OPN’s 5th Element Coffee Bar Practices Sustainable Design

Madison’s newest coffee shop, 5th Element Coffee Bar, 2510 University Ave., is bringing the farm-to-table concept to your coffee cup.

“Higher-end restaurants are doing so much on traceability, so you come in and you have your beef from Jane and John Smith on their farm, and the cheese comes from Carr Valley cheese, and no one is really doing that, at least around here, with coffee,” said Todd Allbaugh, one of four partners in 5th Element. Now, though, Madison’s coffee culture will remind latte lovers about the roasters and coffee farm owners and workers who may be thousands of miles away but play a role in each cup of coffee, Allbaugh said. “We’re working directly with the farmer, visiting the farm several times a year and having a direct relationship with them,” said the Madison resident and former chief of staff for Wisconsin state senator Dale Schultz.

In part, that relationship is a result of one of the co-owners, Alejandro Mendez, a 2011 World Barista Championship winner and also a co-owner of Four Monkeys Coffee, a rotisserie in El Salvador. He will split his time between Madison and El Salvador, returning to the Midwest frequently to train baristas. The other owners are longtime friends of Allbaugh, brothers Silas and Nelson Valle. In addition to Mendez’s experience both as a barista and now a roaster, he brings a relationship with the coffee farmers in El Salvador to the table, or in this case, coffee bar. That relationship inspired the owners to contribute a portion of the proceeds from every cup of coffee sold at 5th Element toward the installment of a fresh water well in one of the farming communities they buy from. “You have these small villages where sometimes people have to walk a kilometer or more to get fresh water and then bring it back to their houses. We want to have a direct connection to use coffee as kind of a vehicle to do our share of good in the world,” Allbaugh said.

The design of the space, too, will remind patrons of the connection between our consumption of resources and its impact on the earth. In addition to images of the farmers hung around the coffee shop, other elements reflect the company’s mission to keep things real and honest, Allbaugh said. Designed by OPN Architects in Madison, the coffee shop incorporates many repurposed and raw materials. OPN has been spectacular, I just can’t say enough,” Allbaugh said. “They truly believed in us and that’s something I will never forget and I owe them a great debt of gratitude.” The team at OPN incorporated old bowling alley lanes Allbaugh bought from an alley that was going out of business into the design. They turned some into the coffee bar; others are used as panels on some of the walls. The remaining walls are exposed concrete and steel paneling. Stadium seating faces the coffee bar, which invites conversation while patrons wait for their coffee or serves as a space for demonstrations.

Conversation is an important part of the coffee shop’s concept, Allbaugh said. He doesn’t want to just make someone a cup of coffee, he wants to teach them about coffee and where it came from. “We don’t want it to just be people in a line saying here’s your coffee and people just slurping it down like it’s an industrial commodity. We want to bring this human element, and that’s where the name comes from,” Allbaugh said. “You know, it takes fire, water, air, and land to process coffee, but it takes the fifth element, the human element, to bring it to your cup. Whether that means the people who pick it, whether it’s the people who roast it, whether it’s the people who serve it to you.” They also want to get to know the people they are serving. Because of the coffee shop’s vicinity to the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics and the entire UW Madison campus, he has plans to offer free coffee during short, information presentations by university physicians, professors and students.

“We want to provide a focal point for people to get to know each other and to share with each other because sometimes you know, there might be a person that makes great art work two blocks from here, but nobody knows that,” Allbaugh said. “Coffee is a great catalyst for conversation. It’s just a great way to get to know the people around you.”