From the Ground Up: Running on fumes

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

 


Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez stand on their hand made iron furniture as this new coffee house forms around them. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

At 8:45 on a recent Saturday night in Shaw, when everyone else their age was drinking at Dacha or Ivy & Coney, Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez welded shelves in their freshly painted building, which was finally beginning to look like the coffee shop it will soon become.

“I think we are actually high on fumes right now,” Haft said.

“Michael lacerated himself making these,” Suarez added, gesturing to the shelves. “It’s actually hilarious.”

At the beginning of the project in March, they wore sherbet-colored polo shirts and boat shoes; now, they wear worn-down T-shirts and jean jackets to protect their forearms from flying sparks. They have suffered cuts and scrapes and sore muscles. Their hands are constantly covered in dirt, and they smell like sweat. But most of all, as they enter the final push to open Compass Coffee, they are tired.

Physically tired, because in order to get their work done, they went through a phase of polyphasic sleep, a trick they learned in their military days. Adherents sleep for three to four hours, and then work for eight hours, and then nap for another 90 minutes, repeating the cycle as long as needed. A few weeks ago, Suarez texted this reporter at 3:06 a.m. to say that they were working on the countertops for their tasting room. "I tried taking a picture of us with my phone but it looked [too] depressing," he wrote.

In theory, the sleep schedule increases productivity. In practice, they felt like it was slowly driving them insane. It has also made it hard for them to have a life outside of Compass.

“My girlfriend, now ex-girlfriend, didn’t make it through construction,” Haft said.

They're also mentally drained from the monotony of construction, whether supervising workers or building parts of their soon-to-open coffeeshop by hand.

"I never want to do this cement b------t again," Haft said. "You lie to yourself and tell yourself it will be easy."


(L-R) Iron fabricators from Square Form, Joel Shetterly and Joe Margot, work on squaring a portion of the cube created to surround the Compass Coffee roaster. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Joe Margot (L) and Joel Shetterly weld a portion of the cube. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

With the electricity, water, gas, heating, ventilation and air conditioning in place, the final push of construction has been focused on the aesthetics of the space, the centerpiece of which is a paned steel-and-glass cube that surrounds the shop's roasting room. For that, they enlisted metal fabrication company Square Form.

“The glass cube has always been the staple of branding for Compass,” said Scott Cummings, who co-owns the design firm with Joe Wills. “This cube [is] their aesthetic. So when they move on to another location, if you see this cube, you think Compass.”

At their Hyattsville shop that day, a trio of craftsmen were finishing the tracks on a sliding door that was to be installed in Compass the next day. Flipping through pink receipts from BMG Metals, Cummings, with his dog Buddy Max sleeping at his feet, estimated that the entire Compass project uses about 5,600 pounds of steel. Square Form has worked 750 hours on the cube’s fabrication so far.

Cummings and the Compass co-founders like to boast that fastening the panes together required 70 linear feet of weld. They’ve also traded some of their skills: The Square Form guys taught Haft and Suarez how to weld, and they reciprocated by building Square Form’s website.

“We actually roast a special Ethiopian roast just for them,” Haft said. “It’s better to keep your metalworkers happy.”

Haft and Suarez's schedule for the last few weeks has been as follows: Arrive at the job site at 7:30 a.m. to supervise contractors and help out. Take a mid-afternoon nap. Then work late into the night on the coffee shop’s finishes, tasks such as pouring cement countertops and welding shelves and benches.

“The ceiling install took, legit, seven 12-hour days,” Suarez said. Still, it was worth the constant supervision to get the quality of work they desired. “All of the lines match up, and the grains match up,” for the oak-paneled ceilings, he said.

Plumbers and electricians have been in and out of the space. Compass hired a specialist to install the white subway tile in a herringbone pattern across the bar area. Their kitchen equipment -- a dishwasher, ice maker, and refrigerators -- have been delivered and installed (Though the oven that Laura Saltzman, of the affiliated 7th Street Baking, ordered is still on the way).

They've also been dealing with construction issues, commonplace on a work site, but frustrating to the two Type-A owners. The paint on the building's facade wasn't applied correctly, and began to flake off; a doorframe had been hung improperly and the workers had to remove it and reinstall it; staining from the floors had splashed onto the pristine white walls, which would need to be repainted; for a few days, the workers, who are typically contracted at several sites concurrently, weren't showing up.

“We’re been trying to mitigate the issues to save time and money,” Haft said.


Square Form's Dan Gray works on squaring a portion of the iron cube. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Larry Castle, their general contractor, said that the job is only a few days behind schedule, which is a result that would make most restaurant owners grateful. Unexpected construction delays can sometimes add up to weeks.

"We're not working in a bank lobby. We have to contend with weather," Castle said. While some of the workers may have missed days to meet deadlines at other job sites, he said they made up the time. "There were a lot of days when there were a lot of people here, like 20."

And some of their hiccups became happy accidents.

“There’s this Drake quote, ‘I learned working with the negatives can make better pictures,’ ” Suarez said. He sees it as a rap version of the adage "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." When they found out that an ugly support pole in the middle of the floor couldn't be removed, they came up with the idea to weld circular shelves around it for their can display. When the white paint began to flake off the front of the building, they had to scrape it all off to expose the brick underneath; now, they think they like it better that way.


Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez create steel shelves on a pole that predated Compass Coffee in this building. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

As soon as the plumbing and electrical work is complete, they'll move on to the punch-list phase of construction. That's when Castle, Haft, Suarez and the building inspectors will make lists of all of the things that need to be fixed or changed before the place can open. While Compass will begin its wholesale roasting as soon as they pass a health inspection, they're several weeks from opening the cafe to the public.

"This is my favorite part of the job, the finish run," said Castle. "I call it the mustache curlers. Every little thing they do makes a difference. It's not like the pipes, hidden in the walls."

Haft has another reason to enjoy the "mustache curlers": Each one puts him and Suarez one step closer to the part of this business they actually like.

"I can't tell you how excited I am to do coffee things," he said, "And not construction things."

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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