Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.
Koffee?’s grungy, brick-wall exterior reflects little of its inner persona. Inside, there is a familiar, cozy energy that permeates everything—from the jars used by the baristas for the serving of iced beverages to the café’s chaotic board game and book stack collection.
Located at 104 Audubon St., Koffee? seems somewhat beyond the reach of the Yale bubble. While students comprise a large portion of its patronage, you will also find local New Haveners indulging in post-work refreshments here.
I arrive around 6 p.m. on a Monday. The baristas play R&B tunes that reflect the calm evening’s tone. Most customers are typing on their computers with a beverage in hand—perhaps a Lavender Iced Tea—while rain pours beyond the café’s warm embrace. “Start Over” by Planet Giza comes on, followed by “EXCEPTIONAL” by veggi and DijahSB, striking a perfect balance by ensuring the creation of a calm, non-overwhelming study space. Once in a while, the overall vibe is disrupted by a brief interlude from a genre on the other side of the musical spectrum. For example, midway through the evening, the lo-fi beats are broken up by Vulfpeck’s “Christmas in L.A.” with its chaotic, palpitation-inducing rhythms.
When I ask Wilde, one of the baristas, about the establishment’s music curation, he tells me that the employees hold all the power. Other than telling baristas to stay away from explicit language, the café’s owners impose no rules on the selection process. Wilde also describes the group dynamic that emerges through this curation, saying that the two baristas on duty at any time often collaborate to choose songs based on their joint assessment of the energy of the moment.
This emphasis on collaboration is also evident in the establishment’s choice of décor: framed family-style photographs cover the walls, along with a bulletin board posing the question, “What is the best autumn and/or Halloween show/movie?” Sticky notes convey customers’ responses, ranging from “any Thanksgiving episode of Gossip Girl” to Hocus Pocus.
On the subject of their seemingly random song choices, Wilde says that, because the people who work the bar change regularly, a wide range of musical tastes appears at Koffee?. Even within a particular day, music selection varies, with Wilde describing the morning as “jazz-heavy” compared to the “more upbeat” midday time frame. When I talk to Daniel, a coworker of Wilde’s, the next day at around 4 p.m., the atmosphere at Koffee? feels much more social. While some customers are studying, another handful are conversing after the end of their work and school days. To match this more energetic ambiance, the baristas play upbeat tunes like “Return of the Mack” by Mark Morrison and “Remember the Time” by Michael Jackson.
Daniel carries a physical list of all of his top artists and albums in his pocket to refer to while managing the speaker at the bar. Like Wilde, he highlights the importance of collaboration at the establishment, describing Koffee? as “an organic environment that comes as a result of it all being democratized. The owner doesn’t tell us what we have to play.” The resulting musical chaos creates the homey, eclectic spirit that defines Koffee? and continues to intrigue New Haveners after 30 years of business.