So this is a bit of an early access review; Retrospect hasn’t officially opened yet. They’re in what we call a “soft opening” where they are training their staff and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. That being said, I’ve been extremely impressed so far.
(Disclaimer: I have a lot of connections one the staff side here. I’ve definitely received some favored treatment, but I’ve done my best to separate this from the normal customer experience.) –> (Since writing this, I’ve made a point to go when my friends haven’t been working. The staff section has since been updated.)
To give a little backstory, Retrospect has been in the works for 3+ years and I’ve been skeptical of the concept this entire time. The idea of doing an outdoor coffee shop in Houston threw up a bunch of red flags from me. Between the rain and the heat, I wasn’t sure how this place was going to work six months of the year. I’ve been proven wrong though. Retrospect is an awesomely unique space paired with very qualified staff and a emphasis on local sourcing. If I had to pick a coffee shop to represent the city of Houston, Retrospect would be in the running for that honor.
Retrospect is fun. It’s the kind of place I’d take my kids to if I ever have any. From the open enclosure with yard games and picnic tables to the trees with choirs of birds and fountains that provide a calming white noise, the nature of this space isolates it from the surrounding city; it almost feels more like a neighborhood park than a business. Retrospect is an oasis where nature blends into man made creating a feel refreshingly out of place in Houston.
Retrospect’s prime location is another reason for the high marks. Houston Community College, Axelrad Beer Garden, Under the Radar Brewery, The Station Museum, and Luigi’s Pizza are all within a sixty second walk in this upcoming block on Midtown’s south side. This area has quickly developed into a place where you can easily spend a lazy day with friends no matter what mood you are in. If you don’t want to venture too far, they have house made pastries and crepes on site.
As much as they have done to minimize the effects of the weather, it still plays a large part of the Retrospect experience for better and for worse. It’s beautiful to sit outside and watch the birds play in the fountain when it’s in the 80’s with a steady breeze; it’s also smothering when there air is stagnant at 100% humidity and 95+ degrees. There’s a significant bit of shade provide by some beautiful trees in the back which helps mitigate the heat. I think this place would really benefit from some outdoor fans and sun shades in the summer months; as it stands now, you’ll need to time your visit according to the elements which lowers the rating here a bit.
I believe there is an art to creating a coffee menu. There needs to be a variety of choices that distinguishes your shop from all the others but this can be taken this too far and burden the customer with choice overload. I could probably write another 1000 words on what I think a menu should be, but that would distract from this review. In short, Retrospect (whether accidentally or intentionally) has created my ideal menu for a shop. It simple and to the point while offering diversity and novelty. It allows for someone with no experience to order quickly and gives coffee nerds a depth to choose from.
As for the coffee itself, Retrospect sources from at least three different roasters at any given moment. As I mentioned with my review of G+B Coffee, this lets them pick from the best of what each roaster does well rather than being limited to just one good offering. Amaya and Boomtown provide most of the beans they use for espresso with bright fruity flavors, Katz supplies their unique Cafe de Olla for spiced and sweetened cold brew, and they bring in a variety of roasters for their batch coffee to keep things fresh. Small batch artisan milks are supplied Chaste Foods and include hemp milk, something I’ve never seen anywhere else. To my understanding, the house made flavors rotate based on whatever they feel like creating. There are no premade syrups from bottles, it’s all crafted in house which allows for creativity, innovation, and novelty (all of which score big with me).
If anywhere, this is where my bias will shine through. It’s tough to review people you know well in a public place, especially when they give you the red carpet tour. With an awareness to my skewed perspective, I’ll try to keep this as objective as possible.
(9/17 update) In my experience, there are two classes of barista at Retrospect. Class #1 are the people working here are genuinely excited about what they are doing; the ones who possess a passion for all things coffee and local. Class #2 are the people just trying to make a pay check; they lack any particular excitement and kinda bum you out a bit. For the baristas who are exited about what they are doing, this excitement transfers to an attention to detail. The space is well maintained and every drink is given personal attention. The baristas know the menu top to bottom and can answer any question about any of the offerings. From “What makes the Cafe de Olla special?” to “How does this batch of Amaya’s Hacienda Sonora compare to past years’?” I’ve received thorough, experienced based responses to all my questions. For the baristas who are just there because they have nothing better to do though, that negative energy does impact the experience.
That being said, this place is still young and I’m not sure if camaraderie has been built up among the staff yet. There comes a level of identity where staff cross the line from working in a business to being a part of it. My go to example is Star Lounge in Chicago where the flow to the place was just natural. The baristas bantered back and forth teasing each other about their weekends’ misadventures; they flowed seamlessly and gracefully through their work. Staff can be awesomely skilled and knowledgeable, but it takes a level of charisma and cohesion that Retrospect doesn’t have yet.
A nine out of ten is a hefty score; it’s among the highest I’ve given out and currently my top scorer for Houston (9/17 update) I’ve generally been pretty happy with this shop despite my initial wariness. Retrospect is a unique spot the does just about everything right. From the location to the customer experience to the local partnerships they’ve created, this shop adheres to the values I think the craft coffee industry should have. They used the five years it’s taken to get off the ground to plan every last detail and create an amazing space. Seeing as it’s still in it’s prototype phase, I’m really excited to see where the future takes this spot especially if they are able to create a team where everyone is excited about what they are doing.