New Bravo Espresso owners learn from the past, look to future
After retiring this summer, the longtime owner of Bravo Espresso, Jay Johnson, sold his popular downtown skyway-level shop to a trio of baristas who are very well-known to local coffee drinkers — Andrew Meissner, Derek Kostka and Mike Haydon.
ROCHESTER — After almost 31 years of serving up lattes and cappuccinos to Rochester, Jay Johnson is taking his final bows as he hands off Med City’s oldest independent coffee shop — Bravo Espresso — to the next generation of downtown baristas.
After retiring this summer, Johnson sold his popular downtown shop on the skyway level of the Galleria at University Square Mall to a trio who are very well-known to local coffee drinkers — Andrew Meissner , Derek Kostka and Mike Haydon.
It was a long-expected transition that had been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We always had a handshake agreement about this. We’re like family. Jay has always taken care of me. I was just a young punk at the start,” said the 43-year-old Meissner, who started making coffee with Johnson when he was 22. “Coming here, making coffee, listening to music and having a good time. … It seemed like a pretty good deal.”
Johnson is still helping with the business, though he is slowly adapting to retirement. Looking back over the years, he still breathes a sigh of relief about his choice of running a coffee shop versus working in an insurance office.
Brothers Rod, Dan and Wayne Woxland approached him about running a new type of coffee shop that they were opening in the Apache Mall in 1991, he quickly agreed and never looked back. The idea was that a specialty coffee trend had started in Seattle and the Woxlands thought it might catch on in Rochester.
That was years before chains like Starbucks and Caribou started hawking caffeine in Rochester. It was decades before Cafe Steam, Fiddlehead or Moka appeared in Med City.
While it might seem odd in today’s world of everyday orders of oat milk lattes with extra shots of espressos, most customers had no idea what to order beyond a basic 50 cent cup of coffee. A latte cost a dollar.
“It was slow for the first couple of years. We had to do a lot of education,” Johnson said. “But it was growing. We saw the potential.”
Rod Woxland described espresso as “ the new drink” in a 1992 Post Bulletin article .
“It's going to catch on," said Woxland after six months of selling fancy drinks in the mall. “It took quite a few years in Seattle to get to the point where it's at now — espresso had been there for a while — but it will."
It turned out his prediction was correct.
In 1996, Johnson and Haydon purchased the coffee business from the Woxlands. Johnson opened a coffee kiosk on the third floor of the Galleria in 2001. When the University of Minnesota Rochester took over the third and fourth floors of the mall and forced the closure of the popular food court, then-mall owner Gus Chafoulias found a new second floor home in 2007 for Bravo in the former Ritz Camera spot.
“We owe Gus a lot. He was always a presence here,” Johnson said of the late Rochester developer.
In the years since that move, many competitors for Rochester’s caffeinated crowd have opened and closed in the downtown area. Within a few blocks radius of Bravo, two Cafe Steam shops, Moka , Caribou Coffee, Fiddlehead, Dunkin’ and Mezza9 currently all sell coffee nearby.
“Every shop that has opened, we’ve seen a few percentage points go down. When they close, those percentage points go up again,” Johnson said.
Meissner said that Bravo’s reputation for friendly service, knowing its customers and reasonable prices has gone a long way to keep the small shop alive throughout the changes. The reduction of Mayo Clinic employees working downtown has cost Bravo many longtime regular customers.
“People are still finding us. Some of them are coming from farther than before, but they are still coming,” said Meissner, who is preparing for the coming decades with more of a social media presence, more merchandise and Bravo Espresso on the shelves of local Hy-Vee grocery stores.
Jeff Kiger tracks business action in Rochester and southeastern Minnesota every day in "Heard on the Street." Send tips to email@example.com or via Twitter to @whereskiger . You can call him at 507-285-7798.