By Julia Purdy
RUTLAND—Curtis Bourque, born and raised in Rutland and a server/bartender by trade, stood at the counter of the Ruff Life Café, 46 Center Street, waiting for his takeout order of coffee drinks. He missed the old Coffee Exchange down the street, and when he saw Ruff Life open, a lightbulb went on. “This is the rebirth of it,” he said, bringing back “things we missed very dearly.”
A regular at the Coffee Exchange, he noticed similarities in the fare here, adding, “It’s the least we can do to support the startup of a locally-owned small business.”
The corner of West Street and Merchants Row was a popular downtown stop for coffee, sandwiches, salads and pastries until it closed in January 2017. Beth Fleck presided over the Coffee Exchange and now is sole proprietor of Ruff Life Café.
Fleck’s vision was to offer a place that was “not too fancy, not too laid-back.”
The space is the old Army-Navy store, a compact downtown storefront. The simple interior showcases the old wood flooring and exposed brick walls. The café name is spelled out in bare bulbs inside a custom-made, rusted-metal frame on the brick wall.
A unique feature is the old display space in the front of the store, which is now a tiny lounge furnished with beanbag chairs, a couple of side tables, a round mandala rug and board games.
The serving counter carries the familiar baked goods: biscotti (plain or frosted), sticky buns, scones and cookies. There’s a case with soft drinks and water and a row of 20 canisters of teas from the Art of Tea out of Los Angeles, with such intriguing labels as “Feel Better,” Egyptian camomile, white-tipped jasmine and more, all organic. Salads, wraps, sandwiches and panini are made fresh, as are all sauces. Fleck’s parents own DellVeneri’s Bakery on Terrill Street, which furnishes many baked goods.
Barista Jamee Sherwin didn’t work at the old Coffee Exchange. Leaving a staff job at Green Mountain College, “I jumped at the opportunity to work at this place,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier.” She grew up in Brandon and lives around the corner.
“I love interacting with Rutland people all day, there’s nothing better than giving somebody a cup of coffee. You just leave (at the end of the day) with a smile.”
Sherwin is especially excited about Fleck’s plan to start roasting coffee.
“Beth has a tremendous passion for coffee and the intricacies of coffee, how to brew it and taste it, and we’re really excited to learn that from her,” said Sherwin.
Sherwin said after six months she and her coworkers can join an international barista’s guild, with classes and training levels, based in Stowe.
The roaster is not set up yet. Fleck plans to start roasting coffee once the proper permits are granted. She also wants to make sure the café is on board first. For now, she buys coffee beans from Mocha Joe’s Roasting Company in Brattleboro.
“I like to be able to offer things people have never heard of before,” she told the Mountain Times. “It’s one more thing that would make us different.”
Ruff Life Café opened in mid-July with what was meant to be a soft opening, but “It was not so soft,” Fleck laughed. “I thought we’d have a couple of days to be open before things got so busy. The first week was very interesting because we were grossly unprepared, we did our best to stay stocked on things. It was incredible.”
Fleck said she sees a lot of familiar as well as unfamiliar faces and a lot of travelers, especially on the weekends. “We get people from all walks of life. People play with their kids, lounge, listen to music, hold meetings,” she said. “I wanted to create a space that was welcoming to everybody, a place where everybody could come and feel comfortable.”
And soon, Ruff Life Café will offer real pumpkin lattes, using pumpkin puree.