“The nicest thing they did for me was give me a layoff slip,” says Louise “Lulu” deCarrone, the straight-shooting owner of Lulu’s Coffee in East Rock, where many customers call her “Lu.” She’s talking about a job she had at an attorneys’ office in the early 90s, when she was the single mom of a teenage daughter. She’d been treading water for a year in that very unnatural habitat, trying to figure out what she should do with her life.
The day deCarrone was let go, she wasn’t much closer to an answer—or so she thought. Deciding she couldn’t afford to do indulge her usual dine-out lunch habit, she made a grocery run to Orange Street Market (renamed P&M Orange Street Market in 2009), where she’d never been before, and where parking along Orange was scarce. So she turned onto Cottage Street and found a spot right in front of a tiny vacant storefront, address 49, with a “For Rent” sign in the window. Putting her hands up to the glass to see past the midday glare, she saw a “filthy” place in disarray, with machinery and debris scattered about its 250 square feet.
“But you could see, through all that, the wainscoted walls and the beautiful tin ceiling,” she says. “And I thought: ‘I can do this.’”
“This” turned out to be Lulu’s Coffee, and Lulu’s Coffee turned out to be deCarrone’s new mission in life. With virtually no startup capital, but with help from handy friends and family and a very reasonable landlord who gave her a month-to-month lease to start, she whipped up the kind of place you’d want whipping up your coffee. She didn’t have much in the way of consumer-facing service industry experience at the beginning, but she’d previously built and sold a baking/catering company called Sweets Unlimited in Branford, giving her an edge on the pastry side of things (muffins, croissants and scones, for starters).
Today, the food menu is breakfasty with notes of lunch—pastries, bagels, toast, oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, granola and sandwiches, with sensible mixes and matches between bases and toppings/fillings. With the coffee, she’s gained a lot of mileage out of using micro-roasted beans she calls “exquisite” and not coincidentally “pricey as hell,” though you wouldn’t know it from the prices she charges customers, which hover between $2 and $4. She also takes pride in serving what she calls a more “European” style of joe, in reasonable portion sizes closer to what you’d find in a caffetteria in Italy, with a very fine foam when applicable.
The anything-but-basic soy latte I ordered proved these points quite deliciously. The coffee’s flavor, hinting at chocolate, was present but not overpowering, with no trace of the tangy burnt note that seems to afflict so many javas. It arrived at a very well-balanced temperature, not scalding the tongue but still warming the chest, and, whereas a lot of other shop foams are rather dense—providing more nuisance than pleasure to certain palates—this latte’s foam, which deCarrone herself prepared, was light as air, enjoyable all on its own. Meanwhile, the caffeine level was just right: even my trigger-happy constitution gained energy but not the jitters.
Lulu’s isn’t just a place to get a great coffee; it’s also a place to stir the pot. “To me, coffee shops have always been about anarchy,” she says, and she preserves the shop’s lively, refreshingly discursive element with as iron a fist as an anarchy appreciator can manage. Laptops and iPads are banned (even outside on the patio, and even if, say, you’re writing an article for Daily Nutmeg, and you just want to take interview notes) because they encourage people to disconnect from the people sitting around them, causing the place to “lose what I value most: the commotion, and the conversation, and the laughter, and the heated discussions,” she says. “I would rather somebody come in here and argue politics than work on their laptop. Come in, have a good discussion. It doesn’t have to—”
DeCarrone interrupts her own point as a longtime, apparently bicoastal friend she hasn’t seen in a while walks in. “What are you doing here?” she mock-scolds. “California was too hot,” he replies, inspiring a good cackle. “Hi Joe. I always know it’s spring when you’re here,” she says with great affection.
After putting in his order with William—a happy, wide-eyed barista in training—Joe pulls up a chair to our conversation. Another stranger to me, a woman named Leigh Ann, had already joined us twenty minutes earlier.
At Lulu’s, you can just do that sort of thing.
49 Cottage St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 7am-5pm, Sat-Sun 8am-5pm
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.