What began with love of community and nearly ended with tragedy reopened Saturday with gratitude and hope for the future.
Milli Coffee Roasters, the downtown coffee shop opened by Nicholas Leichtentritt seven years ago that became a popular spot for morning coffee, afternoon lunches and late-night studying, opened its doors Saturday after being shuttered for nearly a month.
Its roasted-on-site coffee, gourmet waffles and 7 a.m. to midnight hours attracted a diverse customer base that became a close-knit community.
Leichtentritt died suddenly and unexpectedly in February, and his family announced they would close the shop May 13. That brought offers of help from many customers who wanted to keep it open, including one who agreed to buy it.
“Milli has been a part of my life through good times and bad times,” said John Borgquist, who recently purchased the store lock, stock and coffee roaster. “I’ve seen a lot of things happen here. I’ve seen people break up, I’ve seen them meet and even get married.”
A freelance writer and artist, Borgquist started frequenting the coffee shop a few weeks after it opened in 2012. He quickly became friends with Leichtentritt, his wife Nichole and his sister Sophia, all of whom were involved in the operation.
Borgquist said he wanted to help keep the store operating when he heard of its impending closure, but he hadn’t planned on a purchase.
“When I heard that it was going to close, my initial thought was not that I was going to buy it but that it just couldn’t close,” he said. “It was too important to too many people, and I needed to see what could be done about keeping it open.”
Although he’s never helmed a coffee shop, he decided to give it a go. He spent the last few weeks learning to roast coffee, make espresso, cook items on the menu and navigate the ins and outs of the coffee business.
“The fact is that Milli is already a successful business and it has a big community of support. I felt like I would be able to keep it going and keep the [soul] of Milli alive,” he said.
Borgquist said the coffee shop is different in that it draws in a wide variety of people because of its downtown location, its longer hours and its family atmosphere.
“What I find to be unique about Milli is how diverse it is in socioeconomic terms. There are people who survive on handouts coming in for coffee and there are multi-millionaires,” he said. “There are students, artists, executives and folks like Chris Long and Dave Matthews who come in.”
Borgquist, 37, has the support and gratitude of Leichtentritt’s family, who did not want to see Leichtentritt’s vision fade.
“It’s wonderful that John, who was close to Nick, was interested in moving forward with the vision,” said Sophia Leichtentritt, who has worked at the family effort since she was 12.
“This has been more than work for me. It’s been a defining part of my life and my growth. It’s the reason I’m off at [Christopher Newport University] studying business. Nick was more than my brother; he was my mentor,” she said.
Nick Leichtentritt opened shop with the idea of making handcrafted coffee, eschewing automated espresso machines in favor of hands-on baristas and pour-over cups of freshly ground beans roasted in the shop.
The menu slowly grew to include waffles made with Leichtentritt’s own recipe, perfected by trial and error. The same process led to the shop’s proprietary mocha mix. Along the way, he and his family also befriended many of the customers.
“Nick’s vision was to have people come into a place and sit down with strangers, have conversations and become one community, and it worked,” Sophia said. “This became my safe place. I loved coming in here anytime I could.”
Sophia said she better understood her brother’s vision when a derecho blew through town in 2012.
“We ended up closing because the power was out. We sat at the front door looking out into the street and watching the debris blow by and talking about where we wanted [Milli Coffee Roasters] to go,” she recalled. “It was the first time I saw the future of the store so clearly.”
Sophia and former manager Virginia Smith are working with Borgquist to keep Milli running smoothly, and several former employees are coming back to work.
“They have been a huge part of this transition,” Borgquist said. “They are helping with attention to detail and love of the craft of coffee.”
Borgquist said his plans include keeping Milli Coffee Roasters much the same with 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. hours while slowly expanding the menu.
“I’m excited about keeping Milli open, keeping the vision and moving forward,” he said.