A community destination where a rising tide lifts many boats
interview EMMA FITZGERALD
photography DARREN SETLOW
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What are small businesses, in particular cafés and restaurants, doing to prepare for the chillier months in Maine amid COVID-19? Cupacity café owner Susan Murphy shares her thoughtful approach to navigating the pandemic in the coastal Maine community of Damariscotta.
What is Cupacity?
The inspiration for Cupacity was the neighborhood cafés I discovered during my one and only trip to Europe many years ago. Especially in Southern Europe, the local café is much more than a place to grab a fast morning coffee and pastry. It’s where you catch up on the local news, it serves as an informal business or social meeting space and a place to write or study. The regulars drop in several times a week, often on the way to or the way back from work, when the menu transitions from coffee and tea to wine and tapas. My goal in starting Cupacity was to re-create that European café society experience with an American flair. Damariscotta, which has such has a strong community to begin with, struck me as the perfect setting.
Your embrace of community within Damariscotta, and with all of Maine in mind, is with such intent. Have you always been a business owner? What is your background?
I am a natural-born social worker and I love what happens when people tell each other their stories. I have a BA in creative writing and a master’s in marriage and family counseling. For many years I cleaned houses. I had a housecleaning business and I put myself through school, undergraduate school, and so I worked for myself. Between all of this too, of course, there were other things … like kids. I didn’t necessarily have a dream of opening a coffee shop, but all of this just came into alignment. I really wanted to create a place for people and community to connect in an open-hearted and joyful way.
Guide us through the inception of Cupacity.
The plan really began to take shape in the summer of 2018 when both the local coffee shops were shuttered. It was pretty obvious that there was a gap to fill. So I began to look around for a space that had the ambiance and feeling I was looking for. I had a vision, but the challenge was to turn it into an actionable business plan. Dan Miller, the previous owner of our present building was so kind to me. I came to him with the idea of renting the space and putting in a cafe, but I was so nervous that I was shaking when I showed him my concept. Dan remained open hearted and honest. He said, “This is a good idea but you need to develop a more detailed plan with numbers. Call CEI Coastal Enterprises Inc." I got in touch with the CEI Women’s Business Center in Brunswick, and my advisor encouraged me to think beyond the business start-up itself to buying the building, which we were able to make happen. That turned out to be critical, because it’s enabled us to really control everything about the space—from the fit and finish to the quality of water and air systems. I felt like Dan really encouraged me. He worked with me, and these are important relationships that paved the way for Cupacity.
How did you come up with the name Cupacity?
My husband! He is quite the wordmeister. Full to capacity, fill up; other people read it as Cup-a-city, which works too.
What are your most unique offerings, from menu to services?
The pandemic only has accelerated the eat-on-the-run, quick-service, takeout trend that was already well underway. Cupacity is the exact opposite of all that. We’re about the experience, not the transaction. People are drawn to Cupacity by the décor, by the art on the walls or to get their picture taken with our nearly life-size replica of Justice Ginsberg.
We have our Cupacity library to browse; we have toys and games for the kids. If my husband, Ted, is around then we are more than likely playing music that you won’t hear at any other café in this universe. So people come here for the environment, but then without a lot of fanfare or fuss we do everything we can to WOW them with the food and the beverage.
Our menu is fresh, made to order and of the highest quality possible. People tell us our scones are the best they’ve ever had, and we sell out every day. We have seasonal soups and avocado toast and we make our own bread. We top our avocado toast with locally grown flowers from Du Jardin and we use microgreens and produce—seasonally, of course—from Morning Dew Farms. Any time we can buy our products local to Maine, we do. We have a three-stage water filtration system, so you taste all the subtle notes of the Bard coffees and Samovar teas we brew. The same thing goes for the wines we serve: You’re going to get a favorite vintage here; we strive to be ahead of the curve.
What does community mean to Cupacity?
Cupacity is all about community; it’s the heart and soul of everything we do. People come here to hang out, and we’re especially proud of the many friendships that have started here. Whenever we see two strangers starting up a conversation from adjacent tables, that’s confirmation that the café is working its magic. It’s meant to be an ad hoc meeting place, and community groups are definitely seeing the value of getting out of the office. For example, back during the presidential primary season, the Bernie campaign held a “Bernie Barnstorm” here. We aren’t partisan, so we reached out to the local GOP and encouraged them to use the space as well, and they were planning a weekly meeting. That, sadly, was the week before the spring COVID shutdown, but we’ll get back there.
What makes you stand out as a café and destination?
It’s the people. Through these doors pass the most incredible cast of characters on the Pemaquid Peninsula. We have an informal set of Café Society rules that we are always threatening to post. One of them is “Be yourself. Everybody else is already acting like everybody else.” Between the food, the drink and the vibe, we’re pretty sure you’re going to have a memorable visit to Cupacity. But more importantly, you get to be you.
Maine restaurants and service industries have taken different paths to navigate the pandemic. Survival for some is dependent on adaptation and community. What is Cupacity’s path to survival?
If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it forced everyone and everything to slow down. Obviously, it’s bad for the bottom line when you have to close down for months at a time, and then reopen at a fraction of your scope. Fewer customers means you have more to think about how you run the business, where you can streamline, where you can improve and how you can change things up.
After a lot of trial and error, we landed on a three-point plan for adaptation and growth:
- The first objective when COVID-19 hit was to enhance the physical space; we built a deck for outside dining. Existing social distancing measures and best hygiene practices strike me as a good foundation, but not enough for safely reopening indoor service. I carefully research air filtration options that would afford our customers and employees an additional degree of protection beyond masking and sanitizing surfaces. We reconfigured the interior to accommodate social distancing within our space, and most importantly, purchased a hospital-grade air purification system, the Global Plasma Solutions Needlepoint Bipolar Ionization Air Purification Device. It’s used by top hospitals like the Mayo Clinic. We felt this was an important investment to make for the safety of our customers and employees.
- Next, we decided to raise the bar on food. For example, we’re famous for our avocado toast so we determined that we had to bake our own bread to keep the quality up. So we invested in a separate convection oven for baking and then began evaluating various recipes. We weren’t totally satisfied with any of them, so we brought in a professional baker, Justin Binnie, to train us on sourdough. We called it “baking boot camp,” I mean, it was hard. But so worth it: Now our customers are asking us if we can bake extra so they can take a loaf home!
- The last thing we decided to double-down on was ambiance. People are eager to interact, and we’ve got the social distancing and air filtration system that permit us to hold small-scale events, so let’s put on some low-key themed events. The first was a wine tasting where we debuted a few new vintages that weren’t available locally. The next was a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening and costume party, which we held outdoors in our back lot—complete with prop bags, of course! Going forward, we’re planning book and poetry readings, Moth-style story slams and, of course, more movie nights.
With Cupacity in mind as a “café safe haven” (and apart from your creative menu and curated beverages), what can guests look forward to this season?
In addition to more entertainment and community events, we are planning to launch “Bubble Dinners at the Café.” The basic idea is that you and your family and close friends take over the café for an evening; we’ll prepare your menu, curate the wines, arrange the entertainment if you like and, most importantly, wash the dishes. Actually, I suppose we can drive you home if need be!
We’re also thinking about offering a guest chef option, since many restaurants are seasonal hereabouts, and there’s a lot of great talent to choose from.
We are implementing curated meals for curbside pick-up and delivery, too, so stay tuned!
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