From the Ground Up: Sparks fly as Compass assembles its furniture

The fifth installment of a series about the launch of a local coffee shop and roastery. Read all of the From the Ground Up stories

 

This week, Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez build a prototype for the future tables of Compass Coffee. (The Washington Post)

Harrison Suarez measures, Michael Haft cuts. The Compass Coffee duo, surrounded by workers in the soon-to-open coffee shop and roastery in Shaw, are slicing a two-by-two-inch steel beam that will become the legs of a table. If you thought they were merely boasting about being hands-on entrepreneurs before, here's the evidence: They're building much of their business's furniture by hand.

Because the shop's $129,000 Loring coffee roaster was such a big expense, Haft and Suarez had to cut other costs to stay on budget. They’re pretty good with tools from their days as Marines, and Haft has a crafty background: woodworking and welding were his hobbies in high school and college. They realized they could save money by DIYing as much as possible, from the steel-and-concrete coffee counter, to the wood tables, to the art on the walls. While they relish even the less-glamorous parts of their business -- like visiting a paper-goods warehouse, which we'll address in the next installment -- building furniture is among their most edifying tasks.

"We come here in the morning, we drink coffee, and we make something that somebody is gonna use for years to come," Suarez said.

They began with cafe tables made out of oak, their favorite wood. But the ante was upped when Haft and Suarez decided to weld the shop's angled coffee counter, workspace and steel shelving.

'The coolest thing ever'

Haft used to work out of a wood shop in Rockville, but he recently switched to the brand-new TechShop, which opened in April. The 21,000-square-foot Crystal City shop is the newest outpost of the Silicon Valley company, which provides tools and workspace for welders, woodworkers, computer scientists and other fabricators. When Haft and Suarez led this reporter through TechShop's rooms of expensive machinery and high-tech tools, it was like watching two kids in a toy store, except all of the toys are sharp and require signing a liability waiver.

Suarez: "It's like a gym for creating things."

Haft: "It's the coolest thing ever. Any tool you could possibly need is there."

Suarez: "In one corner, there will be like, a $100,00 machine, and in another corner, there will be another $100,000 machine."

Because TechShop is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the former Marines were eligible for free membership. And once members take a safety class for any particular tool in the shop -- from 3D printers to waterjet cutters -- they're allowed unlimited usage if they provide their own materials.

Haft and Suarez ordered 2,000 pounds of steel, cut it to size, and welded the framework of a four-piece counter last week. On Tuesday, they made another small table for practice, so that they can try concrete molding on a less critical piece of furniture before having to perfect it on the countertops.

"Espresso machines are heavy," Suarez said. "We need a strong framework for the [concrete] countertop, so it doesn't crack. We hope."


The delivery of Compass Coffee's stools (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

Navy chairs, sturdy stools

Haft and Suarez aren't building all of the furniture themselves. For some items, they decided it made more sense to buy, rather than build. That's where Kedra Cornelske of Design Within Reach comes in.

Cornelske works for DWR's contract and hospitality division, helping architects and interior designers select fixtures and furniture for their spaces. Haft and Suarez approached her because they had a specific chair in mind -- the Emeco Navy chair, which they prized not only for its sturdiness and classic design, but its military backstory. The aluminum chair had been designed for military use in 1944, and was standard on submarines, but was recently updated in a warmer recycled white plastic that matched the cafe setting better.

"We went through a bunch of different options, but for [them], it was very important to have some history to the furniture," Cornelske said.

They ordered 18 of them. While both Cornelske and the Compass duo declined to share their negotiated price, the chairs sell for $280 each on the Emeco website. They also ordered 20 French stackable metal Tolix stools, which normally retail for $180 each. They're pricey, but Compass decided it was worth it in the long run.

"Durability and maintenance is so important because it's such a high-traffic area," Cornelske said. "You don't want to pick a piece where the cushions are going to have to be replaced. People don't really care about other people's property."

Abuse is the foremost concern when it comes to choosing furniture for a restaurant. After all, if everything goes well, those seats will be supporting hundreds of behinds every week.


Compass Coffee's Emeco Navy chairs (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)
Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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