The coffee was silky and smooth, with a rich, complex flavor. The foam on the top was thick and creamy, with a stripe of sweetness in it, a mystery ingredient. What made it taste like that? “You start with the best bean you can find,” said Mohamed Hafez, architect, artist, and now owner of Pistachio, the new coffee shop opening imminently at Lotta Studio in Westville. “Good milk that is fresh and coming from close by.” And maybe, he said, the sweetness came from a dash of agave.
How did Hafez come up with the idea for that dash of sweetness? “What can I say?” he said. “I have been doing this for two decades.” In his family’s business, he said, “I was the college kid manning the espresso machine. When it comes to food and drink, it has to be the best.”
Hafez’s attention to the details of the coffee extend to everything about Pistachio, from his selections of coffee and tea, to the pastries he plans to sell, to the decor of the heavily renovated space inside Lotta Studio, where a tiled counter meets baroque furniture, intricate rugs, and an array of radios serving as wall decorations.
The unveiling of Pistachio is part of Lotta Studio’s official reopening since being shut down in March due to the pandemic. It’s also, depending on where you start counting, an idea half a year, or 15 years, in the making.
“Since Cafe X left” in November, “we had met with a handful of other coffeeshop tenants,” said Mistina Hanscom, who owns and runs Lotta Studio with her husband Luke. “Then,” in January, “Mohamed said, ‘this is my idea,” and it was very much in line with our community focus.”
Hafez “has been in this building from the beginning,” Hanscom added — ever since Lotta Studio began five years ago. For Hafez’s part, he had been thinking about opening a coffee shop for 15 years. His family had run a coffee shop in Chicago in his youth, so he knew the business. He also knew clearly what he wanted the space to be like.
“I’m an architect and an artist and a bit of a perfectionist,” Hafez said. He had been in too many coffee shops that he felt were “half-baked or corporate.” His idea for a shop was founded in the concept of the majlis — a salon for entertaining guests and bringing people together. He wanted to build a place “where we can hang out and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea.” The majlis had been a part of his childhood in Damascus. “That’s where the nostalgia in this place stems from. It brings me home,” Hafez said.
In January, Hafez said, “I had just recently escaped the corporate world and a fast-paced lifestyle.” He had just returned from an exhibition in Dubai. He wanted a venture that would allow him to slow down and deepen his ties with multiple parts of the greater New Haven community.
“How do you cultivate better relationships? How long can we sustain the rat race?” he recalled asking himself. He has lived in the area for 11 years and had made connections with the Muslim community, artists, and with Westville. Over time, he said, “there are so many circles that start overlapping. You want to host everybody, and not just in your home.”
Lotta Studio closed its doors in mid-March along with every other business as part of the government-mandated shutdown.
Like so many other small business owners, the Hanscoms faced a brief period where they were unsure how their venture would survive. Then they applied for and received a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. They helped other artists do the same. And then the arts community and the neighborhood kicked in.
The D’Andreas, the family that owns the building and are thus landlords for the space, gave the studio a break on rent during the shutdown. The Hanscoms appeared on Chrissy Gardner’s Moose Piano Lounge to raise funds (“we sang in public!” Hanscom said).
ArtWalk raised thousands of dollars. Lizzy Donius, executive director of the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance, and Luke Hanscom were “the driving force behind that,” Hanscom said. And an anonymous private donor chipped in to make sure that “we survived the shutdown.”
“That the artist community found ways to raise money for other artists was beautiful,” Hanscom said. The outpouring of support for their work, she said, was “humbling. Very humbling … we are so entwined in the building that we don’t see the ripple effects” into the greater arts community. During the shutdown, the community gave back.
That support, in turn, “allowed us to help support Mohamed,” Hanscom said. Within days of having to close Lotta Studio’s doors, the Hanscoms and Hafez got to work on renovations. The Hanscoms are morning people while Hafez is a night owl, which meant that the renovation work saw two shifts a day.
“We really jumped on the opportunity to do this while we were mandated” to be closed,” Hanscom said.
The project turned out to have other benefits as well. “There were days we felt mentally wiped out — heavy for society,” Hanscom said. “To have a project to focus on helped us get through that. We had things we had to take care of.”
Along the way, they were guided by Hafez’s clear concepts for what he wanted Pistachio to look like and how that idea could be blended with the needs of the studio. During the day, it needed to function as a coffee shop and a co-work space. It also needed to be able to work as a large photography studio, and occasionally needed to be opened up entirely as an event space for an evening, then transformed quickly back into its multiple uses for the next day.
Part of the renovation thus included a bank of moveable partitions, made from windows, that could split the space entirely in half or be rolled away to open the entire room up. “We didn’t build walls — we demolished walls,” Hafez said. “We put them on wheels.”
The trio also didn’t do the work alone. “We have a whole city filled with creatives and entrepreneurs,” Hanscom said. “At any time I could call anybody here for help and they would come — frankly, I have done that.”
Beginning With Beans
Pistachio’s concept starts with its coffee. “We don’t do any shortcuts,” Hafez said. “This is a place to slow down and enjoy a single-origin bean,” roasted at Giv Coffee in Canton. With help from the roasters, Hafez has learned how to “dial it in,” grinding and brewing the beans to get the flavor he wants. The pastries come from Sanctuary Kitchen and other bakeries and chocolatiers that Hafez has gotten to know. By offering their goods, Hafez hopes to “shed some light on the amazing people in the community,” he said.
Hafez’s insistence of high standards, paired with his desire to throw the doors open, extended to his ideas for how to design, decorate, and furnish the space. “In my profession, there’s always this sense that great architecture is unaffordable,” he said. “This space is the opposite — you can provide luxury and class and beauty on a budget.”
Hafez found the furnishings at antique stores and house sales. The radios all came from a collector. It was all in the service of making a place that would invite everyone in. “That is the goal,” he said. “You walk in for a cup of coffee, and we end up talking about life and politics, and we leave as best friends.”
“Everybody’s welcome,” he said. “This is a safe space, done right…. you open and you share, with hospitality and kindness. That has always been contagious.”
Hafez also set the timing of opening during the Covid-19 pandemic against a longer timeline. He had been thinking of running a coffeeshop for 15 years. He just came to New Haven 11 years ago. Five years ago, when Lotta Studio opened, his work as an architect meant he didn’t have the time. Now he does. “Everything came together at the right time — why, I don’t understand,” he said. “We are lucky and blessed.”
Meanwhile, work is “rushing back all at once” for Lotta Studio, Hanscom said. The commercial work on which the Hanscoms support themselves is returning. And “as long as the building breaks even,” Hanscom said, it will be able to exist. That looks promising. Artists continue to rent space on the second floor. People rent the co-work space on the first floor, and more interest has gathered as the renovation has finished. City officials came by this week to do final signoffs on the work done, and the trio expects to be able to reopen very soon — thanks to Westville and to the greater New Haven arts community.
“The amount of heart invested in this building is huge,” Hanscom said.