Local Lookout: Coronation Café

Staff Writer Pho Vu ’23 interviews Joe Kurtz, owner of the local Coronation Cafe. Vu reflects on the café’s comfortable vibe, local eats, and connections to the Mennonite community.

Local Lookout: Coronation Café
Coronation Café is a new business in town offering fresh food, beverages, and a welcoming environment. Photo courtesy of Pho Vu ’23.

Last summer, the items stacked on my to-do list rose alongside the temperatures on the thermometer. Having an on-campus job? Check. Making a flower bouquet at Amherst’s own Book and Plow Farm? Check. Getting accepted for a remote internship? Check. But thinking long-term, I still needed an extra survival tactic to keep me afloat in the sizzling summer at Amherst. This led me to set a goal to hit up new eateries and cafes every week. With the bi-weekly paycheck from my office assistant job, I funded my culinary escapade through Amherst that summer.

Out of all the options in the local area, I was excited to check out a new coffee shop called Coronation Café, located at 103 North Pleasant Street. The new business  shares the block with the restaurants Panda East and Pita Pockets. The cafe’s location was once home to Bart’s Ice Cream, the town’s former landmark ice-cream spot.

Due to its early closing time at 3 p.m., I missed many chances before eventually making it on a scorching day in July. I opted for a slice of avocado toast and cafe mocha with a generous side of dark chocolate. It took one bite and one sip for me to realize I had made the right choice.

Sure, delicious food and drinks definitely make one want to come back. But what drew me most in was the warm and welcoming vibe that this place exuded. It had such a special charm that all summer long, I found myself returning again and again. Later, I had the pleasure of speaking with Bruce Graber, the cafe’s manager, to learn all about Coronation and its origins.

Vu’s order of avocado toast and an iced mocha proved to be a tasty choice. Photo courtesy of Pho Vu ’23.

Graber told me about the inspiration behind the cafe’s creation. Joe Kurtz, the cafe’s owner, had a friend that ran a cafe in State College, Pennsylvania, where Penn State is located. The two had been friends for years, and Kurtz had always nurtured a long-cherished dream of opening his own cafe in a college town. His vision was to create a cozy, clean, and comfortable space where college students, and all residents, are welcome to study and enjoy the food and the atmosphere.

Kurtz and his coworkers are Mennonites, and the Coronation Café website envisions the restaurant “contribut[ing] to a more flourishing humanity.” Kurtz’s dream came to fruition when he held a ribbon-cutting for the cafe in Amherst in June 2022.

Two months after Kurtz opened the cafe, he hired Graber as manager after the two connected on social media. Upon accepting the job offer, Kurtz and his small family of four moved from Wisconsin to Amherst in the middle of August 2022.

The cafe’s menu boasts an array of options, including sandwiches, omelets, and other breakfast staples. Local suppliers, greens, and freshness are what makes the food sing.

“We try to, as much as possible, use local ingredients,” Graber said. “For instance, our eggs are from a local supplier in Granby. We use Marty’s Local as a source to get some of our greens and things like that.”

As an insider, Graber spilled the beans about his personal go-to breakfast options, which include a classic egg sandwich with bacon for breakfast, and indeed, the signature chicken caesar panini. “Chipotle chicken bacon is a pretty meaty and always popular choice,” he said, adding that the chicken is always grilled-to-order.

Meanwhile, his 8-year-old and 11-year-old children held different opinions. Living by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and two bus stops away from the cafe, the Grabers often walked down to the place. Graber said that the kids always loved the smoothies and pretzels every time they visited.

Hot pretzels are among the café’s most popular offerings. Photo courtesy of Pho Vu ’23.

During our conversation, I asked about the backstory behind the name “Coronation.”

Graber told me that the cafe’s name, Coronation, held a religious significance. “We’re Bible-believing Christians,” he said. “We want to crown Jesus Christ as king. So it’s kind of got a religious background to it, and instead of crowning an earthly king, we are crowning Jesus as our king.”

Another thing I was curious about in the cafe is the outfits worn by the female staff, who sport elegant plain-colored dresses and long bonnets. Elaborating on the choice of clothing, Graber revealed that this was a reflection of their Mennonite heritage.

Graber mentioned that the more commonly-known Amish community share a similar belief system. “So they would all have the same background, but we are more modern,” he said. “We have electricity and we drive cars, use phones and things like that, where the Amish still ride horses and buggies.”

Graber said that although the cafe’s name is a reference to Christianity, the focus on simple living and modest lifestyle is not necessarily tied to any particular faith.

One of the ways Coronation connects with visitors is through its seasonal offerings. In the dog days of summer, customers can beat the heat with a piña colada smoothie. In the fall, the pumpkin spice latte regains the stage. And the cafe’s peppermint mocha becomes a winter favorite throughout the holiday season.

The cafe is closed on Sundays. This policy gives the employees space to attend church and spend quality time with their families. As Mennonites, they also gather outside of work as a church group at the Disciples Fellowship in South Hadley.

Since Graber joined as manager, the team at Coronation has grown to a tight-knit group of seven. All of them unite under one mission: to serve people with the highest quality possible.

“I think we are a good team, and we enjoy working together,” Graber said.

Interestingly enough, cafe management was not Graber’s original career, as he used to hold a corporate role in the lumber industry. But when he grew “tired” of this rat race, and looking for a new start, Graber decided to enter the restaurant business, something he had always been interested in.

“I love working with food. I enjoy making good food and serving people food. That’s probably one of the main things that would have drawn me to this job,” Graber shared. Although running a cafe was a new venture for Graber, he quickly adapted by applying what he learned from his old job as a supervisor.

“We strive to be friendly,” said Graber. “From trying to remember the regulars’ names for the next time so we can call them out when their orders are ready to having a smile on our faces, we want it to be relaxing and inviting.”

At the moment, Graber and his team are considering opening and closing at later hours to accommodate the influx of UMass Amherst students coming into town. Instead of shutting their doors at 3 p.m., they decided to stay open until 5 p.m., and they are putting their theory to the test on Thursdays.

The cafe’s marketing strategy cannot get more straightforward: word of mouth. They use Facebook and Instagram to promote their specials, but most of the business comes from people spreading words to their network. “You know people telling their friends, ‘Hey, you gotta try this place out!’ and the like,” Graber explained.

According to Graber, Kurtz also gave out a lot of their paper menus to different businesses around town, and even to some of the college students.

And the peaceful ambiance ensures that there is no deficit of satisfied customers, ready to share their positive experiences with others.

For instance, a piano sits in the cafe’s corner, attracting an array of musically-talented customers, and eager listeners. “We have different people that come in,” Graber said. “In fact, we have had someone that came in with their violin and played along with another person who was playing the piano.” The idea to have the piano was Kurtz’s, and Graber agreed.

A piano in the café's corner encourages visitors to play music in the space. Photo courtesy of Pho Vu ’23.

At Coronation Café, it is the small details like these that make it a must-stop eatery for anyone looking for tasty refreshments — and plenty of smiles — in downtown Amherst. This cafe is certainly a true gem of the town. Thanks to its existence, I was able to happily cross my goal of trying out new places off my list.