Photo courtesy of Arman Karl##Two three-ounce Americanos, called a “Schnecken” by one local roaster.
Photo courtesy of Arman Karl##Two three-ounce Americanos, called a “Schnecken” by one local roaster.

Nick Walton: The power of the Schnecken

We produce a product not necessary for the sustenance of human life.

That was the realization I had, sitting on the floor of our kitchen, crying with my wife one night the first winter our coffeehouse opened in the Granary District.

Guest Writer

Nick Walton and his wife Kim are owners of Flag & Wire Coffee in McMinnville. They are both helped and hindered in this pursuit by their three beautiful young children. Their goal is to love people. Some days go better than others.

We just weren’t making any money. We weren’t long-term locals, so we didn’t have the support structure that comes with living/playing/schooling/worshipping/eating in a community for a whole lifetime. And we weren’t ace-in-the-hole business people, either. We were really feeling our way forward as young entrepreneurs. And a lot of days felt like they were two steps forward and maybe one-and-three-quarters steps back.

And so we were sitting on the floor together, and my wife said to me, “Are you even passionate about coffee anymore?”

That sort of hit me like a ton of bricks — but slowly. Like someone threw a brick at my head every day for a year. I realized in that moment that I wasn’t passionate about coffee, because being passionate about coffee is stupid. A man should be passionate about things like a woman; things like his God; things like mountains or trees or the ocean. A man should be passionate about his family or his community. But a man shouldn’t be passionate, in the truest sense of the word, about coffee.

That event — that night on my kitchen floor — has done more to influence my thinking about my business than almost any other single incident. That thinking is what brought on the Schnecken.

Stay with me.

My business is coffee, but my life is people. I try to measure everything I do through a “loved and cared for” filter. “People will feel loved and cared for, when (blank),” and then I fill in the blank. If I can’t fill in the blank, I try to avoid that thing.

“People will feel loved and cared for when I overcharge them for coffee that’s not very good.” See? That one doesn’t work.

I have a friend who comes to my coffee shop just about every day. His work is varied and mobile and he’s often in the shop all day. We love each other, so when we’re together we just keep drinking coffee until our hair is standing on end and our brains aren’t working correctly anymore. My friend is someone who values quality time spent, and for him, (and for me), feeling loved and cared for meant spending more time and drinking less coffee. So one day I pulled a double shot of espresso and split it into two heated rocks glasses with a little water and produced two three-ounce Americanos.

And I called it the Schnecken.

In German, schnecken means snail. But it also refers to a tasty little sour cream cinnamon roll, a Sunday morning tradition in Jewish households. The tradition spread throughout German society in the early 20th century, and after World War II the schnecken (bun) could be found in places like Brazil and the eastern U.S.A. It was in New York where the term schnecken came to mean, (to some) any sort of tasty little morsel — not a full snack, just a little schnecken.

I’m neither German nor Jewish. But for some reason, I’ve always just sort of owned this term. So it made sense to me when I made two little tasty afternoon-coffee-treats, to call the process a Schnecken.

The idea of the Schnecken is important and special to me because it represents the realization of an ideal that I want to be true about myself as a man and as a business owner. To me it speaks to this idea of being together and sharing something. It’s also a reminder of the very deeply held (though, in truth, easily ignored) value for the people around me feeling loved and cared for.

“People feel loved and cared for when you stop a minute and hear them, when you care for them on a real level and when you split a thing.” See? That one works.

Two people who both independently have bread to eat is a good thing. One person sharing bread with another person is a special thing.

So here’s the rub; I can’t have this conversation with everyone who walks into my shop. I don’t always have time. And I’m not always there. Does my staff have time? If the Schnecken is on the menu, does that mean that my entire staff has to share my peculiar brand of passion?

People don’t know what the Schnecken is, and if I don’t have time to tell them, then they either see us as pretentious coffee-jerks, or (worse), they think they’re dumb.

People will feel loved and cared for when there are paper towels in the bathroom; when the lighting has been addressed and thought through; when the music is set to a proper volume; and, when the playlist is curated. And people will feel loved and cared for on deep levels that don’t even register consciously when they know how to say a thing, how to spell a thing, how to order a thing and how to enjoy a thing.

So, friends, there’s my predicament. The Schnecken is representative in my heart of something I hold dear. But by its nature, it’s accomplishing the opposite.

Recently I’ve been regretting putting the Schnecken on the menu for this reason. I mentioned this to a pal, and he’s since been good-naturedly hassling me about the Schnecken, taking great pleasure in recommending the beverage(s) to unsuspecting customers and watching me squirm as I try to adequately communicate what it is and why I put it there, without boring them. I fear receiving calls from other great coffee houses in our area asking, “What’s a Schnecken and why are people asking if it’s on our menu?”

It’s really the ribbing I’ve received that’s precipitated this Viewpoints piece. I’m asking for your advice! What do I do? Does the Schnecken stay, or does it go?

My door is always open for advice, for a full cup, or just a Schneken.



Nice piece, Walton.

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