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Wednesday, June 3, 2009 05:58 pm

The coffeehouse in a Goodwill Store

Visit Edgar’s for a tasty suprise

Michael Saltsgaver and Corey Boosinger

I didn’t know it existed until I saw the sign on the Goodwill store at Chatham Road and Wabash Avenue. Driving away from the garden center behind Hobby Lobby after buying more flowers than I’d intended (I have no willpower in those places), I did a double take: Edgar’s Coffee House. What was a coffeehouse doing in a Goodwill Store? By the time I reached home, though, I’d forgotten about Edgar’s, consumed with where I would put my flowers — and justifying their cost.

But there’s a freakish law of coincidence that often happens after hearing about something: It keeps popping up. Two days later I had an e-mail from a friend suggesting I check out Edgar’s Coffeehouse.

The entryway was immaculate, suitable for an office building. The Goodwill shop itself the same, as was Edgar’s Coffee House. Nothing even remotely “down-at-the-heels” anywhere!

Edgar’s Coffee House could even be called stylish. Separated from the store by a partition, the walls are deep, warm ochre. The dark wood shelves holding bags of coffee and flavored syrups for sale, and the table topped with condiments and coffee accoutrements would be welcome in an upscale home. There’s a cushy looking leather couch with coffee and side tables, and chunky bistro tables with matching stools and chairs. The space is brightened with silk flower arrangements — small ones on the tables and taller creations elsewhere — and by a boldly striped gallon-sized ceramic cup and saucer. A small sign advertises free WiFi.

The open kitchen sports coffee makers, an espresso machine, and metal shelving with ingredients that confirm what the sign in the entrance and my friend had said: The baked goods in the display counter are made on the premises from scratch. It was an array of home-style goodness, including snickerdoodles, peanut butter cookies, iced sugar cookies, ooey gooey butter cake, chocolate chip bars, some kind of peanut butter bar topped with a brownie mixture, two types of scones and baklava.

It was early afternoon, and Edgar’s, although not packed, was steadily busy. The cheerful guy behind the counter kept up an amusing line of banter with customers, some obviously regulars. I ordered a sandwich from the small list and an iced latte with an extra shot — my preferred warm weather coffee drink. I also ordered a piece of baklava, about which I’d heard good things.

Michael Saltsgaver with his specialty pastries.

My roast beef and provolone sandwich was pleasant and basic, as probably are the other sandwich options if the menu is any indication. This is not a complaint: the sandwich was well worth its $4 price tag, and I was especially pleased to have it on an onion roll, an option that’s been eliminated from other Springfield lunch spots. (I particularly miss The Feed Store’s chicken salad on an onion roll.) Sandwiches come with lettuce and tomato, but I would have appreciated having some thinly sliced onion as well.

My latte came precisely as ordered — a feat in itself these days as more and more specialty coffee shops dumb down their drinks with sweeteners, flavored syrups and inferior coffee to the point that the coffee itself becomes incidental. It’s sad that Starbucks, which popularized the concept in the U.S., now tops the list of such places (more about that later). Thankfully, Springfield has several that are locally owned and still know what good coffee is. Edgar’s is among them.

I’d avoided sides in order to have room for the baklava, which proved to be a wise decision. My friend had told me that Edgar’s baklava had “kind of a cult following.” Just looking at it, I could see it was a bit different than usual. Baklava is a pastry that originated in Greece and the Middle East. Paper-thin layers of pastry are lightly brushed with butter, stacked, and then layered between a chopped nut filling (most traditionally walnut, but sometimes pistachios or a combination) flavored with cinnamon. The pastry is baked, and drenched in a honey/syrup mixture.

Edgar’s version has a much greater proportion of nuts to pastry than is typical. The first taste told me that pecans (native to Illinois) were included in the nut mixture — not at all traditional, but certainly tasty. The large amount of nuts made it extra crunchy — as much a confection as a pastry — and avoided the sogginess that sometimes occurs with overly soaked phyllo leaves. It was exceptional.

The person responsible for that wonderful baklava — as well as everything else at Edgar’s — is manager Mike Saltsgaver, who tackles his job with great enthusiasm and, now that I’ve discovered the “what,” fills me in on the “who” and “why.”

The coffeehouse is named for Goodwill’s founder, Edgar Helms. This is the only Edgar’s Coffee House location, although if it becomes successful enough, Land of Lincoln Goodwill is exploring the possibility of opening others throughout central Illinois.

Saltsgaver worked in the food industry for years, mostly in corporate operations, but became disenchanted with corporate food culture. Before coming to Edgar’s, he’d managed a local Starbucks. “I just got to the point where I couldn’t stand those frozen pastries coming in from Chicago,” he says.

He relishes not having to deal with “corporate constraints.” “We get to listen to what customers want,” he says. “If somebody wants something, we’ll try to make it. A guy recently brought in a recipe for lemon bars and asked if we could make it. Now it’s a regular on the menu.” That’s why he instituted the sandwich menu, which he says has expanded business. “We have a to-go menu for folks in a hurry. And we can accommodate corporate lunches for up to 50 people.”

Then there’s that baklava. “Everybody loves my baklava,” says Saltsgaver. Asked about its “cult” status he says, “Oh, yeah — my baklava ladies. They came in a group and I suggested they try it. They said they didn’t like baklava; it was too sweet. So I gave ’em some to try, no charge. They’ve been coming back regularly for it ever since.”

Good as it is, baklava isn’t Edgar’s bestseller. That distinction belongs to the gooey butter cake. I’m probably better off not trying it.

Saltsgaver is equally proud of Edgar’s coffee. It comes from Chauvin, a third-generation roasting company in St. Louis. Not only are Chauvin’s coffee flavors exceptional, says Saltsgaver, but the roast used for espresso preparations (lattes, cappuccino, macchiatos, etc.,) is a blend that combines sweet and smoky flavors.

Still, what’s a coffeehouse doing in a Goodwill store? Someone walked in shortly after me, looked around, saying, “It’s just weird to walk in here and find this place.”

“When I heard about it, I wondered, too,” says Saltsgaver. “I had an image of someone with bouffant hair pouring bad coffee from a hotplate. My biggest problem is letting people know we’re here.”

Edgar’s started as “haven” for non-shoppers accompanying friends or family. But it’s become much more than that.

“It’s a coffee shop with a conscience,” says Saltsgaver. “Giving back to the community and focusing on the community is what we’re about.” That’s not just talk. Edgar’s is part of CWLP’s “Hands Up” program. Folks who need assistance with their utility bills can get it by working at Edgar’s. And Edgar’s will soon become a Goodwill Service Project Participant, teaching job skills that will enable special needs people to “become self-sufficient through the power of work.”

June marks Edgar’s one-year anniversary, and Saltsgaver has dreams for its future. Dreams of making it profitable enough for a full-sized kitchen and bakery, to make breads as well as pastries in-house and expand the menu. He dreams of putting Edgar’s into other Goodwills. “Everybody who works here has such a passion for what it is,” he says. And what it can become.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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