It will be five years in September since Sara Lewkowski and Aaron Ruiz opened their first business, Avenue Coffeehouse, at 911 Milwaukee Ave. in South Milwaukee. And, if all goes well, they just might be able to celebrate that anniversary with a second location.
That's because the two coffeehouse owners have signed on to be tenants at the forthcoming 3rd Street Market Hall, a food hall which will open its doors with a roster of tenants that includes anchor tenant Dairyland Old Fashioned Hamburgers & Frozen Custard, Mid-Way Bakery, at least two plant-based vendors, four hawker stall tenants and a few more vendors that will be announced very soon.
The new coffee shop, which will be called Supernova Coffee & Doughnuts, will occupy a prime location at the front of the food hall (and the only to include a walk-up window), offering up a menu of coffee, espresso drinks and… housemade doughnuts. In fact, Supernova will be doing its part to reintroduce the Milwaukee market to a unique style of doughnut that’s been all but lost to history.
The coffee shop dream
Lewkowski says she always loved coffee shops. In high school, one of her favorite pastimes was hanging out in local coffee houses with friends. And she says she often thought about how fun it would be to own a shop of her own.
“I didn’t really know if it would ever happen,” she says. But, thanks to a series of fortuitous events, her coffee house dreams did come true, albeit almost a decade later. And it started with a trip to the West Coast.
In 2014 Lewkowski and Ruiz moved to California, where they lived and worked for about a year.
While they were there, Lewkowski took a job as a barista and worked in operations for a small vegan raw snack food company. Ruiz worked a temp job and played music for tips on the Santa Monica Pier.
When they returned to Milwaukee, Lewkowski branched out, working for Classy Girl Cupcakes and East Side Ovens before taking a job at the South Milwaukee coffee shop MKE City Sippers. She also decided to enroll in the baking and pastry program at MATC where she first met chef and instructor Kurt Fogle.
When the owner of the coffee shop decided to sell the business in 2016, Lewkowski and Ruiz expressed interest. By September of 2016, they’d purchased the shop, renaming it the Avenue Coffeehouse.
“We changed the decor,” says Lewkowski, “Adding eclectic art that we’ve collected over the years. Over time we’ve replaced the furniture and updated the space. We also started to sell merchandise, local pottery and art prints.”
Lewkowski says they were lucky. The previous owner had established a solid customer base, so they had a head start on successfully growing the business, which serves up a full complement of coffee and espresso drinks using locally roasted Anodyne coffee, smoothies and bakery from Troubadour Bakery.
“We effectively outgrew the shop within the first two years,” she says, “But the idea of investing in a leased space wasn’t appealing. So, we started looking for ways to expand our business, including beginning the search for a larger location.”
Then the pandemic hit. Lewkowski says they adapted their operations model, removing seating inside the coffee shop and converting the business to take-out only. Yet, even with the change in operations, she says business continued to grow.
“We upgraded our website and added online ordering and curbside pick-up,” she says. “And business actually grew. I think a great deal of our business came from people who just wanted to support the little local businesses in the area. We were really fortunate. We had enough business that we were also able to keep both of our employees.”
Is that potato in my doughnut?
Fast forward to 2020 and Kurt Fogle mentioned that they were looking for vendors in the 3rd Street Market Hall.
“At first it didn’t click that it would be a good fit for us,” says Lewkowski. “But we took a tour of the space and kept having conversations about it. Ultimately, we saw it as a great opportunity for us to expand… but also to do something new.
“One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is to use the skills in pastry school, but we never had the capacity at the coffee shop for that. This gives us the chance to do things I’ve been dreaming about for years.”
From there, Supernova Coffee & Doughnuts was born.
The new business will occupy a 177 square foot space just inside the main doors of the forthcoming food hall and will feature both counter service inside the food hall as well as a convenient pick-up window where folks can grab Supernova offerings on the go.
On the menu, Lewkowski says they’ll feature a range of coffee and espresso drinks, along with a menu of old fashioned cake doughnuts, vegan doughnuts…. and a very special style of raised doughnuts which are made with a combination of flour and potatoes to create a tender, air-filled doughnut that’s less prone to soaking up the grease from the fryer.
The unique doughnuts are actually far from being a new invention. In fact, the potato doughnut made popular in the 1950s by two brothers in Salt Lake City who adapted a German recipe for the potato pastries and dubbed them “Spudnuts,” creating a potato doughnut empire that spread across 38 states and beyond. But the Spudnuts' popularity didn’t persist. According to a 2015 article in the Salt Lake City Tribune, the Spudnuts phenomenon was relatively short-lived, all but fading from existence by the late 1980s. Sadly, the name is still covered under federal copyright.
Nonetheless, Lewkowski says she’s excited to bring the concept to Milwaukee. In fact, she’s currently hard at work perfecting the recipe for her doughnuts with the help of Fogle and his wife Katie, who will be heading up the Mid-Way Bakery brand at the 3rd Street Market Hall.
“They’re so fluffy and tender,” says Lewkowski. “They just melt in your mouth.”
She says the shop will also make its own frostings and glazes in popular flavors including vanilla bean and chocolate. They’re also working on a flavor that incorporates coffee, she says.
“Overall, we’re trying to keep things simple,” she says. “Our goal is to create really high quality doughnuts that we can sell at an affordable price.”
What’s in a name?
Sure, Supernova has a great ring to it. But why the space-themed name?
Lewkowski says it was inspired by a bit of “accidental” branding for the Avenue Coffeehouse.
“When we opened, we met a local artist, Lauren Marvell, who started drawing designs for our business,” she says. “We gave her free rein, and the first design she came up with was an astronaut. We loved it, so we made it into sweatshirts. From there, she kept coming up with designs, most recently an alien… and people just love them.”
Somewhat inadvertently the space theme became part of the branding for the Coffeehouse.
“When we signed the contract for the food hall [which is located inside The Avenue], we decided we’d need to change the name of the coffee shop,” says Lewkowski, “So, we brainstormed all sorts of ideas that tied into the space theme, and the name Supernova was the winner.”
In the end Lewkowski says, she and Ruiz are grateful for the opportunity to not only run a business they love, but to have so much support as they move forward establishing a second location.
“I own a coffee shop and I’ve worked in bakeries.” says Lewkowski. “But doughnuts and this whole concept is new to us, so it’s both exciting and a little scary to think about all of it. Fortunately, we’re surrounded by great mentors and people who support us. So we’re really excited to show people what we’re capable of doing.”
One more thing
But that’s not all. The 3rd Street Market Hall location might not be the end of the big news for the South Milwaukee cafe. Lewkowski says they’ve continued to look for a larger location for their original location, and there could be news to share in the next few months. If they can move, she says, she plans to expand the cafe’s offerings to include a number of new things including vegan breakfast and brunch items.
The Avenue Coffeehouse is open seven days a week with hours Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.