Making Charlotte’s Black Coffee Shop a World Cafe

By Tonya Jameson

When Bryce Laguer envisioned opening a coffee shop in Charlotte, he knew he didn’t want it to be just another specialty coffee spot with pretty designs in the latte foam. It needed to be more and do more for the people it served.

Basal, which opened in late March, is the latest offering in Charlotte’s expanding coffee scene. Laguer is turning coffee into a sit-down experience rather than a drive-through. The lattes do have pretty designs, but they aren’t nearly as cool as the community Laguer is trying to cultivate at the café, tucked away off Freedom Drive.

Basal sits in Wesley Heights in the same building as LaCa Projects gallery on Bryant Street. The gallery seeks to connect contemporary Latin American artists with Charlotte’s art scene. The mission blended perfectly with Laguer’s goal of creating a coffee café that reflects his ancestry of Mexican, French and African-American roots.

“I want to be able to do what’s expected of a specialty coffee company, but I want to be able to do more, and not just look cool,” said Laguer.

Sitting in the sunlit room bar in one of his two rich navy blue lounge chairs, Laguer, 28, surveys the small café. It’s closed now, and the only people present are construction workers putting the finishing touches on the glass garage-style door that leads to LaCa. There are five wooden tables with metal frame chairs and a wood-topped coffee bar.

He says in his mind, he sees a lesbian at one of the tables near the LaCa entrance. She’s talking to a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, he said. There’s a Latino woman sitting at the table next to them. Inside the bathroom, a mother changes her baby’s diaper while her drink is prepared. Laguer can see them so clearly. In his mind, Basal will reflect not only the New South, but also the browning of America.

Laguer’s journey to opening Basal is as fascinating as the space his team created. He’s a New Jersey native, but his family moved to Charlotte when he was in high school. His father played high school football with the late Carolina Panther Sam Mills in New Jersey. The two kept in touch, and Mills urged Laguer’s father to move to Charlotte. After high school, Laguer attended Winston-Salem State, but a series of personal challenges shook him. Mills passed away. His father beat cancer, but his grandmother did not. Laguer had a gig working in a nonprofit, but he lost his job.

He floundered, and ended up being a dishwasher at a pizzeria in Orlando. He pulled himself up and dusted off his brand development degree. He eventually met a Honduran immigrant who hired him to do brand development for his coffee business. Laguer admired his client’s passion for coffee, and started working for him at a coffee shop to better learn the business and help with branding.

He did that for a couple of years and then decided he needed to do something bigger. Laguer, his wife and their two children moved to Charlotte about a year ago after weighing investing in Vespr or moving to Los Angeles or the tri-state area. Charlotte wasn’t on their list initially, but he knew the city was growing and saw the potential “to be part of that growth. They considered locations in Matthews, Camp North End and Myers Park, but settled on Wesley Heights. Laguer hopes Basal can become part of the fabric of Wesley Heights.

“We’re trying to create a space here that feels democratic. It feels like a place where the world can exist in this location,” he said. “The history of the west side being predominately African-American was a big indicator for me.”

He plans to offer a breakfast and lunch menu reflecting his mixed heritage and his worldly experiences. Basal currently sells baked goods from Suarez Bakery and real Belgian waffles (not the hotel buffet variation) made by chef Hector Gonzalez. Laguer plans to add a lunch menu, which will be rooted in Latin and African-American flavors.

“There’s two sides to the coin,” he said. “The food and the coffee. They can’t exist without each other.”

Then there’s the coffee. Basal is modeled after the type of coffee bar found in Japan or Australia, Laguer said. He wants it to be like a cocktail bar for coffee. Drinks are served in glasses, not the typical paper cups or quirky mugs. Baristas use everything from shakers to beakers to a stockpot to make the syrups and specialty drinks. There is no fixings station with creamer, sugar and stirrers. Baristas do that.

Laguer recruited Coffee Director Kristin Kulik, 26, from Orlando. The two met at a latte art competition, and then later worked together at Vespr. Kulike moved to Charlotte last October to work at Basal.

“This is life right now,” she said. “I love coffee. This is my life.”

She says the bar will feature coffees from different regions of the United States every three months. The current region is the Pacific Northwest. After she completes the United States, she will expand to featuring coffee from different regions of the world. Regulars will also get invitations to tastings, also known as cuppings.

“We want to share every possible corner of the world in Charlotte,” she said.

If Laguer has his way, Basal will one day reflect every corner of the world, as well.