LV Recommends: Encounter Café, an Iowa City living room serving well-crafted classics

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the Encounter Café was the feeling of calm. Coffee shops are typically bustling, noisy places where orders are being called out and people are squeezing past each other to get to tables, the counter, the bathroom. The Encounter is as lively and full of customers as any cafe, and you’ll hear familiar sounds: the grill and steam wands hissing or a coffee grinder roaring to life. But it’s as if all that were being muffled by a blanket — a hum instead of a roar.

It could be the nature of the physical space itself: the building occupies half a block and is spacious and high ceilinged, perhaps allowing the sounds of daily business to trail off instead of bouncing off the walls. But I tend to think it’s a perception created by the employees themselves. The Encounter has a large staff and their fluid efficiency and quiet friendliness creates seamless service. You don’t really see the sausage being made, all you know is that it arrived quietly at your table while you were gazing out the window.

The Encounter Café opened at 376 S Clinton St in 2017 with simple goals: to build genuine relationships with their customers and to give back to their community. The business is owned and staffed by a Mennonite congregation and manager Ray Yutzy says that the principles of love, kindness and service that are central to their faith also inform the way they run their business. He particularly noted that they wanted the Encounter to be a place where students would feel welcome to linger for as long as they wanted.

The gleaming building has a wall of windows looking out onto Clinton Street, and is full of brick and wood surfaces. The space is huge but is carved into a number of inviting spaces to suit any and everyone: Seating includes a mix of booths, high and low tables and even a living room-like seating area with a sofa and a fireplace. In one sunny window, there’s a cluster of plants and a fountain.

While coffee shop customers can often skew young, especially in a college town, you’ll find families with children, older couples and, yes, plenty of students all making themselves at home on a typical day at the Encounter Café. The business’s popularity allowed it to expand in May of this year, adding a bakery counter and doubling its footprint. The success also allows the Encounter to further its mission of giving back. Since they opened their doors in 2017, they have donated all of their net profits to local charities and community organizations. These run the gamut from children’s camps to supporting University of Iowa fundraisers.

“Even though we’re a church-run business, none of the profits go into our church or its programming, it all goes out into the community,” Yutzy said. A bulletin board of cards and notes in the entrance testifies to the impact this philanthropy has had.

All of this is possible because the food at the Encounter Café is as well crafted as its environment. The menu is extensive, offering breakfast, lunch, pastries and smoothies as well as tea and coffee. All the baking is done in house and they utilize a number of local ingredients, including Farmer’s Hen House eggs, dairy from Kalona Organics and Capanna coffee beans.

On a recent visit, I ordered an oat milk chai and a soft pretzel. I always believe that simple things that can be found anywhere are often the best indicators of a café’s quality and skill. Chai and pretzels can be done really wrong, really well or any number of degrees of mediocrity between. Encounter does them really well. The chai was perfectly sweet without drowning out the flavors of the spices and the oat milk was so creamy and perfectly steamed that the foam heart on top stood up to three sips.

The pretzel was equally well made. It was large and I’m a slow eater, so I took it home and ate it over the course of an hour and a half at my desk. Pretzels can get tough and chewy as they cool and the cheese sauce that often accompanies them can get plasticky. But the flavor and texture of the pretzel and cheese were just as good after they cooled as they were right after I received them.

It’s difficult for a business to be broadly appealing without also being boring, but the Encounter Café has pulled it off by focusing on well-executed classics made with quality ingredients, and by creating an environment where everyone feels at home.

Open Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. See the menu here.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 312. 

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