Café Opus Turns 20
20 years of coffee and conversation
BY MAUREEN A. NOLAN; PHOTOS BY NANCY L. FORD
It’s 8:30 a.m. on a January Monday, and the temperature outside McEwen Hall is frozen somewhere around 10 degrees.
Gray is the only color in the world. Inside, Café Opus is nearly empty, but there’s promise in the air. Muffled voices and music escape from the tiny kitchen behind the closed service window. In the center of the room, a student is curled into a squishy couch, reading in her stocking feet. Another student is perched in an armchair, coat-clad with boots on the floor, also reading.
At 8:36 the window goes up, and a conversation between owner Sarah Goldstein and employee Sean Henry-Smith ’15 wafts into the big room: She’s reading and he’s finished Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. The student in the chair, Michael Ferguson ’17, is up and reaching for his wallet. The intended public policy major, brand new to campus, has already developed a taste for double-chocolate muffins and two-shot mochas.
Musings on Opus
The spring of her senior year, Dana Leonard ’13 was moved to write an Opus cookbook that is more profile than recipe collection. After her daily visits to Opus, she wanted to take a bit of the place with her when she graduated. “But I also felt that it deserved to be celebrated. College students are obviously very appreciative of their coffee source, but Opus is much more than that, and I wanted to explore and elucidate what made it so special,” says Leonard, who used photographs, “musings on coffee, community, food and the history of Opus” to tell the story.
Ferguson doesn’t mind the walk nor the cold that stands between him and Opus. “It’s a nice environment so I come here to hang out,” he says. Goldstein and Opus co-founder Larry Bender channeled Ferguson and a near generation of Hamilton students when they envisioned the coffeehouse they wanted to create. The décor is iconic student hangout: fabric draped off the ceiling, posters, postcards and photos on the walls, tchotchkes strung across the serving window, venerable furniture. “Family room, you know? Mismatched, comfortable furniture,” Goldstein describes the vibe.
“College family room,” Bender clarifies. “Put your feet up and stay awhile,” adds Goldstein.
As of January, Hamilton students have been doing that for 20 years at the independent, eclectic Café Opus.
Larry Bender came to Hamilton in 1991, when his wife, Martine Guyot-Bender, a French professor, joined the faculty. In Bender’s telling, it was a time when a superior cup of coffee could not be had on the Hill or near it. After a chance meeting with Sarah Goldstein, the two began percolating an idea.
“We started talking about how we were trailing spouses, and there was no sort of common space on campus for people to hang out: students, faculty, staff, spouses, community,” Goldstein recalls. They were “trailing” in the sense that they had moved to Clinton to accommodate a spouse’s career. Goldstein is married to Christophre Georges, an economics professor. She and Bender both had relocated from communities with coffeehouse scenes where they both had consumed a lot of coffee. With that qualification and some informal market research (asking around), they came to believe they could make a go of a campus coffeehouse.
“It was a leap,” Goldstein acknowledges. They went to then President Gene Tobin, who was supportive, and after months of scrambling over hurdles and working in concert with the College, they opened Café Opus in the current McEwen Hall location, an obvious choice. The space was once the site of a Kirkland College coffeehouse and had been vacant for several years. The novice entrepreneurs had rightly judged the location and the market. Opus flourished, and when the Taylor Science Center was completed in 2005, it included space for Opus II.
The line forms here
At this point, the origins of the mango-brie panini are a culinary question mark, but Bender and Goldstein can date it back about a dozen years, and they think it may have been the product of student collaboration since an element of the Opus ethos is to ask students to develop menu items. “The combination of mango with brie, caramelized onions and herby cheese spread inside a crusty warm baguette was a revolutionary combination of flavors,” says Marni Powers ’08. She and her twin sister, Kara Powers ’08, write a food blog called Twin Tastes, in which they offer up a version of the mango-brie panini. It turns up in at least one other alumna food blog. Deanne Katz ’08 writes in her Impromptu Kitchen about how students would queue up for the popular delicacy. She, too, shares a recipe. “What made them so amazing? Maybe the fruit and cheese combination or the fact that it was my first exposure to sweet and savory grilled cheese,” Katz wonders in the blog. “Maybe it’s the caramelized onions, which are phenomenal, or the slippery mango slices, that get a little caramelized on the edges. Maybe it’s just that grilled cheese is so good.”
What I love about Opus I, apart from the coffee (the large Opus Magnum, coffee with a shot of espresso, my regular), apart from Sarah and Larry and the crew of Opusistas they assemble every year (consistently the brightest, funniest, friendliest students on campus), is the train wreck of its decor. It’s not trying to be a retro-’50s diner or a retro ski lodge, or fill any recognizable interior decorating niche other than what it is — Kirkland College concrete walls, circa 1968, softened by some hanging banners, odd (and I mean odd) bits of art and the sort of lumpy overstuffed chairs and couches that you sink into and have to struggle to get up out of when you’ve finished your coffee. Perfect.
Before they sold their first espresso, Bender and Goldstein solicited ideas for names for the coffeehouse. Due to its location near Wellin Hall, some suggested a name that reflected the arts; others preferred something with a trendy, pop-culture feel. “Opus” was a solution popular with both music lovers and fans of the 1980s comic strip Bloom County, which featured a penguin with the same name. A stuffed Opus still has a home in the coffeehouse kitchen.
Café Opus is the social soul of Hamilton’s campus — a loving, lively space where we expand our horizons and relax in equal measure. Opus’ delicious, homemade-to-order food and excellent coffee and tea draw people in, and Sarah and Larry’s creation of a familiar scene (teasing included) keeps us there: an impossible-to-beat combination, especially when you add the comfortable chairs and friendly buzz of conversation taking place in them.
Inspiring lifelong passions
From the giant Mixmaster to the mentorship of Bender and Goldstein, Hilary King ’05 loved everything about working at Opus. The friendships and collaborative cooking created the community environment she’d wanted to find at Hamilton. Her time at Opus inspired the topic of her Watson Fellowship, which looked at coffee producers and cooperatives in Latin America and East Africa. “Getting exposed to fair trade as a model while I was working at Opus, that had a big impact on me while I was at Hamilton and has continued to have a big impact on me,” she says. King is pursuing a doctorate in anthropology at Emory University, working on alternative trade and local foods and managing a farmer’s market in Atlanta.
Opus is the hub of the College’s intellectual and artistic life. It’s also a social crossroads where faculty and students from all departments and disciplines meet and, whether at a table or waiting in line, discuss everything from campus issues to global politics. [We] commonly talk about the virtues of interdisciplinary thinking, and there is nowhere on campus more interdisciplinary than Opus. It’s a dynamic environment, as a classroom should be, which is why I have held office hours in Opus for 18 years.