Erie Coffeeshop and Bakery Provides Locals with a Better Cafe Experience
Renee Faris’ small business journey has proven that it pays to do things differently. In 2014, Faris, a seasoned pastry chef, opened a small coffee shop and bakery in the heart of Rutherford’s bustling, mile-long downtown district. Instead of seeking a spot on the town’s coveted Park Avenue, Faris planted her roots on a quiet, one-way street, whose commercial offerings culminate at 10 Franklin Place. Formerly a barber shop, the building stands today as Faris’ own creation: the locally-famed Erie Coffeeshop and Bakery, where the majority of aficionados have simply wandered in and decided to stay a while. And that’s exactly how chef Faris wished her business to be from the start: a place to be happened upon, to be organically discovered with time.
Renee began her lease of the cafe-to-be in September 2014. “Everything had to come up to code,” the chef explained. “I called the town every day until I had permission to start the renovation.” For eight months, Renee invested all of her savings in completely reviving the old barber shop building, repairing severe structural damage and transforming the space into a coffee shop and bakery equipped with a functioning kitchen. Faris was finally able to open the doors in May 2015, but not with the same pomp and circumstance you might expect from a new business.
“I didn’t pay for PR because I didn’t want people coming in with an expectation. I wanted customers to come on their own free will so I didn’t do any advertising. I just opened.” Though deciding to not advertise is more or less unorthodox for a first-time business owner, Faris’ bold decision is testament to her determination to create a combination coffee shop and bakery that is markedly different from what was offered in north Jersey at the time. Confident that her business would speak for itself, Renee opened Erie with the help of a few family members, hiring staff as her business grew.
Six years later, Erie boasts a frequent flow of customers, many local to the Rutherford area. One look inside the cafe and it’s easy to see why the shop has gained a faithful following. Upon arrival, the doorbell’s gentle ring signals the beginning of a dynamic sensory experience, where the air smells of freshly brewed coffee and a glass panel display showcases rich, flaky pastries beckoning customers to enter. The shop’s natural grain, hardwood floors stretch out to meet with white wainscoting that gives way to green, flowered wallpaper adorned with vintage finds, like a large mirror repurposed to showcase Erie’s drink options. Ceilings are covered in intricately patterned white tiles and windows are framed with sheer, white curtains, delicate greenery, and numerous bright and lively potted plants that create a garden-like display. As a structure, the cafe evokes an intense contradiction: it’s familiar yet enchanting; both homey and ethereal at once. Put simply, the design is eclectic, in the most literal sense.
”The whole place was designed from what I could afford when we first began leasing,” Renee described. “When I say that I nickel and dimed everything, I really mean it. My husband is a designer and so he created the space from the money that remained once we fixed the building’s structural damage. We wanted to keep it timeless, unique. The concrete countertops are because I couldn’t afford marble. The green, floral wallpaper is hand painted from 1953. I purchased it from a man in The City who preserves old wallpaper. The sconces are from an estate sale.”
The pastry case, however, might have the most unique story of them all. “It used to hold Bibles,” chuckled Renee. “I bought it from a lady out in PA, but when I told her about my cafe, she donated it instead.”
Though Erie’s interior design is remarkably distinct, the cafe’s true magic is born from behind their bakery shelves. Inside the kitchen, chefs hand make well-known pastries with unexpected flavor profiles: sweet strawberries dance with juicy, tart rhubarb in a moist crumb muffin; rich olive oil enhances the bright and bold flavor of citrus cakes; fragrant rosemary bursts from the unsuspecting scone. Customers are constantly delighting in the cafe’s savory and sweet options, like their salted maple tart, farmer’s market vegetable and cheese quiche, and gluten-free chocolate walnut cookie. According to Renee, her choices stem from her diverse work history.
“If you open a business right out of culinary school, you’re not learning anything new because you’re working out of what you know. You need to work with chefs who have worked for other chefs who worked for other chefs. You don’t want to end up with basic items. I’ve taken all the things I’ve learned from savory chefs and pastry chefs to create things that maybe you usually don’t have. I pull from my experience, like I’ll include something I remember from 12 years ago at Gramercy Tavern.”
Working at Gramercy Tavern is just one of Renee’s formative experiences. The pastry chef has worked across NYC and LA, even appearing on two seasons of Cake Boss while employed at Carlo’s Bakery. Faris is aware of the impact of her work history: “I’ve had many mentors and have been so fortunate to have worked for many amazing chefs. What I have been given from them, I give to my employees. I’m very hands-on. I might micro manage, but if I don’t like something I won’t sell it. For example, if I’m going to make a cream puff, I’m going to make it a cream puff that I would want to eat: crispy shoe, hard chocolate, soft cream. Every taste and texture needs to be the best or I won’t sell it. I may be a control freak but things need to be consistent and I expect the best from the chefs I hire.”
In addition to a good work ethic, Renee instills a commitment in her staff to create a kind and compassionate environment for her customers. “I don’t ever want people to feel bad when they come here,” said Faris. “Everyone has the power of turning someone’s negative day around. Being kind goes a long way.” Erie passes along this kindness to the community at large through hosting fundraisers, donating, working with the Rutherford Arts Alliance and Pride Alliance, as well as attending events at the William’s Center.
Additionally, Erie staff has strong ties to local family culture through their custom cake offerings for family events, like birthdays, anniversaries and weddings. Renee requires one week’s notice, along with a meeting with the client to review details. “I like the relationship aspect. I sit down with customers for the design process, the tastings. We talk about what you want and what you expect—we create with you. Everything is relative here, we only work with craft and care, and nothing is made from boxed mixes.” Like the shop’s coffee, which is sourced from Brooklyn’s Café Grumpy, Faris and her staff try to use local, seasonal ingredients for both their daily pastries and their custom cakes. They purchase many of their ingredients from Baldor and source fruits and vegetables from CSA boxes, as well as from Greens do Good, an organization that employs and supports adults with autism.
With the dynamic experience and strong community ties that Erie Coffeeshop and Bakery offers, it’s strange to think of the initial inspiration that set Renee Faris off on her small business journey. “I couldn’t find a place that served a good cappuccino,” she laughed. “In Brooklyn you can find one but while visiting my parents in north Jersey, I realized that there wasn’t a place that served a quality cappuccino and offered great pastries. I wanted to start a cafe that did both well.” Rutherford locals will agree that Erie has indeed done both well. In addition to their success as a bakery, the coffeeshop has perfected the popular cold brew and cappuccino while introducing deliciously adventurous lattes with flavors like lavender, rosemary, and thyme. But in all honesty, Erie Coffeeshop and Bakery has done so much more for the community by redefining the cafe experience in northern Jersey and providing a warm and welcoming place for locals to grab a cappuccino and a pastry—or maybe two or three.
Erie Coffeeshop and Bakery is located at 10 Franklin Place, Rutherford, NJ. You can also visit their website eatdrinkerie.com and their Facebook page and Instagram @eatdrinkerie.