Lincoln's Mill Grinds Coffee, Connections and Community
By design, both of Lincoln’s Mill Coffee and Tea locations are comfortable places where customers of all ages come to catch up with friends, catch up on work or just relax with their favorite drink. For many, stopping by The Mill is a daily ritual.
The Mill has been a staple in Lincoln’s downtown Haymarket district since 1988.
Alan J. Bartels
THE GRINDING, swirling sounds of the espresso machine and the hum of conversation filter through The Mill Coffee and Tea in Lincoln’s Haymarket district.
Table space is at a premium on a Sunday morning. A group of female college students in sweaters that harken back to the 1980s are shopping online while a dad in a flannel shirt is playing checkers with his elementary school-age daughter and attempting to impress upon her the nuances of the game. A man in khakis is surfing the Internet. Others in this comfortable gathering place are checking email or discussing bible passages. The Mill is a Lincoln institution, frequented by everyone from the beatnik to the businessperson.
“The beginnings of The Mill are a little murky,” said owner Dan Sloan from behind his narrow, square-framed glasses. “They tend to change, depending on who you talk to.”
Within the murkiness, the story boils down to a few basic facts. In the 1970s The Mill started in the corner of a local bicycle shop. It was a slow time of year, so Sloan added coffee as a source of winter revenue. “People loved good coffee and couldn’t really get it,” said the now middle-aged Sloan.
From the bike shop, The Mill upsized in a move to north 14th Street and a building that had been a wholesale fruit business. In 1988 The Mill moved to its current location on the corner of Eighth and P streets in the Haymarket before the district became trendy and cool.
Each Friday, The Mill hosts the statewide broadcast of “Friday Live,” a show on NET Radio, Nebraska’s NPR station. Enthusiasts of coffee and the arts gather inside and on the large patio outside for the weekly broadcast highlighting art and culture events across Nebraska. Beans roast and coffee pours as radio interviews are conducted and occasional music is performed.
Stories and poetry literally come out of the walls here every day of the week where artists and students have left drawings or verse written on scraps of paper slipped into cracks between the bricks. Hidden reminders of the humble bicycle shop beginnings also can be found. The store has cedar planking like the original shop, and an antique bicycle is parked in the front window.
“One of the tampers we use for getting espresso into a shot was once a bike handlebar,” said Chelsea Lemburg, a college age, burgundy-haired barista.
Scale models of single-prop airplanes hang from the faux beam and corrugated tin ceiling.
“We let these old buildings be what they want to be,” Sloan said.
He remembers the warehouse district that this now posh, hip neighborhood once was. Back then, it was a collection of wholesale businesses and the occasional blue-collar bar.
Sloan is proud to say every change that has occurred at The Mill was completely customer driven, made to make the customer feel at home.
“I once read an article in one of the industry magazines. They were talking about furniture, and you could buy chairs that looked nice but weren’t comfortable enough to sit in for more than 45 minutes,” Sloan said. “That would allow you to turn over the table more often and make more money. And I just thought it was the worst idea I’d ever heard.”
Sloan cares as much about the atmosphere and the community as he does the coffee. Rushing patrons out of their seats – which are largely mismatched chairs and even a church pew – would be sacrilege in this place.
“I don’t really want people sleeping on the couch in here,” Sloan said, “but there are people who literally got their degree in here. They’ll sit in the corner and study all the time.”
The Mill has a variety of signature blends, including Haymarket, Prescott and Mill. There also are distinctive single-origin coffees, flavored coffees and the rarest and most expensive: the un-roasted green Ethiopian, which has the highest caffeine content. The Mill also carries a substantial selection of teas from around the world stored in rows of clear glass on shelves near the shop’s scales.
For those not sure of what they want, The Mill’s staff is more than happy to assist. They spend quality time with customers, helping the unsure make decisions on which coffee to buy and explaining things such as the differences between a French press and a Toddy brewing system.
“We have always tried to do lots and lots of education with our customers,” Sloan said. “We want to be the place where people can come and ask their dumb questions, and we still get lots of people that walk up to the counter and say, ‘I love coffee, I have no idea what that stuff is, help me out here.’ ”
Sloan also wants it to be a safe place for people to come and feel comfortable.
“You can always tell when someone is having trouble at home because they pop up at odd hours with a book and without the husband or whatever,” Sloan said.
In 2001 a second Mill location opened, and it has much the same feel as its sibling in the Haymarket: well-loved and eclectic. The new location is across the street from Union College in southeast Lincoln.
The new Mill has become something of a cultural epicenter for the neighborhood, including playing host to an open mic poetry night on Tuesdays. Other trendy businesses have come to neighborhood since The Mill moved in, including a vintage furniture boutique and a fashionable shoe store. Gourmet coffee is still the biggest draw here.
“This is probably giving these guys a plug,” customer Roy Scheele said, “but they make the best cappuccino I’ve had.”
For Scheele and many others, The Mill has become a magnet for quiet work, meeting friends and drinking excellent coffee and tea.
Sloan likes to think that his world-wide chain of two stores is as much about atmosphere and community as it is about coffee. His father used to say, “If you don’t have pride in what you do, then you don’t have any business doing it.”
In the eyes of its loyal patrons, The Mill has business doing coffee.
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