Step inside Palm Beach Gardens’ newest coffeehouse and it’s quickly apparent that this isn’t your typical nationally branded caffeine-fix station.
“Drink coffee not the Kool Aid” reads a large hand-scripted mural dominating one side of Subculture Coffee Roasters. Hanging from the ceiling: A 6-foot brass eyeball that opens and shuts. On the other walls, hand-drawn murals show scenes from the 1976 David Bowie film “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
For Subculture owner Rodney Mayo, funky art is the supporting cast for the main star, whose presence is unmistakable from the enticing aroma permeating the two-story space at Downtown Palm Beach Gardens between Whole Foods and Voodoo Bayou.
“Good coffee,” he says, explaining in two words why the coffeehouse’s funky vibe will draw suburban customers despite the more traditional offerings that dot the area.
At the store’s grand opening Sept. 29, Mayo backed up his talk with what he called the “geeky” details of a fine roast.
“Roasted coffee is more complicated than making wine,” he said. “It’s geeky and complicated.”
Unlike Starbucks, which is known for dark blends with no expiration date, Mayo’s Subculture dumps any fresh roast after 30 days.
While he has a roasting machine at his original Clematis Street location and at his Subculture at Harbourside in Jupiter, he’ll soon centralize roasting at a facility on the north end of West Palm Beach.
Still, a smaller roaster will be at work in the front window of the Gardens store — right next to the brass rocket ship — where his roasting techs can experiment on smaller batches, listening for the “crack” of the beans as they work out the timing to maximize flavor.
Mayo, who started in the nightclub business in 1987 with Respectable Street on the 500 block of Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, opened his first Subculture in 2015 on the 500 block with Sean Scott, who had opened a coffee shop in an art gallery on Clematis a year earlier.
“We wanted to bring back the beatnik coffee houses of the 1950s where politics were discussed in the neighborhood meeting space,” he said.
They attended a Nashville roasting school where they learned how to time the roast and apply the right amount of heat based on the type of bean.
After roasting, beans have to sit for three to four days to release gasses. Two weeks after roasting is the optimal time to serve, Mayo said, and he tosses any unused beans after 30 days. Some of a national chain’s coffee beans, he said, could be six months old.
“You’re drinking fresh coffee vs. stale coffee,” he said.
Aside from coffees, smoothies, juices and beer, Subculture offers sandwiches, salads, acai bowls, baked goods and three kinds of avocado toast.
While national brands Starbucks and Dunkin’ dominate the local coffee landscape, others such as Brazilian Coffee Haus, just a mile away at Loehmann’s Plaza; the Roasting Plant at the new Fresh Market on PGA Boulevard; and The Lokomotive on Center Street in Jupiter, are rising to provide an alternative.
Such shops offer a more authentic experience, and better coffee, Mayo maintains, than the high-volume chains.
After opening coffeehouses in Jupiter’s Harbourside, at Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach and in Boca Raton’s Mizner Park, Gardens seemed a natural next step, Mayo said.
He looked at sites facing Downtown Gardens’ inner plaza but loves the visibility of the new store, facing the west parking lot. It has two-side access, with outdoor seating facing south and west.
“It’s the best location in the plaza,” he said.
Downtown’s north end is still a construction zone, with a 174-room hotel under way, but the south end is nearly back to normal after two years of construction. The carousel has been moved to the lakefront and a Sweetgreen restaurant opened Sept. 25 in the space formerly occupied by Le Bouchon French Bistro.
But none have a giant eyeball dangling from the ceiling, dominating the space. And none have hand-drawn murals by artist Adam Sheetz, who spent three months adding coffee-infused interpretations to scenes from “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
Mayo commissioned the 6-foot eye in a brass-plated eyeball to replicate an art piece he saw in a New York gallery in the 1970s and never forgot.
He found a Chinese company to build it from a sketch he sent. He asked if they could make the eye open and close and they added a motor and sent him a tiny remote that controls the eye’s movement.
Look for the eye to pop up in some of Mayo’s other coffee shops or his 17 restaurants and bars: He ordered two larger eyes but they were too big to get through the doors of the Palm Beach Gardens location.
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.