‘You can’t trick these people’: At Crowing Hen Coffee Company, the focus is on flavor

GUILDERLAND CENTER — Michael Ward and Stefanie Stegman opened Crowing Hen Coffee Company in Guilderland Center late last year, which serves as a breakfast-oriented counterpart to their Clarksville’s Crowing Hen Café, and — Ward hopes — brings new flavors to the Albany area.

They built on the success of a café in Knox that relocated to Clarksville in early 2020.

Both Stegman and Ward come from a culinary background, with Ward’s hinted at by a tattoo of a chef’s knife on his left forearm and a small fork-and-knife tattoo on his neck. Together, the pair developed the new location’s menu of microbatch beverages, baked breakfast foods, and various lunch sandwiches. 

Ward, who’s worked as a line cook at the historic Hay-Adams Hotel and as an executive chef elsewhere, was a self-directed student of coffee-roasting on the West Coast, where he’d take vacations from his primary jobs and pick up short-term jobs at coffee houses.

“Maybe it makes me a bad person because I never intended to keep those jobs,” Ward joked, “but it was to study up. It’s how we came up with this.”

Gesturing toward a menu hanging on the wall behind the main counter, Ward said, “If you look at our menu, it’s pretty eclectic. We use Madagascar vanilla in a lot of our stuff. We have a rose tea. The flavor profiles are just stuff you won’t find on the East Coast.”

The difference between East Coast and West Coast coffee, Ward said, is evident in popular chains: Starbucks, which has its headquarters in Seattle, Washington, and Dunkin’ Donuts, based in Canton, Massachusetts.

“I personally think that West Coast coffee is cleaner,” said Ward.

He explained that coffee-roasting and other culinary techniques have traditionally migrated from west to east, and that Albany, for reasons he’s unsure of, tends to be the last to adopt new stylings.

“The trends come here later,” Ward said. “We’re trying to stay ahead of that in both cafés … We think that we’re ahead of the curve of what’s in Albany right now. You get places like the Cuckoo’s Nest, and they’re on par with what we’re doing, so we’re not the only ones.”

Although the food and the shop itself, which has a spare layout and warm palette, are of a West Coast aesthetic, Ward draws on New York expertise to fill in the gaps, serving bagels that are made at the Clarksville location and delivered to Guilderland Center.

“New York-style bagels are kettle-boiled,” Ward said. “That’s what makes it a New York-style bagel, is its eggshell crust. You get that when you boil them and it kills off the yeast on the outside and gives it that shiny texture. 

“They’re made on flip-boards with burlap,” Ward continued, “so you put them face-down, put them in the oven, a certain amount of the way through, you flip them over onto a stone, and you get that hearth-baked [character], and that’s how we do them in Clarksville.”

Bagels aren’t as popular on the West Coast, Ward said, and the bagels that are available typically aren’t boiled. “They’re all thrown in steam ovens,” Ward said.

All of Crowing Hen’s dairy products are locally sourced, Ward said, and the roasts come from Brewtus Roasting, out of Delmar. 


Flavor over fashion

But more than joining the traditions of two regions for fusion’s sake (something he called a “stupid cliché”), Ward is hoping to bring the highest grade of flavor he can, from wherever it’s derived. 

“It’s about blending stuff and getting the right mixes,” Ward said. “We’ve been through so many recipes here. We have a chocolate latte that tastes like German chocolate cake. And it has real coconut in it. We have a Reese’s peanut-butter latte that is made with Reese’s peanut butter and our cocoa. It’s all real, pure flavors … You can taste when things are chemically and syrup-y, so we use all real stuff.”

When it comes to coffee, flavor is developed in the roasting process rather than through added flavors, Ward said.

“We have a roast over there from Brewtus that has raspberry notes,” Ward explained. “There’s no raspberry in there, but when we grind it, it smells like raspberry. There’s no added flavors to it; it’s just the roasting process that gets those flavor notes.”

Explaining that coffee culture has surged in the United States along with a growing interest in food in general, Ward said that customers’ expectations of quality are changing, especially among the younger generations. “You can’t trick these people,” he said. 

But on whether he finds that most of his customers seem knowledgeable about more arcane aspects of coffee, Ward said, “Some are, and some aren’t. Some are always looking for something new … But we get people who walk in here and don’t know what an Americano is.”

During the interview, a woman came in and asked Ward, who was juggling a news interview, customers, and administrative work all at once, whether Crowing Hen’s banana-bread chai was served hot or cold.

“You can have it however you’d like,” Ward said, “but you’re getting more flavor out of it if it’s hot, so we prefer to serve it hot.” 


Getting started

Ward acknowledged that he was surprised by the five-or-so customers who stopped by during the interview, which is apparently more than normal for an early weekday afternoon.

“Right now, we’re just trying to build this business up,” Ward said. “And it’s doing OK for the most part … It’s paying the bills and even makes a little bit of money.”

Ward was stoic about the possibility of the coffee house never attaining sustainability, saying that, as soon as it can’t pay for its own upkeep, it’s gone.

“You can’t drag your whole business down,” Ward said, explaining that he’s seen other local restaurateurs try to establish a second location that bleeds the owners dry.

But Ward said that he’s going to be patient with his Guilderland Center location because the pandemic has still messed up people’s routines and prevents Guilderland’s high schoolers, whom he said can leave campus for lunch, from getting there before it closes at 1 p.m.

Crowing Hen Coffee House officially opened in November last year, five months after Ward and Stegman signed the lease. “We signed the lease in June and it was ready to roll in August,” Ward said, “but we just kind of let it sit here until [November], when we were ready to open it. We’ve opened it very slowly. We started out with coffee and baked goods, added breakfast later, and now we’re adding lunch into the mix.”

Having something of a head start from the success of his lunch-and-dinner spot Clarksville, Ward said that the Crowing Hen Coffee House relies on a strong relationship with locals.

“I’ve built up a lot of relationships with customers,” Ward said. “There’s people whose names I see on the phone and I know immediately what they’re ordering. And from there it’s old-school word-of-mouth. 

“Think about it,” he went on. “You don’t take ads out in newspapers anymore, you don’t have ads on the radio ... It’s almost like going back [in time]. The technology moved forward and we moved back to word-of-mouth, which is what social media is.” 

Having established a brand on grassroots authenticity and high-quality preparation, Ward encouraged locals to seek out smaller, more meaningful restaurants, rather than defaulting to big chains.

“Buck that trend and eat in smaller places that serve that same food,” Ward said, “and you’re going to get a world of different flavors.” 

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