The ninth installment of a series about the launch of a local coffee shop and roastery. Read all of the From the Ground Up stories
"This might end up being a cheat day," said Compass Coffee co-founder Michael Haft, as he stared down a table full of sugar cookies, biscuits and coffee cakes. Haft and Harrison Suarez are strict adherents of the paleo diet, a lifestyle that eschews grain, legumes, dairy and processed foods. While it is unlikely that our cavemen ancestors roasted and brewed coffee, they've decided to make an exception.
A "cheat day," or day when they permit themselves grains, dairy or sweets, has not occurred since February, because the duo says that paleo helps their minds and bodies to operate at their most efficient -- a state that they do not want to counteract with the occasional pastry. But today, as they sample recipes for the baked goods that will fill the pastry case in Compass, it's an important part of their job.
Haft and Suarez are not the only entrepreneurs who will be launching a business at 1535 7th Street later this summer. They've partnered with baker Laura Saltzman, who will be using Compass' kitchen to start her own wholesale bakery, 7th Street Baking, which will supply pastries to Compass and other local cafes. But while the kitchen is still under construction, Saltzman occasionally uses the Haft family's home as her research kitchen. It's a nice one, too, with a Viking double oven and six-burner range, All-Clad cookware, and more than twice as much space as she'll have in her eventual kitchen.
Saltzman stuck a toothpick into her coffee cake and, dissatisfied with the result, returned it to the oven. Her brother, Josh, co-owns Ivy and Coney, adjacent to Compass's future home. When Haft and Suarez put out the word that they were looking for good pastries, "Josh was like, 'Why don't you talk to my sister? She's an awesome baker.'" Haft said, "And we were like, yeah, yeah. These things never work out."
But when they met her, they realized the recommendation was more than just nepotism. Saltzman, 24, has been cooking professionally since she was 15, with a stint as an intern at Alinea, the famed molecular gastronomy restaurant in Chicago. She baked for Haft and Suarez in February -- the last time they had a cheat day -- and impressed them with her entrepreneurial zeal and her talent for biscuits.
But the part of Saltzman's resume that really helped her seal the deal is that she has a specialty in gluten-free baking. She estimates that at least 20 percent of the baked goods at Compass will be gluten free. After she developed a gluten allergy last year, Saltzman learned the complicated chemistry of cooking with alternate types of wheat-free flours. Not only will her baked goods appeal to Compass's guests who are, either out of necessity or fad, going gluten-free, but it also puts her in lockstep with Haft and Suarez' values as businessmen.
"It was a big decision ... to offer non-paleo stuff. Does that interfere with our value system? How much do we impose what we think on other people?" Haft said. "It's been a very heated debate … Maybe somebody comes in on a Sunday morning and they just want to have a treat. It's not healthy -- everybody knows it's not healthy -- but that was the compromise, having healthy options alongside things that are treats."
Recipe testing for this trio, though, is fraught with peril. Haft and Suarez, not accustomed to eating sugar or gluten, anticipated a blood sugar spike and a drop in productivity. For Saltzman, who was diagnosed with an actual allergy, it's even worse.
"I have to plan out my days for when I recipe test," she said, "It's kind of like I'm planning for a really bad hangover. I'm not a celiac or anything -- it won't kill me, it's just really unpleasant." Her symptoms include feeling dizzy and disoriented.
But not tasting her own food would be unthinkable. She plops glutinous biscuits -- blueberry, goat cheese and thyme, tomato basil -- onto a baking sheet and brushes them with butter.
"If you can't make something good gluten-free, don't make it gluten-free," she said. "Bread needs gluten," and therefore she won't be making any gluten-free bread. She added, wistfully, "I really miss bread."
But for her gluten-free recipes, like the coffee cake that she sliced up for her eager taste-testers, she used a complicated blend of flours made from almonds, teff, tapioca, arrowroot and potato, among others, with xantham gum used as one of her binding agents. She uses a blend of four or five of these ingredients in each of her gluten-free recipes.
"It takes a lot more chemistry. It's not that hard, but it does take a little bit more skill," she said. Another drawback: "There's a reason gluten-free items are much more expensive -- the ingredients are expensive."
But to a non-paleo, gluten-loving taster, it tasted like coffee cake -- fluffy and sweet, flavored with cinnamon and homemade coffee extract. Other gluten free sweets that will be on 7th Street Baking's opening menu include biscotti, amaretti, and grapefruit cake. And the offerings with traditional flour range from chocolate chip cookies to coffee granola with yogurt. Biscuits will be among the first savories, but she says she eventually may expand into traditional lunch items like sandwiches.
As for the shared kitchen, it's a win-win for both companies. Saltzman gets a rent-free space to launch her company, and Haft and Suarez get a discount on their wholesale orders, which they can sell to their customers as soon as they come out of the oven.
"Our advantage is, everything's fresh," Haft said. Added Saltzman: "And delivery will be easier."
But the two companies have operated as a unit in some ways, as they both march towards their respective launches. They attended an eight-hour food safety manager course earlier this month in Chevy Chase (Final exam scores: Haft and Suarez say they got an A minus at 93 and 92 percent, respectively; Saltzman scored a perfect 100 percent). They also put their orders for soon-to-be-installed kitchen equipment together to get a discount. Compass is outfitting most of the kitchen -- they've purchased an ice maker, dishwasher, the sinks and fridge, while Saltzman is paying for the oven. She's found and purchased some of her equipment, like her mixer, on her own.
Haft snaps some pictures of Saltzman's work, and then he and Suarez dig in to the coffee cake and rosemary biscuits. They're tasting to see which sweets would pair well with each of their nine house coffee blends.
"I think the Cardinal is a good fit," said Suarez, referencing a blend of South American coffees that they describe as having notes of milk chocolate and toasted nuts. "Even better, one of the Asian ones, the Azimuth or Embassy. They're a little more herbal and earthy."
Saltzman, who had some bites earlier, sits down to rest as her gluten hangover kicks in -- a crash that's soon to come for Haft and Suarez. Said Haft: "I'm going to be useless the rest of the day."