The pandemic couldn’t close book on Novel Coffee + Teas
It’s not the typical narrative for small business owners.
When statewide shutdowns in the wake of Covid-19 closed the Richland Public Library’s doors, its café, Novel Coffee + Teas, shut down with it.
Though many businesses took advantage of the lull to re-imagine their brands, spaces and business models, few were faced with the unusual ultimatum of either closing permanently or launching a new location to stay afloat.
After being unable to operate for more than seven months, Oscar and Lonnie Suarez chose the latter option.
“We decided to go down swinging and take that risk,” Oscar said.
Now, having just celebrated Novel’s one-year anniversary at their new location at 710 George Washington Way, Suite B-B, Oscar said the coffee and tea shop wouldn’t be what it is now without the pandemic.
“The library was supposed to be our incubating phase, but we got pushed out of the nest and had to fly,” he said.
The couple took over the library’s 100-square-foot Bookmark Café from the previous operator in May 2019 and rebranded to Novel Coffee + Teas.
“The pandemic closed us right when we were starting to get really popular,” Oscar said.
Embracing novel theme
The pair floated the idea of acquiring a towable coffee trailer, but found the upfront cost prohibitive.
Previously, the Suarezes operated a photo booth pop-up business called Camerazzi inside Suite B-B at 710 George Washington Way, which is located across from The Parkway, near Howard Amon Park.
When Lonnie saw their old 500-square-foot suite had become available again, she told Oscar they should go for it.
On Oct. 31, 2020, they opened Novel’s new doors with a diverse and expanded drink lineup featuring customizable coffee, boba-infused milk and fruit teas, cocoa, Italian sodas and more, all with
writerly names such as Blank Page, Script Writer, Storyteller and Last Page.
Lonnie said Novel’s signature coffee drink is the Typewriter, featuring macadamia flavors with caramel drizzle. It’s their No. 1 seller.
Novel’s most popular boba drink is called The Reserve and features taro, vanilla and bubble tea.
Novel became popular at the library for its boba teas.
For those new to boba – also known as bubble tea, milk tea, pearl milk tea or tapioca tea – it is a Taiwanese milk-based tea to which tapioca pearls made from cassava root starch are added to thicken the drink and create a pleasant “squishy” texture, Oscar said.
Boba has been increasingly popping up on menus around the area lately; Oscar said it’s an industry in flux.
“It’s expected to grow from a $4 billion industry to $9 billion industry (worldwide) within the next five years,” he said.
Novel offers a novel twist on boba: a coffee and bubble tea blend.
“I’ve been all over the west coast and we’re the first ones to really sell iced coffee with boba,” Oscar said. He suggested those interested in trying the unique beverage should order an iced Typewriter and ask the barista to add tapioca pearls on the bottom.
The Suarezes also upped their coffee game when they opened the new location, switching to Seattle-based Café Umbria, a third-generation Italian roaster.
“We wanted something that would stand out and show that we’re coming out swinging,” Oscar said.
“We’re not a coffee snob place … but it’s all about timing,” he said, explaining that those gravitating to the Tri-Cities from more metropolitan areas are looking for the elevated experiences they left behind.
Channeling a homey vibe
With that in mind, Lonnie channeled a relaxed atmosphere for Novel’s café lounge, which they completed in May 2020 in the adjoining suite, formerly home to Tri-Cities Phone Repair.
The expansion brought their total square footage up to 1,100.
“I wanted it to be homey, but with a very downtown New York kind of feel,” Lonnie said.
“One of my dreams has been to own a coffee shop, to start something big … I love visiting coffee shops and used to take notes and draw out ideas,” she said.
Upcycled materials, period furnishings handpicked from local shops and a record player beckoning customers to bring their own vinyl aim to create a cozy drawing room feel.
“The architecture in there and how they decorated everything … it flows well and it’s a super comfortable vibe,” said Leticia Torres, a local real estate agent and frequent customer.
“You just want to lounge around and drink drinks and chat with your friends. I’ve had business meetings there, met friends there, I take my kids there; it’s so versatile, it’s so beautiful and unique,” she said, adding that the staff make an effort to remember customer names and favorite drinks.
Novel’s popular book wall, which features rows of open books with pages fanned out, encourages plenty of selfies.
“We have people come here just to take a photo in front of the books. Our goal is to make it a tourist must-stop,” Oscar said.
It takes a village
It took two months to complete the expansion.
“It was all sweat equity,” Oscar said. “Everything was self-funded, minus a small family loan. … Everything coming from the counter was invested in there.”
He emphasized though that “I didn’t do this on my own – community members helped me.”
Foodies owner Joanna Wilson donated the ice machine and a couple of coffee makers, and Kagen Cox of Kagen Coffee & Crepes donated a three-basin sink.
Travis Jordan of Rockabilly Roasting Co. helped with the espresso machine.
Electrical and plumbing services also were donated, along with Novel’s eight staff helping with the remodel, alongside the Suarez family.
“It’s being OK to ask for help. I’ve always been someone who has wanted to be self-reliant and do-it-yourself, but sometimes you can’t,” Oscar said.
He said Novel has barely scratched the surface of its potential.
In the coming months, he and Lonnie will launch a food menu, which will feature light fare, including housemade pastries, sandwiches and acai bowls.
Though the couple plan to reopen their Richland library location soon, they are planning their next location and waiting patiently for the right property to hit the market in Pasco, preferably one with a drive-thru.
In the meantime, the couple continues to develop their vision for Novel, noting they would eventually like to sell a curated selection of books in the lounge, perhaps including local and regional authors.
She and Oscar also want to use Novel as a tool for kids and young people to get into books, writing and journalism, not only creating an environment that celebrates those fields, but perhaps one day establishing a scholarship or grant.
It appears they are only limited by their imagination.
“I’ve always been a dreamer … to be able to provide my wife with something she dreamed of, that’s once in a lifetime,” Oscar said.
Lonnie said her dreams have come true: “My vision has come to life; it was like an answered prayer.”