Internet, coffee and travel connect

Jake Kapsner

A new haunt opened last week in Stadium Village where Euro boppers, Net surfers and java junkies can sink into cushy Victorian-style chairs, peruse the Internet and make travel plans — all while sipping a mocha.
Named the [email protected] Grind, it is the newest coffee shop to land at 815 Washington Ave. S.E. and it hopes to survive in a space where two cafes have previously percolated, then closed up.
The business also faces the challenge of entering a market brimming with coffee shops while trying to attract students who already have computer access.
Not to worry, said owner T.J. McLeod. His brainchild is more than an Internet cafe and coffee bar, it’s a “one-stop shop” for backpackers preparing to travel abroad.
The self-proclaimed travel junkie said he’s available to offer advice — such as “the golden rule of packing” — to anyone planning a trip to Europe.
McLeod said he especially sympathizes with first-time travelers, who often have no idea what they’re getting into.
“I’m not going to tell you what to see,” said McLeod. “But I’m going to tell you how to do it, and how to do it cheaply.”
The 30-year-old McLeod has walked some of what he now talks.
Between studies at the University, Hamline University and a German institute, he made numerous treks across Europe and spent two years playing jazz piano and working in a Munich restaurant. Later, as a high school German instructor in St. Paul, he led students on summer tours to Austria, Switzerland and Germany.
Still torn between moving back to the Old Country and staying here with family and friends, McLeod said opening the coffee shop is his way of bringing a little piece of Europe home with him.
And now he’s encouraging people to go find their own piece of the globe by selling plane and train tickets, passport photos, guidebooks, youth hostel passes and perhaps, the travel bug itself.
That bug may help McLeod brew his way into the area’s coffee business.
Mike Wilson, who owns Cafe Prague on University Avenue and lived in the Czech Republic, said McLeod has a unique approach that will only add to a “booming” local and national coffee industry.
“Good coffeehouses are good for everybody,” he said.
But Wilson said he’s not about to start selling backpacks or more computer access. He simply wants to create a comfortable ambiance.
Cafe Prague has one computer, with rates of $6 per hour, whereas the [email protected] Grind has seven computers that cost $3 per hour.
Toby Mroczek, manager of Espresso Expose in Stadium Village, said his shop offered computer access about 18 months ago, but a lack of demand ended the service.
Yet McLeod said computers aren’t the focus of the Grind either. Rather, they reflect a prevalent aspect of his favorite European coffee houses — like the mix of vintage furnishings, paintings and posters that decorate his shop.
“You don’t go into the coffeehouse business to get rich,” McLeod said.
McLeod didn’t bemoan the meager crowd that trickled into his business over spring break. He said it gave employees of the shop a chance to learn the ropes of tending a coffee bar.
Call it the school of hard knocks: On the first day they learned about losing the tip jar to a thief.