Thursday, May 2, 2013

Custom House Coffee of Middletown, RI by Bethany Matern

View Custom House Coffee 2 in a larger map

On this map, Custom House Coffee is the lowest blue marker while the other two at the top mark the closest Dunkin Donuts locations. 

Outside View

Kathleen, Bob, & Delia
          Over spring break I visited Custom House Coffee located in a strip mall at 796 Aquidneck Ave. in Middletown, RI sandwiched between a pizza place and a clothing store. There are two Dunkin Donuts located a few miles away but when it comes to Custom House Coffee there is no comparison. I was able to get a full insider experience over the course of the day because my aunt is friends with the office manager, Kathleen who has worked there for 5 years. I went to work with Kathleen at 5:30 am on Tuesday and stayed with her until her shift was over at 12pm. I can honestly say that during the almost 7 hours that I spent there I had an absolute blast and I was never bored, not even for a second. Throughout the day I was able to meet the head roaster, Steve, the owner and general manager, Bob Mastin, and the on-shift barista, Delia, all of whom were very helpful and informative. Before the shop opened I was able to take a lot of pictures and I got some background information about the shop from Kathleen as she prepared for the day.

          Custom House is open from 6am to 6pm Monday through Friday, from 7am to
4pm on Saturday, and from 8am to 2 pm on Sunday. The shop was opened in May of 2002 by the owner and general manager, Bob Mastin, who also owns the strip mall in which the coffee shop resides. In 2006, Bob opened a secondary Custom House location in Portsmouth right off of West Main Rd. He later sold it as a franchise so he is no longer involved with the day to day of it but he still provides the coffee to them.
Bob makes sure that Custom House stays active within the local community by having a Martin Luther King Center Food Bank donation bin right by the counter, by donating day old pastries and 5 pounds of coffee a week to the children’s school breakfast program, supporting local artists by allowing them to display their photography in the shop and by saving all the coffee grounds to give to a landscaping business up the street for compost. He goes even further as to provide an incentive for customers to want to donate to the food bank by giving those who do a free coffee!

          Now speaking of the coffee, Custom House is not just a coffee house, it is also a coffee roaster and according to the head roaster, Steve, it is the only roaster left on Aquidneck Island. They order the coffee in green whole bean form from their two brokers Royal Coffee and Inter American Coffee and then it is roasted in one of their two roasters. The smaller roaster is located inside the shop almost as a decorative element and it is the roaster used to roast the organic coffees while the larger roaster roasts everything else. The large roaster is also referred to as the production roaster and is out back in their Roastery & Training Center in the strip mall behind the one Custom House is in, which Bob also owns.

          Since I was there so early I was able to go out back and watch Steve roast the coffee and talk to him about the roasting process. Steve was extremely knowledgeable and he seemed to enjoy having someone to tell and show things to about coffee. He said that they roast 6 out of 7 days a week and that roasted coffee should be given a few days before it is ground and brewed to drink and in his personal opinion he says 3 days after roasting is the “sweet spot”. Steve told me that he has been in coffee for 20 years and has been roasting for the last 7 years. He got into coffee as a college job and he started his own coffee business called Coffee Guy, selling coffee at local farmers markets. Another fun fact is that Steve even took a couple of business classes at Bridgewater State University!

          The shop offers 6 types of organic coffee and 14 types of non-organic coffee some of which are even Fair Trade. When asked about his stance on Fair Trade, Bob said that he believes in the sentiment of it and thinks farmers should be treated fairly but he has noticed that it does not hold up very well in practice since small farms cannot be certified for Fair Trade unless they are in a coffee cooperative. Their coffees originate from all over including Columbia, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Peru, Tanzania, Costa Rica and even Hawaii. Not all of the 20 coffees they sell are available brewed in the shop all the time, they just have their house blend, a mix of Columbian Supremo and Costa Rican coffees, in regular and decaf and then they pick a few other coffees to have brewed for the day. However, all of their coffees are available for purchase by half or whole pound bag in either whole bean or ground form for home use.

             When the shop opened at 6am it was kind of slow to start, a few customers trickled in over the first hour or so, mostly the regulars and by 7:30am it was starting to pick up but it still seemed to be mostly the regular crowd, most of whom were older gentlemen. When I asked the barista, Delia, how she likes working at Custom House she said, “Working here is like working at Cheers…everyone is always in a good mood and that is very important to a successful shop.” Custom House seems to have quite a following with the locals despite its lack of a drive through and because of that regular customers are greeted by name with a smile. Only one or two women came in to get coffee before 8am but around 8:30 a lot of women, mostly young to middle aged mothers who just dropped their kids off at school, started to show up for their morning buzz. During the day the customers seemed to get progressively younger in age from the older men in the early morning to the middle-aged women and eventually men of the middle to late morning to the young adults that strolled in around lunch time. From my observation, customers in the earlier part of the day carried out there coffee while later people would sit down to have coffee and maybe a bagel or pastry. The majority of customers either came in in small groups or pairs or they met up forming small groups, chatting in a familiar almost routine-like fashion while intermittently watching television. I noticed that there were people who came in alone and just got coffee to go but that there were some that got coffee and sat alone to read the paper or use the free wifi.

          The very friendly employees coupled with the interesting décor and home-like feel make Custom House Coffee a very happy and comforting place to be. There is a variety of seating options including tables and comfortable chairs in addition to bar-style seating and outdoor tables in nice weather. The white walls are accented by the teal trim and accents although it’s a wonder you can even see the white through the large collection of amusing coffee-themed sayings plaques lining the walls of the shop. Out on the counters there are numerous antique pieces of coffee equipment among other interesting tidbits of coffee information. One of the things I found most interesting about the décor was the ever-growing collection of antique coffee tins that sit on top of a ridge the lines the walls near the ceiling. I asked Bob about them and he said that he started out with just a few and then people started bringing them in when they found them at yard sales or flea markets and thus the bring-in-a-tin-for-a-pound-of-free-coffee policy was born. Also, on one of the walls next to the landing where some tables are located is a photography display put on by a local photography studio.

In addition to just plain hot or iced coffees, which are both very good, Custom House also offers a variety of specialty drinks including the Iced Coffee Addict and the Zombie killer both of which contain their special cold-brewed iced coffee that is absolutely amazing. Cold brewed iced coffee is extremely smooth and flavorful and also packs quite a punch seeing as it has the most caffeine possible due to the grounds soaking for 24 hours. The menu also includes numerous chai beverages and the classics like espressos and lattes.

Custom House also offers a variety of food options to go with your coffee. There is a large pastry case to choose from in addition to a variety of fresh bagels and breakfast sandwiches. In addition to breakfast foods the shop also serves various lunch foods such as chicken wings, soups, paninis and other sandwiches. When I was there I got to try hot coffee and the cold brewed iced coffee in addition to trying the chicken pesto panini for lunch which was absolutely delicious, I highly recommend it.

Overall I have to give Custom House a 10 out of 10 because it is just amazing. If you are ever in the neighborhood and even if you aren't, you should definitely give Custom House a try because I promise you won’t be sorry the trip would be worth it!


  1. It's nice to think that as time passed by, Custom House Coffee have developed other good treats they can offer to their customers. Starting with coffee, they now serve sandwiches, soup, and even chicken wings. That's great! Their brewed iced coffee is the one that I want to try though.

    Clint Shaff

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