From Wisconsin With Love

Ren Coffeehouse is a welcome addition to St. Philip’s Plaza


It was one of those pleasant farmer's market mornings. The summer was shifting into autumn, so the heat was giving way to cooler temps. It was a perfect day for a cup of warm coffee, so after traipsing through the vendors in St. Philip's Plaza, I decided to try out a fairly new cafe, Ren.

One of my weaknesses is a café mocha (no whipped cream, please), so I ordered one to go, seeing as I had things to do. When it arrived after a deep pull, I had to take a seat. The balance of espresso, rich chocolate and steamed milk was nothing short of a delight. I was feeling a bit peckish, so I ordered a Bagel Breakfast Sandwich ($7.25), featuring arugula, avocado, cream cheese and an egg. Just like the mocha, the sandwich was terrific.

My plan for a brief stay evaporated as the morning turned into afternoon and before I knew it, those errands I had on my agenda were forgotten. Ren is just that kind of place. As things were winding down, I got to meet the owner, Lisa Ocker, a transplant from central Wausau, Wisconsin, where she opened her first coffeehouse.

"Luckily my husband, who is an architect, got a job transfer so we wound up here in Tucson," she says. "I will totally take the desert summer heat over a Wisconsin winter any day."

Wausau is a smallish town, nestled miles between Green Bay, Madison, Minneapolis and Milwaukee. Lisa would often travel to the bigger cities to get an idea of how "real" coffeehouses operated, since she thought those in her township lacked consistency. When she and her husband moved to Tucson, Lisa found herself working at Maynards, but always kept an eye out for the right opportunity to open a place of her own.

"When we came for the farmer's market, this location, which used to be a bike shop, had a sign up saying 'Retail Space Available,'" Lisa says. "Turns out the plaza really wanted a business such as Ren, so they worked with us from the beginning, helping with the build-out and even installing plumbing. Of course, there was no kitchen, so all of the equipment was on us."

In April 2018, Ren Coffeehouse opened their doors to the delight of market patrons, nearby businesses, Loop cyclists and those just needing a solid cup of coffee while traveling near St. Philip's Plaza. The summer went over better than anticipated and has picked up during the fall season.

Like all good operations that thrive here in Tucson, Ren Coffeehouse utilizes as many local products as possible. This includes honey, on-tap kombucha provided by Project AZ Tea and lavender from Oracle's Oaks Lavender Farm (used for a lavender syrup). Their cold brew comes from Tucson's Yellow Brick Coffee. But their house blend, used in almost all of their specialty drinks, hails from Wisconsin.

"Colectivo Coffee is just a great fit for Tucson," Lisa says. "Not only is it a taste from home, but it's 100 percent fair trade and such a good product for what we do here. Not to mention, I like the sugar skulls on some of the bags."

There isn't one thing on the menu that didn't enrapture; salads, paninis and even the oft-trendy Avocado Toast ($5.75), atop Barrio Bread's Pain au Levain, were all fresh and refreshing. When I found out Ocker and her team bake their own pastries, it occurred to me Ren—named after the Chinese word for "humanity"—is an old-school throwback to the days of cafes where one can while away the hours, sipping and nibbling and forgetting all about all those responsibilities that await.

Then I found out that Lisa is working on a liquor license and planning to serve rotating tap handles, mimosas and house wine. Great, I thought: Now I'm never going to leave.

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