New Grounds in Town: Newport Coffee brings taste of Stockholm to the North Shore

By Jake Holland
Medill Reports

Coffee has been big in Chicago since the ’90s, but the North Shore, says Mikael Bengtsson, can now hold its own. “It’s bubbling up here,” says the engineer-turned-barista, who this summer opened Newport Coffee with his wife, Lotta. The Evanston cafe, 622 Davis St., serves high-end coffee (a standard latte will run you about $5) and pastries with a Swedish flair. Bengtsson’s second location — the first is in Bannockburn — held its soft launch July 1, with plans for the official launch slated for later this fall. I sat down with Bengtsson to talk about caffeine, the shop’s aesthetic and his vision for the brand.

Can you talk about the design of the space?

Scandinavian design is somewhat minimalistic, clean and white and trendy. Typically coffee shops in the U.S. are a little bit heavier, more traditional, rustic, if you’d like. But people so far have seemed to appreciate what we’ve done style-wise. Maybe this is something you find in LA or in New York but not here in the Midwest. Many people come in and say, “Wow.” The look and feel of it for sure set us apart.

What do you brew your drinks with?

We use Slayer espresso machines, and they brew in a different way. Typically an espresso shot takes 25 seconds to pull on most machines. Here, we take about 45. We don’t press a button, and we need to monitor it. It’s more involved, but we think it makes a difference.

What kind of tech have you implemented?

We have an app, which is cool for a small company like us. You can order ahead. Especially for the business people, a quick in and out. Many coffee shops have a ticket printer, so when somebody orders a latte, for example, there is a printer, they get a ticket, they put a cup there, that’s their system. We go from the iPad to another iPad — one is for tickets and the other is for the online orders. It’s as efficient as you can make a coffee shop.

The last time I was here I noticed lots of plant-based milks.

The one we promote the most is Oatly. It’s oat milk, a Swedish company. We like the taste of it obviously. You want a milk that steams well. Out of the alternative specialty milks, that’s the one we think steams the best. We also have macadamia, which has an interesting flavor profile. Then we carry almond milk as well as soy.

You advertise “traditional” espresso drinks. What makes them different?

We only have one size for cappuccinos. That is traditional, and that’s what we think is right. We gave in on serving a 16-ounce latte. If people don’t ask, we do the 12-ounce, because we think that’s a better proportion between the espresso and the milk, and we want to give the customer the best experience. We serve our lattes in glass because that’s how we think it should be served and how we did it back in the day in Sweden.

Can you talk to me about your pastries?

Kanelbulle is a Swedish pastry with cinnamon, cardamom, and then pearl sugar on top, and it pairs well with coffee. With a black coffee, it’s very traditional. We have it on “fika,” which means coffee break.

Your favorite item on the menu?

Cappuccino. The classic.

What’s the biggest difference between coffee culture here and in Sweden?

In Sweden, and in Europe, as compared to the U.S., it’s not about big. It’s about good. Less is more.

What’s your favorite part about working in the industry?

It’s an avenue for creativity. Roasting is a whole area in itself. Then for the coffee, the brewing is pretty complex as well. I enjoy the positive experience we get when we interact with customers. Some just want the caffeine, but many people are passionate about their coffee. Having that experience and appreciation multiple times a day is just something that creates energy.

What are you working on now?

Right now we’re focused on recruiting and training the team. At some point we should talk a little bit louder and say we’re in town. We also want to do more events. I think this space lends itself very well to events in the evenings. We will see if we can rent the space to groups at Northwestern.

Do you envision Newport opening a third location?

That’s the idea. But we need to make these two places work first. We don’t want to rush and not do things well. There cannot be a tradeoff on the quality. That’s not how we do things.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Inspired by his Scandinavian roots, Newport Coffee co-owner Mikael Bengtsson settled on a clean, minimalist aesthetic. The shop — which fills the vacancy left by Cheesie’s — serves classic espresso drinks and fresh Swedish pastries. (Photo courtesy of Newport Coffee)