By Charles Dahl, former Uncommon Grounds barista
Uncommon Grounds is a chai and coffeehouse located in Lowry Hill East along a busy stretch of Hennepin Avenue. It’s also the place where I worked a brief five-month stint over the long winter. Before working there I had a few memories of the coffeehouse and some presuppositions about what it would be like. Over the five months, a lot of those presuppositions were uprooted, sometimes starkly, and replaced with new ones.
Now as I look back on my time there, at those memories and those long winter nights I spent at Uncommon Grounds, I try to understand what the hell it was that made it feel so important to write about. I try to put into words those strange vibes I felt, the almost a dream-like feeling I get as I think back to it all.
But before that, it might help to paint a picture.
Many modern coffee shops you’ll visit now are stationed in old warehouse-type brick buildings. Think of Spyhouse Coffee or Sencha, both just down the street from Uncommon Grounds. They have thought out, intentional aesthetics, big windows which allow passersby to look inside and see the life happening, trying to create a bubble of gravity among the street.
Uncommon Grounds creates this gravity without trying too hard to do so. Instead of a trendy brick walled storefront, the coffeehouse is set in an old Victorian Style home in which, before the coffeeshop, stationed real life generations of family. The home is set back further from the sidewalk than its neighboring buildings, living quietly in their shadows.
Uncommon Grounds’ front yard is adorned with two trees that hang like bangs over the storefront and trimmed hedges that lead you the front steps, up to the porch, and through the window-paned front door.
You feel the coffeehouse’s personality from the moment you enter. It's a mix between a relaxed library and a romantic Italian restaurant. Everything suddenly becomes very quiet as the rush of street noise becomes muffled behind the closing door. Your eyes adjust to the low light and you may notice several kinds of muted paisley wallpaper in each room. On the walls hang paintings of horses and house crests, sketches of architecture and various sized mirrors which lead you down the skinny hallway to the counter.
The wall behind the counter is taken up by a large mirror, and in front of it sits a big, shiny chrome espresso machine that commands your attention. On the counter sits an old, clanky register and a strange brass lamp with a nude lady laying across it. Warm downlight hums from the lamps and candles on the tables, and the large houseplants loom quietly in shadows. Imbued with a feeling of deep rest, you realize this isn’t just any other coffeeshop.
It feels like home.
Working as a barista at Uncommon Grounds to me felt like being a bartender at a small town bar from the movies. I was a fixture of the coffeehouse itself, right alongside the naked lady lamp.
New faces appear in the doorway, looking a little lost. Using my expertise in anything and everything chai-related, I help them order, invite them to sit down, and watch them take a long, wandering look up and around the coffeeshop.
Regulars would pop in at the same times on the same days, ordering the same things which I would sometimes already have made for them. There would be a routine exchange of greetings that wouldn’t feel at all rehearsed or unnecessary. Regulars and I shared sincere comfort in that routine.
I asked a few of these regulars what kept them coming back to this place, if they felt any special sort of way about the coffee shop like I did. If they noticed the same things that I did about the place. Hibaq, who recently moved to the city from Toronto, told me their cousin had introduced them to Uncommon Grounds a few months ago when they first arrived.
“I like the atmosphere, it’s home-y. It’s not really commercialized- feeling like other places. It’s more like an experience.” Hibaq said.
Ahmed and their friend said the same, though they had been coming to Uncommon Grounds much longer than Hibaq, since the late 90s when they were in college.
Back then, Ahmed told me, “the second floor was a quiet study and smoking area, and the first floor was the social area. People came in to meet with friends and hang out. I feel comfortable being here.”
Nuweyla, Ducaysam, and Rina had been regulars since I started working at Uncommon Grounds. They come in, like many do, either to study or hang out with friends. They said, “we always meet new people or run into people we know when we come.”
I saw this happen often, as it was not uncommon for someone to walk in, look to their left or right, and spot somebody they knew. The same night I was doing interviews, two people had been sitting at opposite tables for nearly an hour before they finally recognized each other with excited surprise.
Another regular, Layla, told me, “I always see friends here and run into people, like her [gesturing to the person next to her]. We ran into each other like, three hours ago, and we’ve been sitting here catching up since then. I hadn’t even realized how long we’ve been talking. Time feels like it goes by so fast when I’m here.”
I felt this, too. This unique and charming atmosphere invites you to rest and not worry about what's happening outside of where you are now. There is a strong sense of community and belonging. And a comment, which I noted, that all these people told me unprompted, “it feels like home.”
And that might be it. It feels like home. This could be because the coffeehouse was once an actual house, with much of the same floor plan and décor still intact, but there’s more to it. It might feel like home, but it’s not. We don’t want to live at a coffee shop, we go there to get away. Everybody at Uncommon Grounds, including me, wants the coffee shop to be the best parts of what home is. A sense of comfort, community, and the ability to be the versions of ourselves that we want to be.
I started working there because I had good memories, and maybe I wanted to recapture some of them.
I didn’t know what to make of it until a coworker and friend said to me, “I like it here because I can be whoever I want to be.” It rang true.
Uncommon Grounds, the old Victorian home tucked away in a busy city, invites you into its quiet atmosphere. Invites you to reflect, to imagine yourself sitting in the big window that looks out at the street, and become yourself.
Uncommon Grounds is located at 2809 Hennepin Ave S. You can visit Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and on weekends from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The menu consists of espresso drinks, drip coffee, and the chai (all decaf) which Uncommon Grounds is known for. The chai comes in several different flavors. You can get any drink iced or hot and the chai you can get blended. The menu also features cakes and scones made with Uncommon Grounds chai.