SPoT Coffee on Elmwood Avenue.

The laptop hobo’s guide to coffee shops in greater Buffalo

Three years ago I left my job at an advertising agency for a virtual consulting gig. That’s a fancy way of saying I don’t have an office. Well, I have an office at home. It’s pretty nice, actually. But I can’t stay there long or I start to feel like Andy Dufresne from Shawshank Redemption when he’s sentenced to a month in “the hole.” That’s what happens when you’re a hard-core extravert.

If you find yourself in a similar situation you may want to consider coffee shops. They usually have chairs and tables. And bathrooms. And wifi. You can meet people there or just hammer away on your laptop in solitute (like I’m doing right now). They also serve coffee and food.

People often say to me, “It must be so cool making your own schedule and working wherever you want.” And while that’s true, the lifestyle of a coffee shop nomad isn’t always so glamorous. We fight like gladiators for tables within a cord’s reach of a power outlet. We get interrupted by friends and acquaintences. We have to go to our cars to make important phone calls. We have to ask strangers to please watch our stuff when we have to get up and tinkle. The wifi isn’t always reliable. Our wardrobes reek of coffee. Even the Hollywood fairytale of the barista knowing your name and regular order is a little depressing on some levels.

But we’re not going anywhere. Onward we march through the good times and bad. This is our espresso-stained badge of honor. Low and behold, more and more people pledge allegiance to our little tribe every day.

I can’t claim to be an expert in much, but coffee shops in Western New York is most assuredly one of them. This is me. Boiled down to the essence. The steak without the A-1 sauce.

But these days are numbered. My company is aggressively searching for its first “real” office space. I realize this announcement comes as a surprise to many people and I apologize if it makes it harder to love me. Trust me, this isn’t easy. But the time has come to bestow the aromatic, porcelain throne of coffee shop kingdom to it’s next rightful heirs.

And that brings me to today.

If you know a coffee shop in the 716, I’ve probably been there. More than once. I’ve surveyed the terrain. I’ve observed the life forms. And now — like Meriwether Louis and William Clark — I offer my findings to assist you in your travels.

This is the laptop hobo’s guide to coffee shops in Western New York.

A coffee shop is typically chosen first for it’s location. You need to find a place close to home. You have 90 minutes to kill before your next meeting. You live in the northtowns and are trying to schedule a meeting with a fellow nomad coming from the southtowns — and since no reasonable northtowner would dare venture south of Walden Ave, you’re researching a good place to meet in the middle.

Once you’ve zeroed in on your location, there are several other factors to consider.

  • Am I meeting someone else?
  • Am I meeting a group of 4 people or more?
  • Will I need wifi?
  • Do I need it to be (relatively) quiet?
  • Are we meeting around breakfast or lunch? Might my counterpart want to eat something? Do I need to be sure the coffee shop serves food that’s not removed from plastic wrap and microwaved before it’s served?
  • How important is the taste of the coffee?

You get the idea.

Oh, one more thing. No Tim Horton’s. I apologize if you’re a fan but Timmy Ho’s just doesn’t get it done. The seats are cold, hard and uncomfortable. And there are too many beeping sounds coming from the kitchen. Stick to the drive-through.

Now, without further ado, the complete guide.

Disclaimer: CJ Maurer is not an employee or representative of any of these soon-to-be mentioned coffee shops. These opinions do not reflect his employer and are entirely his own.

Most Convenient Location

Starbucks on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga. This is easiest compromise for people in the northtowns and southtowns. Plus, it’s immediately off the thruway exit. So it’s a perfect place to stop and do some work when you’re traveling and have time to kill. And if it’s the end of the day, it doesn’t hurt that it’s about two minutes from the Galleria Mall. Unfortunately, some people just don’t to Starbucks so this won’t work for everybody. Also, it’s really small. They only have two “normal” tables. If you don’t snag one of those you’re going to end up sitting on a really high table or a booth where the table-to-seat-height ratios are off and you feel like an old guy riding a Harley when you’re trying to type.

SPoT Coffee on Main Street in Williamsville.

SPoT Coffee on Main Street in Williamsville. Arguably the most popular joint in the northtowns, you’d be hard pressed to find someone that’s not willing to meet you here. Even southtowners don’t have a problem making the short hike up the thruway do to it’s proximity to the first 290 exit. Inside is usually a mad house and you’re likely to bump into at least one other person you know before you leave. This is a positive for some and a downside for others. For a little while the baristas would hand you a piece of laminated paper with a famous person’s name on it when you placed an order and then they’d call that name out when it was ready. I wish they still did that. The coffee is good. All SPoT locations serve a regular house blend as well as a single origin from Peru or Ethiopia or something — and they’re usually awesome. The food is good, too. They serve all kinds of breakfast and lunch fare and it’s mostly healthy. It’s definitely pricey for these parts, though. Also, sometimes it’s hard to find a seat and lately the wifi connection has been hit-or-miss.

Best Coffee

Caffe Aroma on Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway. Spot and (more recently) Ashker’s get most of the attention when it comes to Elmwood Village haunts but Caffe Aroma is truly a gem. You’d be hard pressed (get it?) to find another place in Western New York that more closely resembles an authentic Italian cafe. I know this because I’ve been to Italy. Inside you’ll find the perfect mix of hipsters, yuppies, blue-collor folks and groups of jolly old men who sit around an open newspaper for hours on end. The food is pretty good. The wifi connection is always excellent. And you can even order beer or wine. In the summer they open the windows and you can sit on tables and bars facing Elmwood or Bidwell. During soccer matches people gather around the television set in the back corner and people often spill out into the sidewalk. And that’s the downside. It’s really small. And it often feels crammed. Don’t plan on parking here if you’re claustrophobic. But dude, the coffee…

Sweet_ness 7 on Grant Street in Buffalo’s West Side.

Sweet_ness 7 on Grant Street. The West Side is buzzing with new activity but “Sweetness” still holds court. They opened a second location on Parkside near the Buffalo Zoo but I prefer the original one. The outside dons a killer mural and the inside is warm and cozy. Often times the owner is back there taking your order which is cool because (1) you’re reminded that you’re supporting a local business and (2) you know she really cares. Again, the coffee is outstanding but you can order a lot more. Barack Obama is proudly displayed as a cardboard cutout or something so I wouldn’t bring any staunch Republicans there. Also, sometimes parking can be tricky and you can’t forget that some people are still a little wary about venturing anywhere west of Richmond Avenue.

Best Places for Meetings

Ashker’s Juice Bar in Elmwood Village.

Ashker’s on Elmwood Ave. Most people rightfully know Ashker’s for it’s amazing juice. They also leave musical instruments out for people to play but that usually happens at nights and on the weekends only. The food is fresh and delicious. Coffee is displayed in serve-your-own crafts. You get a variety of good options and free refills while you’re there, but sometimes they sit too long and become lukewarm. Like Caffe Aroma, you can pay to park on Elmwood but it’s also easy to snag a free spot on Bidwell or a side street like Potomac. Now, the juicers can get really noisy, but there’s a side room that has walls between it and the kitchen and main walk-in. And as long as you’re not there during the lunchtime rush the place is usually quiet during the week. What puts Ashker’s over the top is they have a private conference room. It’s encolsed by glass walls and even has a dry-erase board. And you can reserve your time for free. The wifi can be slow a times, though.

Panera Bread on Elmwood Ave. Last year Panera took over the old Blockbuster on Elmwood between Cleveland and Auburn — on the same block as Spot and across from Globe. As with any Panera, there are a ton of options for food and drink. But unlike any other Panera I’ve seen, this one has a large, reasonably-quiet back dining room and a private, glassed-in conference room that you can rent for free just like Ashker’s. The reason it doesn’t rank ahead of Ashker’s is because, well, it’s a Panera. But it’s definitely a more likeable Panera. There’s a small parking lot that’s condusive to urban development. And they open up the front windows in the summer so you can either sit outside our inside and still feel the breeze. But I’m still not over how Panera limits wifi connection to 30 minutes during lunchtime hours.

The Quietest

Dog Ear’s Bookstore on Abbott Road in South Buffalo.

Dog Ear’s Bookstore on Abbott Road in South Buffalo. Formerly Caz Coffee Cafe, technically this isn’t a coffee shop anymore. It’s a small, independent bookstore. But they still have a cafe that serves great food and coffee (made by McCullaugh on Swan Street downtown). But this is really the perfect setting for buckling down and getting some work done. Parking is free on Abbott Road and all the nearby side streets at all times. There are some chairs on the left as you walk in, but the best seats are in the back behind the counter. You might want to stop and browse the shelves first, though. The wifi is always on point but there are only 2 tables that seat a total of about 6 people. But most of the time you’re the only one there.

Goodrich Coffee and Tea on Main Street in Clarence. It’s a little out of the way for most people but worth the trip if you need to write or do something without distractions. Despite the fact it shares a parking lot with a dry cleaners finding a spot is never an issue. They have good coffee and food options — even a frozen yogurt station which is popular among the high school kids in the afternoons. And that’s the key. Work here before school gets out. You’ll find it much harder to focus around 3:00.

Coolest “Coffee Shop” Setting

Taste on Main Street in East Aurora.

Taste on Main Street in East Aurora. If you live in or around East Aurora this is a no brainer. If you don’t, it’s probably worth making the trip down the 400. You can park on Main Street pretty easily but if that’s not working there’s a parking lot behind the building that’s connected to a crappy little strip mall. It’s in a beautiful brick building within walking distance from all the other cool places in the village. Inside is beautiful and eclectic. The baristas are some of the friendliest I’ve encountered. There are plenty of wooden tables. Wifi is reliable. Food is good although I don’t think I’ve ever been there for lunch. This is what you might call the total package.

SPoT Coffee on Elmwood Ave. This one is too obvious. Part of me wants to throw out a place you probably haven’t been to so I can impress you but you can’t deny the heavyweights. This is the most popular SPoT (I’ve asked) and with good reason. It pierces the heart of Elmwood Village — arguably the most sought-after neighboorhood in Buffalo. It attracts residents, students and professionals alike. The decor is messy — in a good way. The tables and couches don’t match. Obviously the coffee and food is delicious. Some of the baristas are so gracious you wonder if you just found their lost puppy or something. There are fewer places I’d rather be on a winter evening. Unfortunately their wifi connection took a turn for the worse about two years ago and it’s prevented me from grabbing a coffee or lunch there at times. It doesn’t seem to deter the patrons though, as this remains probably the most vibrant coffee shop in our area code.

Other Superlatives

Best wifi

  • Caffe Aroma on Elmwood
  • Any Starbucks

Best coffee shop you haven’t been to

  • Perk’s Cafe & Market on Broadway (downtown)
  • Cream & Sugar on East Ave in Lockport

Best southtowns spots

  • Comfort Zone Cafe on Main Street in Hamburg
  • Great Harvest Bread Company on Buffalo Street in Hamburg
  • Panera Bread on North Buffalo Road in Orchard Park (menopause mall, anyone?)

Most overrated

  • Coffee Culture
  • Panera Bread — I know they made it into the guide but some people love Panera wayyyyy too much.

Areas most in need of good/better coffee shops

  • All the “east” towns (Cheektowaga, Depew, Lancaster) — C’mon folks. We can do better than Starbucks and Panera, right?
  • Kenmore — How can a tidy little village, basically a spillover from North Buffalo, be so deprived?
  • South Buffalo — Fine, we’ll compromise. You can still serve corned beef sandwiches and Guinness. But give us some coffee.
  • Amherst — If you take away Williamsville you’re pretty much only left with chains.
  • Tonawanda — On second thought, I don’t even know where you’d put one here.

The Power Rankings

Because in 2014, everything must be ranked. Ladies and gentleman, here are the best coffee shops in Western New York.

Caffe Aroma at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway.
  1. Caffe Aroma
  2. Taste
  3. Sweet_ness 7 on Grant Street
  4. SPoT Coffee on Elmwood Ave
  5. Ashker’s
  6. Starbucks on Main Street in Williamsville
  7. SPoT Coffee on Delaware and Chippewa
  8. Comfort Zone Cafe
  9. SPoT Coffee on Main Street in Williamsville
  10. Starbucks on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga
  11. Goodrich Coffee & Tea
  12. Dog Ear’s Bookstore
  13. DiCamillo’s Bakery
  14. Cream & Sugar
  15. Great Harvest Bread Company

While my days as a coffee shop hobo are numbered, the memories made and relationships forged will never be.

Best of luck to you on your travels.