O n a recent Wednesday, a customer steps up to the counter at Koffee? on Audubon to place her order with a friendly “How ya doin’?” to the barista.
A smiling fluffy white sheep with cute black ears turns a few knobs and levers on the La Cimbali espresso and cappuccino machine, then answers, “Not too baaaaaaaad,” before delivering an iced cappuccino in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
The woman in sheep’s clothing is 28-year-old assistant manager (and peppy punsmith) Shaina Hotchkiss. Thanks to her, on any given Wednesday from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Koffee?, your latte might be served by a pirate, a dreidel, an ear of corn, a bunch of grapes, a snowflake, a zombie, a Who from Who-ville, Rosie the Riveter, or (appropriately) “Wednesday”—the daughter from The Addams Family.
The good-humored Hotchkiss (who’s really anything but sheepish) has been perking up the middle of the week for her caffeine-seeking customers for more than two years now, coming to work in costume on what’s known as “Wacky Wednesdays,” not once duplicating an outfit.
“I refuse to repeat,” she beams warmly. “I never really run out of ideas. I just might run out of materials.”
Hotchkiss also refuses to plan her weekly wardrobes too far in advance. “I literally leave it until Tuesday, after my shift,” she explains. Come 2:30 p.m., she walks home, only then beginning to brainstorm about the next day’s duds, looking around her apartment (where an extra bedroom with two closets are devoted exclusively to Wacky Wednesday materials) and asking herself, “What do I have? What can I be? What’s the time of year? What’s going on in the world? What’s going on around here?”
Armed with a hot glue gun, safety pins, fabric scraps, tissue paper, paper towel rolls
Koffee? on Audubon
104 Audubon St., New Haven (map)
Mon-Wed 7am-10pm, Thurs-Fri 7am-11pm
Sat 8am-11pm, Sun 9am-8pm
and a lot of glitter (“I love glitter!” she says)—yet no needle and thread (believe it or not, this gifted gal doesn’t know how to sew)—she starts constructing. On a typical Tuesday night, Hotchkiss is busy gluing and glittering until about 10:30 p.m. “I become a psycho person,” she laughs. There’s no time to return text messages from friends. “Even my parents know not to call me, because I’m crazy!”
Sometimes her costumes reflect the season or the holidays (like the time she cut out the bottom of a laundry basket to make room for legs, transforming herself into a giant, walking Easter basket, complete with fake grass and candy eggs). Sometimes they are inspired by current events. Even Hurricane Irene couldn’t hinder Hotchkiss—the power outage sparked her idea to dress as an electrical outlet, with teased-out hair, looking like she’d just been zapped.
Though Hotchkiss says she spends about $40 on average per costume, she prefers to recycle materials and tries not to buy anything. One man’s trash is this woman’s treasure: A $2 pair of waist-high wading boots from Goodwill were the perfect foundation for her fisherman, and a bunch of green bubble wrap inspired her stint as seaweed. Making her Tuesday night sessions even more challenging is the fact that she doesn’t own a car. So if she suddenly realizes, “I really need a cane or some other kind of prop to make this work,” she can’t easily run out to the store.
Hotchkiss is most proud of her Las Vegas showgirl (for which she broke her own rules and began crafting two weeks in advance) with its elaborate, detailed headpiece. It’s one of the very few completed costumes Hotchkiss decided to keep—most are taken
apart and recycled into new inventions (parts of her four-leafed clover became a mermaid months later). Among her most challenging combos were a bunch of bananas, with a hat that was “eight-and-a-half pounds on my head—I had neck strain for three weeks after!” and her mime, because (much to her surprise) instead of stating their orders as usual, customers starting miming back, “acting out what they wanted. That was outrageous. I never thought that would happen!”
What’s become a weekly tradition started as a one-off expression of holiday cheer: When Hotchkiss had to work on Christmas Eve, 2009, she decided to make it more fun by coming to Koffee? dressed as a gift. “People loved it!” she says. Their reactions encouraged her to dress up for the next couple of holidays, but what really made it stick were kids from nearby Neighborhood Music School’s Audubon Arts summer camp, who originated the idea of Wacky Wednesdays by dressing in mismatched socks, scarves on their heads, and backwards shirts years ago. As regular customers of Koffee? in July and August, Hotchkiss would see their Wacky Wednesday outfits, and decided, “I want to play, too!” she says. “Then the whole block got involved, and it was really cool.” Once camp ended, Hotchkiss couldn’t just stop cold turkey: Koffee? customers simply would not allow it. “People asked, ‘What are you going to be next week?’” she says, and it became “a rolling avalanche, in a good way. It’s like an addiction now. People come in on Wednesdays just to see me and what I’m wearing.”
On the morning of the sheep costume, one customer tells her, “You know you brighten everybody’s Wednesdays.”
Later that same morning, as the charming Hotchkiss hands a lemon-poppy micro muffin to a young customer, the girl gently reaches in to pet the sheep’s soft cotton fluff and smiles.
“If it makes people happy, that’s all I really care about,” says Hotchkiss. “You need that positive energy, you need that reason to smile, to come down the street and get out of your mundane office job and do something else.”
“Bye-bye!” says the young girl.
“Bye-baaaaaaah-ye!” waves the sheep.
Written and photographed by Kathleen Cei.