It’s fun to romanticize the Italian culture of walk-in espresso, bustling urban plazas, and sidewalks full of people watching people. It’s a lot harder to recreate any of that world in the Twin Cities, where al fresco dining is a relatively recent phenomenon, and many lattés are purchased via drive-thru.
That’s where walk-up windows come in. Windows serving the sidewalk area are becoming increasingly common at Twin Cities cafés, and it’s an interesting development for the region’s nascent public space culture. Curious, I visited a dozen of them to see how they work, and whether they’re changing anything about how we encounter coffee and al fresco sandwiches.
A COVID-era remnant
In a way, walk-up windows are vestigial remnants of the COVID era, a relic of rapid, forced transitions businesses made during the madness of 2020. Since then, many of them have disappeared or become obsolete. I saw a handful of walk-up windows that were no longer in service, or severely neglected; they’re difficult for staff to monitor, and often not worth the extra effort.
In other cases, walk-up windows are doing well. They’ve created an encounter on the city’s sidewalks that’s more reminiscent of an old-school Dairy Queen than the pneumatic tubes at the latest Taco Bell.
In the wide spectrum of walk-up windows, from successes to duds, the key factor might be the quality of the public space. If done right, the walk-up window experience can be mildly revolutionary, forging light public connections that we desperately need.
The best walk-up window
For my money, the Twin Cities’ best walk-up window is tucked into a tiny building in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park, a small coffee shop on Territorial Road named Roundtable Coffee Works. (Fun fact: Territorial is one the oldest streets in the metro area.) The owner is a friendly, soft-spoken man named Shawn Person who got his start selling coffee at area farmer’s markets, and when COVID arrived, he quickly pivoted to walk-up service.
“Doing business this way has really attracted, or filtered out, the people that appreciate our city in a different way,” owner Person said. “People that appreciate the changing of the seasons; many of our customers are campers and neighborhood walkers and dog walkers.”
Even before COVID, Roundtable was a tiny operation, just a few small tables, a roaster, and a bean counter. Started almost 10 years ago, Person had to make a tough choice about how to move forward during the pandemic. Since then, he’s found a customer base that matches the walk-up aesthetic. Spend a half hour there and you’ll see people walking dogs, pushing babies in strollers, riding up on bikes, or (still the majority) parking their cars on the gravel lot to pop out for a few minutes under the maple tree.
“If I was going to change the business, I wanted it to be something permanent,” Shawn Person told me. “I didn’t think that online ordering and pickup and delivery was going to be a permanent solution. I don’t really think they’re actually good for customers. It’s not all that great for us to have middle-men, and I just didn’t want to do it.”
Instead, Person made a window in the wall. What makes Roundtable’s window so great is its deceptively simple space, both well-thought out and subtle. The brick wall shades the window until the afternoon, a key for summer days. Person replaced the parking lot with the fine-grained gray gravel, the same stuff he loves walking on at state parks. Meanwhile, the roof of the one-story building drains into a custom rain garden that Person had installed. It boasts the most robust rattlesnake master I’ve ever seen, along with a dozen other perennial native grasses.
“This is basically our lobby now,” Person told me. “If I wanted people to come here, it had to be nice.”
Roundtable used federal COVID support to install a pair of maple trees for the area, and re-purposed stone demarcates the gravel parking lot from the wow patio area. (They also keep cars from ramming the building, an unfortunate necessity.) Finally, used railroad ties create a platform in front of the window, making it accessible for wheelchairs. A single wooden bench along the wall for folks who want to savor their macchiato.
The result is a small spot perfect for sipping light roast. The one common denominator linking all of Roundtable’s customers is that everyone walks up and loiters on the gray gravel.
Walk-up window 101
Once you study walk-up windows, principles begin to emerge. There’s a spectrum between a generic delivery device and windows that cultivate public life. Most windows fall somewhere in between, and vary widely throughout the day and the changing seasons.
Windows like the utilitarian extra door at Quang, a longtime Vietnamese joint on Eat Street, serve merely as a convenient unit way to keep DoorDash minions out of the foyer. Others like Slice Pizza in Northeast, try harder to cultivate a bit of sense of place, though it’s very hard to transform a spare Minneapolis sidewalk into anything resembling an Italian plaza. Even the best attempts are swimming upstream.
For example, the walk-up window experience at South Minneapolis’ Heather’s Restaurant, at 52nd and Chicago, depends on the timing of your encounter. During a hot afternoon, it’s forlorn. But at the right time, the window can be a great place to spend 10 minutes. It opens up the cafe onto the sidewalks of the Hale neighborhood, full of mid-century duplexes and bougie shops, along with the omnipresent sound of planes landing at the airport.
“Our grand opening was set to be March 17th of 2020, and this was the day the pandemic caused all restaurants to change to take out only,” Heather Asbury told me. “Having the window was our saving grace. Our whole operation functioned through the take out window and we were forced to make big changes to our service, but we did and it worked great!”
During a bustling lunch rush, a window like Heather’s can get lost in the DoorDash shuffle, and the experience becomes another variant of takeout food. At that point, there’s no real reason to have a walk-up window in the first place. But things change a lot depending on timing. Asbury told me that the window truly shines during soft-serve ice cream season, where the sidewalks fill with kids dripping chocolate onto their hands.
A lot depends on the sidewalk. Just west of Heather’s, bougie Alma Provisions boasts a walk-up window that connects seamlessly to the sidewalk cafe and benches on 46th Street. And in Uptown, Canteen Coffee has a good walk-up window that opens onto quiet Bryant Avenue, currently being reconstructed with a new off-street bike lane.
“I knew when I did it that it would only enhance the space,” Canteen owner Liz Abene told me. “We have lots of walkers, many with dogs, and bikers can bike up without having to lock their bikes. People who prefer not to go inside many places love it. We keep it open all year, except the below zero days.”
Other notable walk-up windows include:
- Minneapolis’ Moon Palace Books, on Minnehaha and Lake Street, remodeled their cash register station during COVID to install a walk-up window and still swears by it. “We get lots of folks on bikes and others who don’t want to come in for health reasons using it, usually picking up books that they’ve ordered online,” said Angela Schwesnedl, who helps run the bookstore.
- The walk-up window at Northeast Minneapolis’ legendary Surdyk’s shines each morning. They offer an extensive array of breakfast sandwiches, coffees, and bakery items which people enjoy on the small cafe tables just off the sidewalks of Hennepin Avenue.
- St. Paul has another stellar example in Backstory Coffee on the West Side. Though the shop has re-opened to in-store seating, the walk-up window serves delicious coffee into the Wabasha Street sidewalks, and the adjoining elm-shaded patio where you have an excellent view of the river bluffs, a community garden, the brewery across the street, and the concrete wall of the municipal ice arena.
- Finally, St. Paul’s Due Focacceria, a converted coffee shop on Fairview Avenue and Randolph Street, gives a taste of Italian street food to folks in St. Paul. Though it’s used mostly for to-go orders, because of the wide array of treats on hand, the window gives a glimpse of an alternative vision for the parking lot.
The existence of walk-up windows imply a walking culture, a precious commodity in Minneapolis and St, Paul, available only in the rarest of spots. And yet, whether it’s couples with infants strapped to their chests or someone with a big dog, the walk-up window can be a godsend. It’s a small detail that connects the sidewalk with the many wonderful Twin Cities coffee shops.
Back at Roundtable coffee, Shawn Person is planning to expand his rain garden with help from a watershed grant. Maybe someday, there will be another bench or two for people to linger in the morning sun.
“Once you fully commit to it you can just improve it, and make it better and better,” Person said.