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This percolating day-night hotspot might not feel like it belongs in Topeka, owners say, but the uncompromising space is what the neighborhood deserves
TOPEKA — Capitol City natives David Vincent and Aaron Zentner are determined to show that it pays for the next generation of entrepreneurs to invest in their hometown, they shared.
Vincent co-owns Circle Coffee with his wife, Jackie, which just celebrated its first anniversary in their building near Washburn University, 1710 Southwest Medford. Soliloquy — a pop-up cocktail bar co-owned by Zentner, Blake Wulfkuhle and Daniel Breidenstein — takes over the Circle Coffee space on Friday and Saturday nights.
“We both had a similar vision for inspiring other younger people to start businesses like this,” Vincent said.
“Because, otherwise, they’d be like, ‘Oh, I don’t have the money and the funds or resources,’” Zentner added. “‘But because I see someone else doing something amazing, I feel like I could do it too.’”
When Vincent leased the former laundromat building in October 2021, he noted, he set out to create a space he felt was lacking in Topeka — a big space for people to gather with a lot of natural light and, of course, a place to connect over a good cup of coffee.
Over the past year, they said, they’ve both heard worrisome comments — directly and indirectly — that the shared space doesn’t look like it belongs in Topeka or that Topeka doesn’t deserve something like it. But these entrepreneurs are out to change that attitude.
Click here to learn more about Circle Coffee.
“Topeka deserves this,” Vincent continued. “It deserves Soliloquy. It deserves so much more. I just love that we can be a part of changing people’s ideas of what Topeka deserves. Because we have a lot of great people here. Kansas City and Lawrence don’t deserve more than we do. They’re just different places.”
Inspiring young people to start businesses in Topeka, Vincent explained, starts with convincing them to live in the state capitol rather than another community along I-70.
“That’s a problem, particularly being so close to Lawrence and Kansas City,” he said. “We struggle attracting and keeping the younger crowd for sure, but even more specifically, younger, more creative crowd that’s going to be looking to be an entrepreneur. A lot of those people are going to find more opportunities in Lawrence and Kansas City. That’s just the way that it is. So a lot of people have the attitude, ‘Well, I just can’t do anything here, so I’m gonna leave.’ And we want to change that.”
Vincent knows they aren’t the only business in Topeka working to shift attitudes, he shared, but their numbers will need to multiply over the next few years to accomplish their goal.
“The long game is we want people to feel like they can live here and have places to be and spend time in that are creatively inspiring to them,” he added.
Coffee and conversation
Before opening their Circle Coffee brick and mortar, Vincent and his wife operated a mobile coffee cart that they set up at events. In 2019, they bought the coffee cart from a friend who started it in 2018 but then moved to Texas, he noted. He had no prior coffee shop experience — his wife had a little — but it was mainly their love of coffee and the connection it creates that drew them to take on the business.
“It’s a really good conduit for conversation,” he added.
Once their favorite coffee shop closed during the pandemic, Vincent shared, he and his wife felt their neighborhood was lacking what they called their “third place.”
“It’s not your work; it’s not your home; it’s that third place that you hang out with your friends, basically,” he explained. “We felt — as everyone did over COVID — that gap of, ‘Where do we see the people that we know? Where do we run into — even accidentally — people that we want to hangout with?’ That was missing from this area.”
After walking by the vacant laundromat building many times and commenting on what a great coffee shop space it would be, they decided to take the leap in October 2021, Vincent recalled. It also helped that they had encouragement from many existing coffee cart customers who wanted them to make their business a more permanent space after doing pop ups during the pandemic.
Once they finished eight months of renovations, their brick and mortar opened in July 2022.
“Our goal is to bring excellence to our community through kindness and creativity,” he explained. “There are good coffee shops here in town. But we just didn’t see a lot of spaces that people wanted to just be in. And so when we decided we wanted an open space, we knew we were gonna put a lot of time into the design. A big reason why people want to stay here is because of the way that they feel when they’re here. And that gets down to the service, the products, and the environment.”
Circle Coffee — open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday — partners with multiple roasters, Vincent shared. Its anchor roaster — which supplies the blends the shop uses — is Cat and Cloud of Santa Cruz, California. Then for its single origin coffees, Circle Coffee rotates through guest roasters each quarter. Last round, it featured roasters from Ireland and South Korea.
“We do this because we want to just bring really fresh and new coffees to Topeka that people haven’t tried before,” he added.
The coffee shop also features house-made syrups — by Zentner — including their house syrup made of caramel, vanilla, and honey. They also have a seasonal drink menu, which now includes a watermelon matcha lemonade, and recently included Circle Coffee’s version of the Baja Blast with tropical oolong tea, pressed coconut water, pandan, and champagne acidity.
Vincent’s sister, Ruth, also makes the bakery items in-house daily.
Over the past year, Vincent said he has been especially thankful for the community embracing them and for his amazing team.
“It’s been really sweet to just see people use this space for what we intended it,” he added. “When we were working on the build out for about eight months, that was a very lonely process and a very trying process because you don’t get to see the fruit of what you’re working on. So getting to see that over the last year has definitely made everything worth it and then some.”
With a side of cocktails
Zentner met Vincent about two and half years ago and they quickly connected over their passion for graphic design and photography, Zentner shared.
Once Vincent took the leap to open Circle Coffee’s brick and mortar, he asked Zentner — who has bartending experience — to make the syrups and set up the draft programs for the lattes and iced drinks. With Zentner’s desire to start his own cocktail bar and Vincent’s hope to make the most of the cafe space, Soliloquy started popping up in the space in October 2022, just a few months after it opened.
“We had the idea and I think it was just perfect timing where it kind of presented itself,” Zentner explained.
“We just wanted to create this space for people to connect over coffee and we saw similar value in people connecting over cocktails,” Vincent added. “We wanted to make the most out of what we can offer the neighborhood.”
The pop up bar — open 6 p.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays — offers what Zentner calls full-fat cocktails.
Click here to make a reservation for Soliloquy.
“There’s a lot of flavor and we also don’t compromise on any ingredients,” he explained. “So we’re using some very interesting ingredients that you don’t often find in drinks.”
For example, Soliloquy has a margarita with a queso fresco foam and a bramble cocktail made with mulberries the staff has foraged themselves, Zentner shared. They offer a rotating, seasonal menu, although they always serve their espresso martini, naturally, in the shared coffee shop space.
“With cocktails, everybody can pretty much make a decent cocktail at home now,” he said. “So we want to take it a step further and push it to the point where I couldn’t even conceive of making this at home. That’s the value that we like to add to the experience.”
This series is possible thanks to Go Topeka.
Go Topeka seeks economic success for all companies and citizens across Shawnee County through implementation of an aggressive economic development strategy that capitalizes on the unique strengths of the community.