On Sunday, after four successful years in Lansing’s Eastside Neighborhood, Cara Nader closed the original location for her business, Strange Matter Coffee Co., in preparation for a big move. Her new location isn’t far – just across the street – but it’s nearly three times the size with an interior she was able to customize herself.
When it opens next Monday, Jan. 15, Strange Matter will become the first tenant on the ground floor of the recently completed Venue at East Town mixed-use development. In between overseeing equipment installation, experimenting with doughnut recipes for the new pastry kitchen and maintaining operations of her second location in downtown Lansing, Nader took some time to answer questions about the move, the competition and how she’s planning to celebrate once the dust settles.
How did this all get started?
I started talking (i.e. drinking beer) with Venue developer Scott Gillespie and discussing this location back in the fall of 2015. We signed our lease in the beginning of 2016 and began test baking and planning the layout and construction of the space soon after.
Congratulations on reaching your crowdfunding goal of $40,000. You actually raised over $42,000. What will the money be used for?
Our “Doughnuts with Love” Kickstarter campaign ran in 2016. It was pretty widely publicized at the time, but it has been so long. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances and delays, all of those costs ended up over tripling when all was said and done. After rewards costs, backers that bailed and all of that, I would say the campaign helped cover some of the cost associated with our hood and installation.
Besides more space in the new location, it seems like the biggest change will be adding a pastry kitchen.
I’m so excited for the bakery to finally get up and running, partly because this is something I’ve thought about for a long time, even before the opening of the original location. Many places I’ve worked at and managed prior to Strange Matter have run successful bakery operations, and I’ve always enjoyed baking as a hobby in my spare time.
I’m also really looking forward to spending time in the bakery and getting a bit of a break from the administrative/management side of things, as the latter is what I’ve been most focused on since late 2015. Unfortunately, due to three wrist surgeries over the past two years, I’m not supposed to be working on the espresso machine anymore – doctor’s orders. I hate it. So I’m totally thrilled to have something to put my focus and physical energy into again.
Who’s your pastry chef?
Our head vegan pastry chef is Victoria Bailey. Victoria used to run her own small vegan doughnut business in Florida doing deliveries and special orders around the area. As luck would have it, she moved to Lansing. We both followed each other’s businesses on Instagram, and when I realized she had moved to the area, I reached out to her.
Victoria and I have been working for over a year on recipe testing and development on both the vegan and non-vegan side of things. In addition to Victoria’s expertise, I’ll be functioning as the head “non-vegan” pastry chef. I’ve been an avid home baker for over a decade, and I’ve also spent some time baking commercially in the past.
What’s going to be your approach to making pastries?
When it comes to running a coffee shop and bakery, I think quality is number one. Making things from scratch and understanding the science of food and the chemical structure of coffee is essential to crafting them in the best possible way. A lot of bakeries (local and elsewhere) use mixes, par-baked (frozen) items, and even jelly and fillings that come in giant buckets. Why? It’s so easy, delicious, and satisfying to make awesome pastries from scratch and know what you’re consuming.
What kind of stuff will you be making?
We will be focusing on morning pastries – muffins, scones, cinnamon rolls, pop-tarts, breakfast bars, bagels and croissants. The highlight, of course, will be our doughnuts. We offer cake, raised, vegan and non-vegan doughnut options.
We’ll have a few standby varieties that we’ve been testing for a while at the Eastside location:
- Vanilla Bean
- Cereal (traditional buttermilk doughnut with Froot Loops)
- Chocolate Cereal (vanilla icing, Cocoa Krispies, chocolate drizzle)
- Raspberry Coconut
- Cookie Bomb
Will you be hiring more employees?
At least to start, we don’t intend to make any additional hires for the bakery. As coffee nerds, and general “hipster foodie millennials” (pick a semi-offensive phrase for young people who love things that taste good and are made of quality ingredients), we have a handful of staff members who have expressed interest in splitting time between the bakery and coffee side of the shop.
There’s been an emphasis in small batch coffee bean roasting in recent years. Will Strange Matter go that route?
The way I see it, for a coffee shop to be sustainable, they either need to bake their own pastries or roast their own coffee (shout out to Foster Coffee Co. for crushing their new roasting operating in Owosso!). I can’t deal with the science of roasting. I’m such a detail-oriented person that I would never be happy with the result.
Honestly, I would probably waste more coffee than I sold if I roasted in an attempt to achieve some idea of perfection that would always be a moving target. I really respect roasters who understand the science behind what they do and really make an attempt to master their craft.
Another third wave coffeehouse, the Crafted Bean, just opened almost exactly halfway between your eastside and downtown locations. Would you call what you have with TCB owner Justin Hartig a friendly rivalry?
Justin and I met at the 2017 Specialty Coffee Expo, which had a weird collection of Lansing folks in Seattle. We met while one of my employees, Brady Burns, and I were pulling shots for local roasters Craft & Mason Roasting Co.
I honestly wouldn’t even consider our relationship as a “rivalry,” friendly or otherwise. I feel 100 percent like we could all drink beer together and have a good time as humans, which is usually my decider for people.
I love what Justin is doing with The Crafted Bean. It’s a very different mission than Strange Matter. We are all about the black coffee and highlighting the work of farmers and roasters. TCB is all about taking that work and putting their own spin on it with their cocktails other drinks. Both are similar in that we have seats and sell coffee, but I think there is enough of a difference between TCB, the Blue Owl Coffee Co. and Strange Matter for us all to thrive in the area.
What else will you be doing differently?
In 2018, I really want to focus on making the new space as awesome as possible. We will be adding bakery catering and more events in the space, such as coffee cuppings and brewing classes. But otherwise I want to focus on keeping the quality and general vibe of Strange Matter going strong through 2018.
You said previously that you’d never open more than two stores because you wanted to have direct overview of all operations and you thought two was your limit. Is that still true? What’s next for Strange Matter?
Oh my gosh, nothing is next! This is a long time coming, and once I get past inspections, I plan to have a big celebration, personally and with our staff.
My wife totally threatened to divorce me if I open a new business or do anything super crazy at least in the next year. I’m pretty sure she was kidding, but I don’t want to test that.