WILMETTE – Many roast masters believe there’s equal parts skill and magic in the perfectly roasted coffee bean. An expert roaster must intuitively “read” the beans, finessing both heat and timing with split-second precision. Tiny adjustments can sometimes lead to radically different – occasionally unexpected – outcomes.
So it’s no surprise that veteran coffee roasters Julie and Blair Cooke didn’t feel the need to follow a prescribed recipe when they opened Alchemy Coffee Bar on Linden Avenue in Wilmette 13 years ago; they followed their instincts.
When a building Blair loved came up for rent, they grabbed it. Realizing that money was tight, the couple enlisted a talented friend to custom build Alchemy’s bar and seating area out of artfully crafted plywood. And rather than install a fancy sound system, Blair brought in a vintage turntable and records from his extensive vinyl collection.
“I knew we were on the right path,” said Blair. “Everything just fell into place.”
Alchemy launched in 2005 with a full-time staff of two: Blair handled the in-house roasting; Julie, the baking. The couple earned their sweat equity, and then some.
With big dreams and a small budget, the husband and wife business partners transformed a tiny, mid-century style former dentist’s office into a Wilmette hot spot, where regulars from far and wide pull up by car each morning for a caffeine fix and one of Alchemy’s signature, super-sized scones.
There’s no recipe for those, either.
As Blair tells it, Julie was pregnant with the couple’s second child when Alchemy first opened its doors. After the baby arrived, Blair – a novice – took over her baking duties, playing a little too fast and loose with the ingredients.
“The scones blew up into these big pillows, but they were wonderful,” said Julie. “We’ve been selling them ever since.”
On any given morning at Alchemy, customers can expect to find four plates piled with fluffy scones ($3.40) in fruity flavors like fig, mango and date nut, plus banana chocolate chip. If they’re lucky, Alchemy’s regulars can snag a slice of homemade banana cake with chocolate ganache before it disappears.
“There are days when our cake sells out before we even put it in the display case, ” said Blair.
The 600-square-foot café features a standard menu of coffee house favorites brewed with beans roasted in Alchemy’s sleek Diedrich IR-12 installed behind the bar. Choices include café au lait ($2.80), latte ($3.50), cappuccino ($3.50), chai tea latte ($3.50) and mocha ($3.88) – all served in 12-, 16- and 24-ounce cups, as well as a few of Alchemy’s own high-octane inventions.
The Buzz Queen ($3.40 for 12-ounce.) is an Americano coffee served with two extra shots of espresso; the Mocha Bomber ($5.15 for 16-ounce) mixes iced coffee with dark chocolate. And in Alchemy’s version of an iced coffee, an extra espresso is added to maintain flavor as the drink is diluted with melting ice.
Although Alchemy features a handful of smoothie-style drinks on its menu, it eschews the sugary, blended concoctions favored by coffee bar chains. Alchemy’s bestselling smoothie, The Alchemist, ($4.85) blends ice, milk, bananas, fig, walnuts, honey and a pinch of salt.
“I don’t want candy,” said Blair. “I want drinks and baked goods to taste like food, not cloying sweetness.”
Alchemy, while comfortable, is not a place to linger for hours on end; there’s no Wi-Fi or plush leather chairs. The space is small, but functional. Customers are welcome to browse through Alchemy’s eclectic record collection. Reading material is offered in the form of an unabridged dictionary, a nod to Blair’s love of words.
In the summertime, Alchemy’s front garden comes to life and customers sit outside at sidewalk tables. But most of the coffee bar’s “regular-regulars” just pop in for their favorite drink and leave with a to-go cup.
“We know what they want before they even walk in the door,” said Julie. “By the time they park, their coffee is waiting on the counter.”
Some customers come in just to buy a bag of Blair’s best-selling Harrar Eithopia Dark Roast coffee beans, available by the pound ($15.99), along with five other varietals. Bags of Alchemy’s coffee beans are also sold online.
Open seven days a week, very little has changed at Alchemy since 2005. The coffee bar’s staff has grown slightly, but Julie and Blair have been careful not to mess with karma.
“We have a system,” said Blair. “We do three things really, really well here: coffee, scones and cake. I think simplicity is a good thing. “
Alchemy Coffee House is located at 416 Linden Avenue, Wilmette; 847-251-4334, alchemycoffeehouse.com.