example, Nelis adjusted the recipe of a popular coffee drink from Rosie’s made with honey and lavender to use quality local products, including Bar Hill Honey and Vermont grown lavender, in its new iteration. 

“So far people are giving a lot of good compliments for the flavors of the drinks,” Nelis said. 

Similar to a cocktail menu, Specs has a large variety of latte flavor combinations up on the board with clever names. 

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“We're hoping that that makes us stand out a little bit,” he said. 

Some latte flavors have been crafted with an explicit cocktail influence — Nelis created a drink with ginger syrup and an Angostura bitters whipped cream inspired by the aromatic bitters in an old fashioned or a Manhattan. 

The cafe’s current food offerings emphasize the use of local products, including granola for the yogurt cup from nearby Barrio Bakery in South Burlington, Vt. and non-coffee drinks from local companies like Middlebury’s Aqua ViTea kombucha. Nelis said the food menu will continue to expand once the cocktail bars open.

Nelis expressed that being in Vermont, and Winooski in particular, is an exciting opportunity to build a close community connection. 

“We've got regulars that live around the corner that literally come five, six days a week already… I love that idea of a third space,” Nelis said. A third space is a place outside of work or home where members of the community can gather and connect together.

Specs hosted its first cocktail night and fundraising event welcoming in the community for a taste of what the drinks menu will look like following the full buildout on Thursday, Feb. 22. While the day-to-night concept promises long days ahead for Nelis and the team, he feels excited and fulfilled by the community engagement of such a social career.

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The concept of Specs is to bring the technical focus and precision of cocktails to all drinks in the space, including the coffee.

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.