By Don Stacom
PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 12, 2020 | 11:52 AM
INI Sips co-owner Davila Ismail and Mayor Erin Stewart talk during the coffee shop's grand opening Tuesday morning in New Britain. (Don Stacom)
After years as a virtual coffee desert, downtown New Britain once again has a centerpiece coffeehouse.
Davina and Gulaid Ismail have opened INI Sips in a small storefront on Columbus Boulevard.
They spent the fall and early winter remodeling their DribbleBabies children’s clothing store into an eclectic shop that features soft jazz on the sound system, promotes local artwork and sells direct trade coffees and teas from around the globe.
INI Sips has two large tables for seating, a feature that Davina Ismail chose as a way to develop regular customers who will get to know each other.
“We did this so people could sit and get to know each other. It promotes conversation - you’re so close you almost have to talk with someone,” she said at the shop’s official opening this week.
INI Sips may eventually add a small menu of locally produced foods, but for now concentrates on brewing coffee — mostly organic — along with looseleaf teas for customers. Shelves along one side hold the retail inventory of 12-ounce bags of coffees, with most varieties marked “organic direct train handcrafted micro roast.”
Gerry Amodio, executive director of the Downtown District, and Mayor Erin Stewart both predicted good business for the shop because of its proximity to new apartment complexes as well as mass transit.
“You’re right near the CTfastrak station — people get off and they’re here,” Stewart told Davina Ismail.
Ismail and her husband hope to build a base of regulars and then expand their hours; for now, the shop is open just four days a week and only from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The popular Leaves & Pages shop on Main Street once served as downtown’s primary coffeehouse, bookstore and unofficial social club. But the owners closed it more than five years ago, and in 2018 the only downtown diner — Miss Washington’s — also shut down.
Since then, convenience stores have been the chief source of coffee downtown. The other option is the McDonald’s on the far end of New Britain Plaza.
“This is something that’s much needed in downtown right now — a place where people can come and feel at home,” Amodio said. “We really haven’t had a place where people can get out of the office and have a cup of joe.”
The Ismails decided to make DribbleBabies an online operation, and use the retail space for coffee sales instead. They first half of the shop’s name — INI — represents the first letters of their children’s names.
As city officials and downtown business leaders looked over the packaged coffees and looseleaf teas for sale, Davina Ismail said she and her husband want to keep a local focus. They’re selling honey from the Watertown-based Humble Bee company, and may branch into other foods if they can find the right local suppliers.
Prints by local artist Elizabeth McNally currently line the walls, and new art from other local painters, photographers and others will go up each month.
“New Britain has been good to us, so we want to showcase other local small businesses," Davina Ismail said.