A longtime local favorite, Spyhouse Coffee has done it again with their newest location, Spyhouse West. The fourth Spyhouse location, situated in the North Loop, opened in August 2015 and has already made its mark as a neighborhood favorite.
When looking for new locations, Owner and Director of Operations Christian Johnson places an emphasis on the energy of the neighborhood. "We always browse. I mean, if it's a really character driven space with enough traffic flow, not necessarily car traffic, but just energy and people in the street, then we'll explore it a little further." A fan of older buildings, Johnson almost missed out on the Spyhouse West location. "A friend of mine told me about that building. I didn't even know that building existed. I kind of don't pay attention to new construction, and I think it's because I hadn't really driven far enough to notice that building. We were looking in the North Loop, but I don't think I had gone down one block far enough to notice that building." Spyhouse's locations have always been a much loved spot for students eager to cram for a midterm in a hip environment with good coffee, but Spyhouse West's clientele isn't as student oriented. "We knew that there wasn't a college down there, there weren't a lot of college kids, maybe some grad students. The average income is up in the $70k range, 25% have kids, half are married… It's a little older age group than the Central store. It's more professionals, people that are done with college." Johnson doesn't place much stock in the differences in demographics during the design process. "It's just what design area or period that I'm interested in doing. We never design a store to tailor the clientele, I think it more caters to the neighborhood."
Johnson's eye for antiques and interior design blossomed in his early 20s when he worked at an antique store in Fargo. "That's when I started getting into antiques. I still have the first antique I ever bought - a little Foo dog, jasmine green, mint condition. It's followed me through 3 colleges, 15 apartments, 1 house… it's been around a long time. So, I think that helped, and with every roommate I had, I was always the one to furnish our apartments. My roommates never had anything but a bed and clothes, so I had to furnish it; the art, couches, TV, dishes, everything. I think that's where the obsessiveness with organization and design and getting into antiques came from. And I think antiques definitely helped getting into design because you learn about designers, whether it's Saarinen, Eames, Mies van der Rohe, whoever." Johnson also cites photography, which he studied at the U of M, as encouraging his interest in design. Nowadays, having a good cup of coffee isn't the only thing that drives people to a coffeeshop. An awareness of what people can't resist photographing helped shape the design of Spyhouse. It's paid off; Spyhouse locations are known for their photogenic, instagram worthy spaces. "I think it's just having an eye for composition. I like lines, black and white, geometric shapes, and balance. Composition is really similar to interior design. And instagram - we're definitely conscious of what people shoot, and nowadays it's really easy to see. The shoes and the floor, that's a big one. Latte art. The 'S' on the floor at West, we knew that would happen, for sure. That old 1870's safe door and the lights, I knew those would be instagramed a lot."
Using antique elements has helped keep Spyhouse's unique feel. Johnson has returned to Architectural Antiques time and time again when decorating the multiple Spyhouse locations. The North Loop location boasts original art deco three chain milk glass fixtures, an original exit light, a 1960's ecclesiastical church sconce, half wall stanchion lights, and industrial stools, all from Architectural Antiques. Also featured are two custom made sputnik lights that we created specifically for Spyhouse. Johnson also kept a little piece of Minneapolis history alive when choosing a door that Architectural Antiques salvaged from the Seville hotel in downtown for the store's front entrance. "Antiques have kinda become a trademark for us. In this country, we produce so much crap. There's just so much junk. The best thing about antiques - half of it is the hunt, going to an antique store and trying to find that piece. That's the best part. Because of eBay, in the last 10-15 years, more and more antique stores are closing. All of my favorite antique stores in Minnesota, I have a map, I've got em all listed, they just keep disappearing, so it shrinks." So what antique piece is a must in any new Spyhouse location? "There's always a Kennedy bust or Kennedy picture. When we did Central, I switched to FDR. There was a lot of progress back then, there wasn't such a dead lock between parties, as there is now where nothing gets done. There was just a lot more vision back then." Even as a long time collector who has finally bought his dream chair - Eero Saarinen's 'womb chair', "It's probably the most genius design chair I've ever sat in," - Johnson is still searching for a rare antique piece. "There's a 1970s Han Solo Burger King Coke glass. I can go on eBay and find it like that, it's easy. I buy some stuff off eBay and Etsy, but this glass, I kinda wanna hold off. I mean, I see Star Wars glasses all the time, but that glass I never see because it's Han Solo. Yeah, online I can find it for $15-20, but I'm holding out."
Despite being half the size of other Spyhouse locations, Spyhouse West feels spacious because of its generous natural light. "It feels like it's outside. If you sit on the patio and look at the windows, it's weird because it looks like you're inside when you're outside, and outside when you're inside, because it's floor to ceiling windows. It's really bizarre. The space was also hard because it was new construction, so you have to bring character into it - before it had zero character. There's certain things you can do, elements you can add, such as the lighting from Architectural Antiques, which really helps. Dropping the ceiling a little bit, lowering the lights a lot, and kinda dropping everything in the space a little bit. The window bars are not like the height [at the Northeast location], they're lower because you have to compress the space, otherwise it just gets lost in the ceiling."
Spyhouse West feels like a departure from previous locations' self-described 'rustic elegance'. Rather than the exposed brick and dark wood found in other Spyhouses, the North Loop location pairs sleek, brass accented marble countertops with brass antique lighting from Architectural Antiques, expertly uniting old and new. Customers are enveloped in a setting that feels both like an upscale downtown café and a down to earth local hang out spot. "To me, I always think of 'It's a Wonderful Life.' I think of banks in the '20s and '30s. Hospitals, banks, institutions, corporate buildings, and schools - they would use materials that were really durable and hard, like terrazzo, which was really popular in the early 1900s. Marble surface and tile - but usually tile, especially hex tile, was mainly used for bathrooms and kitchens which is why sometimes the ceramic, white, plain hex looks really sterile. So we used marble for the floors so it didn't look so sterile. It has these little striations, kind of like Carrara marble does. It does have mid-century elements, just really super clean and sharp. We really focused on the details a lot there." Spyhouse has always tried to be unique, staying away from following trends. "There's certain elements that have been really popular on Instagram and Pinterest, so there's elements that have become really trendy but we like just by coincidence. We try and either one, not use it, or if we do, we'll put a twist on it, like doing marble floors instead of ceramic. I like original subway tiles in subways, but we won't do them in our stores because too many people have done that, it just looks too cookie cutter. As soon as Whole Foods does it in their deli, then we can't do that."
Whether or not Christian Johnson finds the elusive Han Solo glass, one thing is for sure: Spyhouse coffeeshops are the best spots in town if you're looking to enjoy a good cup of coffee, be surrounded by interesting antiques and interior design, and snap a picture or two for instagram.
Quotes have been edited for clarity and/or length