"We've been wanting to come in, and now we're here," explains one of the women. "What should we get?"
Behind Russell are square chalkboards listing half a dozen methods of coffee preparation. Within his reach are silver-topped jars of coffee beans and enough glassware to make a chemist jealous. He recommends either the shop's cold brew (made drip-style in a strong concentrate and served over ice) or the flash brew (essentially pour-over with the water-and-bean ratio adjusted to allow for ice).
"Lawrence has a lot of coffee shops, but not in this style," the woman says. "Lawrence needs this."
That's exactly what owner Ben Farmer, 26, thought when he opened his brew lab, at a busy intersection behind the Iwig Dairy Store, in late March. The former FedEx driver, tree trimmer, concrete finisher and diesel mechanic had finally figured out the right use for his hands.
"It's the small-town Kansas attitude of getting to know your neighbors and having a good time doing it," Farmer, who grew up in Spring Hill, Kansas, says. "The coffee and the people are the focus."
That goes for Farmer's crew as well. Russell greets each of his customers with some variation of "You got anything going on today?" As he preps drinks - there are beans to measure, grind and trickle water over, about a four-minute process - he learns about a trip to see family, an out-of-town move, Lawrence's dating scene, a search for a new stove. In Farmer's paean to the latest coffee techniques, there is the quiet echo of a neighborhood diner, a place that runs on regulars.
But talk here always comes back to the coffee. The shop stocks four types of beans - three from the Broadway Roasting Co. and one from a guest roaster (right now, Benetti's in Raytown) - and it has started bottling what has become its signature product: that cold brew. A pair of coffee towers sits inside a wall-mounted trophy case next to the front door; the towers take about 11 hours to produce a batch of cold brew. Farmer first tasted the tower method at Denver's Happy Coffee. It was the best he'd ever had.
"It kind of blindsided me - it's been a huge hit," Farmer says of his own cold brew. "It's become iconic of the shop. It was so big off the bat, I just had to figure out at a way to reach more people and the west Lawrence side."
So now there are bottles, including versions with chocolate milk and organic almond chocolate milk, for sale at the Merc. They taste like smooth, subtle mochas, though they pack a caffeine wallop: about four espresso shots' worth in each 10-ounce bottle.
If you can sit still after one or two of those, it's easy to pass an hour at one of the two tables in Farmer's cozy space, maybe order one of the toffee-pecan cookies the size of a bread plate. The whir of the grinder and the bang of the metal cylinder, as Russell settles more grounds, take on a certain lull after a while. Parking at Alchemy can be difficult, but serious coffee drinkers might find it even harder to leave.
I'm at Lawrence's newest breakfast joint, which opened in late July. The Roost has transformed a onetime morning institution here, Milton's, into a chic wood-and-white-walled space you might call farmhouse-clean. Manda Jolly, a former Milton's manager, owns and runs the Roost with her husband, Sean Jolly, and manager Ken Pingleton.
To keep my stripped-down bloody mary company, I add the Roost breakfast sammy to my order: two expertly cooked over-easy eggs inside toasty sourdough bread. I see plenty of Bennys - the restaurant's name for its eggs Benedict - and orders of biscuits and gravy heading through the kitchen door toward the full tables.
The bartenders on duty, Steve and Heather, are present without hovering as they debate their next addition to the cocktail menu. There's the Champagne Supernova, made with muddled mint, orange juice and sugar, and there's a drink called the Colombian, which features the house-cold pressed coffee along with chocolate, vanilla, tequila and Kahlua.
And as at any good breakfast place, there's a cup of bottomless coffee for $2. Yes, the Roost should settle in nicely on Mass.
Alchemy Coffee (1901 Massachusetts, Lawrence, 785-424-4546) is open 7 a.m. - 7 p.m. daily.
The Roost (920 Massachusetts, Lawrence, 785-843-1110) is open 7 a.m. - 4 p.m. daily.