Accustomed to the appallingly high expenses at modern coffee shops, I wondered what the prices would be as I walked into Upside Down – only to find that there were none.
The donation-based cafe – where customers dictate how much they want to pay for its products – initially seemed like every other trendy, millennial-infested coffee space from the outside. But its eccentric artwork and economic model set it apart from Westwood’s overcrowded coffee scene. Owned and operated by the nonprofit organization Jews for Jesus, Upside Down is currently in its early stages, having had its soft opening March 25. Before the space on Le Conte Avenue was converted into a cafe, it served as an office owned by the nonprofit, said Upside Down’s director Isaac Brickner, but the organization wanted to further engage with the community by making it a place open to all.
“We wanted to provide a space for students to just hang and connect,” Brickner said. “Our goal is not just centered around coffee and studying; it’s more about building a community.”
The cafe’s clean, open concept and rotating art exhibits make it a comfortable, leisurely place for students to spend time on those lucky days with few classes. The neon pink canvases leap from the blank wall, drawing the customers in. Almost all of the work is reminiscent of neoplasticism, with the geometric paintings complementing one another to produce a satisfying collection that facilitates an ideal study break. Meanwhile, the subtle stream of ambient James Bay-type indie music eases students into a productive, relaxed mindset. The simplicity of the space helps eliminate any distractions, but the art keeps things interesting.
The cafe also boasts clearly high standards for its coffee. Upside Down is influenced by Australian cafe culture, especially in the way Australians care for their coffee and perfect their products, straying from the more industrialized process used in the United States, Brickner said. Australian coffee shops prioritize details such as latte art, he said, which they believe affect both the presentation and taste of the drink.
Upside Down’s products reflect its mission, with the cold brew offering a bold yet smooth texture accompanied by chocolate undertones. First-year sociology and economics student Eliza Donaghy, who came to the coffee shop to get some homework done, said she enjoyed her hot mocha. It was the perfect blend of sweet and bitter, she said, served in a small, ceramic mug.
But despite being a relaxing student spot, the cafe is not the most convenient for students’ tightly packed schedules. Upside Down is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. only on weekdays, inevitably conflicting with class schedules. Brickner addressed this potential issue, noting the cafe opened just a month and a half ago.
“The cafe is still in its soft opening, so these hours are definitely not permanent,” Brickner said. “We didn’t want to overwork any of our employees at the beginning.”
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Upside Down also falls short in the variety of its beverages, at least compared to its local competitors. The cafe offers the basics – espresso, latte, pour-over and an assortment of teas – but currently nothing else, even though pastries and cookies would provide an appropriate complement. The addition of snacks might come after the grand opening, Brickner said, but it has never been the variety of products that draw customers to the cafe.
Upside Down’s business style and customer service distances it from its competitors, like Ministry of Coffee. When I walked into the space, I was greeted with abundant smiles from barista and hospitality coordinator Lucy Eshleman. She wore her light brown hair back in an effortless messy bun, complemented by a stylish, rustic outfit. The employees’ freedom from uniforms mirrored the relaxed vibe of the cafe.
“We have a donation-based business model because we wanted to make our products accessible and open to all,” Eshleman said. “We wanted to build a family, not just a coffee shop.”
The economic model of the cafe, combined with idiosyncratic art, make Upside Down a real treat. Although their hours and menu are limited, the clean, accepting vibe of the space and the customer service make Upside Down a front-runner in Westwood’s intimidating coffee shop market.
“There are plenty of coffee shops in Westwood. But there isn’t a place to just go and be,” Brickner said. “This is the ultimate goal of Upside Down.”