Behind the Design: A Movement is Brewing in Boston

A behind-the-scenes look at three new Cambridge coffee shops designed to enhance the coffee-drinking experience.

Welcome to Behind the Design, a series where local blogger (and Bostonista’s roving street style photographer) Charlotte Wilder explores the thought behind the design of restaurants. Because, after all, the visuals are just as important as the food in the dining experience.

From left: Hi-Rise, RJ Gourmet, dwelltime. All photos by Charlotte Wilder for Boston magazine.

Boston is home to a rising artisan coffee movement thanks to many new shops focusing on high-end beans and carefully crafted brews. And while the actual coffee is the main attraction, design is crucial as well when it comes to creating an efficient high-end, high-functioning establishment. In order to learn more about the importance of design in a coffee shop, I turned to Jaime van Schyndel, co-owner of the Arlington-based Barismo Coffee Roasters and just-opened Cambridge coffee shop dwelltime. He took me around to three of the shops whose design he consulted on: Hi-Rise’s new Mass. Ave. location, RJ Gourmet, and, of course, dwelltime.

Van Schyndel used to be a barista, and he says that they often encounter design problems in shops, namely not having enough work space and having to brew on counters that are much too high; he therefore advises owners to design their shops to include as much open counter space as possible, with counter heights that take into account the size of various brewing devices. Van Schydnel also told me that when it comes to the customer experience, knowing where to form a line, whom to order from, and where to pay is the most important aspect: “You want the customer to feel like they’re accomplishing something at every step of the order process,” he says. Ahead, learn how these new shops factored design into their concepts.

HI-RISE (1663 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, 617-492-3003,

First up was Hi-Rise Bakery’s new location on Mass. Ave., between Harvard and Porter Squares. Hi-Rise owner Rene Becker met us there to tell me about the design and construction, most of which he did himself. See the above picture and matching explanation below:

1. “I always wanted to put a wood floor on a ceiling,” says Becker. “Accomplishing that in this space was incredibly difficult because of the sprinkler system.” To get around those pesky industrial pipes, Becker hung a heavy-duty steel grid to support the two thousand pounds of pitch-pine that came from a mill in Groton. Becker and one other person unloaded all of it, stained it, and hung the boards over the course of one weekend. 2. “People ask me all the time where I got it, but I won’t tell them,” says Becker of the provincial yellow wallpaper. While I couldn’t get the secret out of him, the warm yellow and whimsical water-color gives the Mass. Ave. space a homey, living room-like feel. 3. In order to make a barista’s preparation and plating of coffees easier, van Schnydel always recommends that coffee shops lower the counter on which the espresso machine sits by at least eight inches, keeping the height of the drip tray even with the rest of the counter. “It might seem like a small thing, but it makes a difference 1,000 times a day,” he says. 4. Becker had the steel legs of the counters at the window custom made from an artisan in East Boston, and topped them with white oak salvaged from a barn floor.

RJ GOURMET (441 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, 617-945-1599):

The next stop on our coffee tour was RJ Gourmet, a tiny shop that opened in February on Cambridge Street in East Cambridge. Van Schyndel that the vibe here “feels like it popped out of Brooklyn twenty years ago.” The small space means that there’s little confusion about where the line forms, especially since a large chalkboard announcing them menu makes it clear that’s where the show starts. Owner Mike Fiore was on hand to tell me about some of the personal touches he added to his space, a storefront that used to be a BMX bike shop:

1. Fiore found these boxes at an antique market, along with all of the chairs in the shop. Of the yellowy/orange walls, Fiore says, “I wanted a color that would make the space glow when it’s light.” 2. The chairs at the bar came from a going-out-of-business sale at a Mexican restaurant. Fiore liked the orange color, and thought the slightly Mayan designs on the chair backs were a great detail. He kept the original wooden floors that came with the space, along with the tin ceiling.

DWELLTIME (346 Broadway, Cambridge,

And then there’s van Schyndel’s shop, dwelltime (he co-owns it with Israel Fridman), which had its soft opening this weekend. Dwelltime is van Schyndel’s ultimate shop; here, he felt it was important to play with tradition and take risks. In order to be open with customers, he decided to implement an island brewing station in the space. “It’s a transparent process,” van Schyndel says. “People will see everything. It puts pressure on us to keep it clean.” To deal with such an exposed set-up, the grinders and drip bar are both below counter level, so the only thing on the copper-top counter is the espresso machine. “My landlord wasn’t convinced about the island,” van Schydel says. “But after he saw me in the Globe and heard me on NPR [in various interviews], he was like, ‘Ok, I think you’ve got it under control.'” 1. Dwelltime offers pastries displayed in the glass cases in the island— and a mean latte, if the sneak-peak cup I had last Tuesday was any indication of things to come. 2. Van Shyndel and Fridman kept the exposed brick wall and added a banquette to increase seating without adding too many loose chairs to the floor space. 3. The big windows (which are now uncovered) open out to the street for an indoor/outdoor coffee drinking experience.

And let’s not forget the real design heroes of this story: the baristas who make beautiful designs using only milk and espresso. (left: Hi-Rise, right: Dwelltime). Yum. Coffee-lovers, rejoice!

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