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Grounds for a Good Time

Things are really perking up at the Clifton Coffee Mill.

The Clifton Coffee Mill's only been open since mid-March, but it's already building a loyal following of enthusiastic regulars.

"I'm a big supporter of small coffee shops," said Mark Knauff of Clifton. "Everything seems to be more homemade, rather than corporate-made, and it's more personal. Clifton's such a nice little town, it needed a place where people can congregate, seven days a week."

OWNED BY husband and wife, Gary and Tessa Anderson, who live just outside the town limits, the Clifton Coffee Mill is at 7144 Main Street, next to The Clifton Store. Hours are Monday-Friday, 6 a.m.-6 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Call 703-830-2205.

"We moved here, 3 1/2 years ago, from Fairfax," said Tessa. "We went to an event at Hemlock Overlook Park and discovered Clifton." Gary works full time at their shop, and she works there on her days off from being a kitchen designer in Springfield.

He was previously a software programmer. "I was thinking about doing something different, and this space opened up, last spring," he said. "So I thought about an idea that might work here and make a successful business. Coffee was at the intersection of both things."

"He always loved coffee," said Tessa. "And this seemed the most suitable business for the town and for us."

"We always heard that Clifton needed a coffee shop," said her husband. Still, he said, it was scary quitting his job. "And when you actually do it, you know there'll be long hours, and not lines out the door, the first day."

And that's what happened. "We opened March 17 and put the sign out, and no one came the first half hour," said Gary. "But then everybody came through," said Tessa. "The town has been really supportive. People wanted a place like this and, for months and months while we were waiting for permits, people would come by to encourage us."

"They'd say, 'We can't wait for you to open,'" said Gary. "And they've been coming in regularly." Business slowed down during spring break and some rainy days, but since then, he said, "It's been back up."

He said the store's focus is on espresso-based drinks, and cafe lattes are the most popular. They come in a variety of flavors, including hazelnut, caramel, vanilla, almond, raspberry, Irish cream and cherry.

"WE ALSO have excellent drip coffee, plus loose-leaf teas in paper, because tea bags are lower-grade teas and are stale," said Gary. "So we use higher-grade teas and scoop loose-leaf tea into one-use, T-Sacs for the freshest flavor." Added Tessa: "This way, people don't have to mess with loose leaves in their cup, so it's the best of both worlds."

Tea is served in a small, individual teapot for one person and a larger-sized teapot for two people, with cups and saucers. Or, said Tessa, "If two people each want different teas, they each get their own pot." Flavors include jasmine, black currant, green and cinnamon spice.

Still, coffee is the star of the show, and the Andersons get theirs from a Durham, N.C., roaster called Counter Culture Coffee. "They were recently named roaster of the year by Roast magazine," said Gary. And, he explained, that illustrates his store's emphasis on quality in all it does.

From the products to the preparation and presentation, he said, everything the Clifton Coffee Mill uses is top notch. "We use the best quality espresso machine you can get, train people how to use it and then serve it in the best-quality glassware and ceramic mugs — or paper cups to go."

Espresso, cappuccino and latte drinks even come in different-sized mugs so, said Gary, "We're trying to offer the traditional ways of doing things." Even the paper cups are neat, said Tessa: "They're insulated, so you don't need paper sleeves."

The Andersons use a Northern Italian style espresso, so it's a little lighter in flavor and color than the darker, Seattle-style roasts. "For the brewed coffee, we have a house blend available all the time," said Gary. "And occasionally, we have a coffee of the day, such as an El Salvador blueberry that's been very popular, and a Kenyon AA roast." The shop also sells these coffee beans.

Besides lattes, cappuccinos and espressos, customers may also indulge in macchiatos — espresso topped with a dollop of foam, or Americanos — a shot of espresso diluted with hot water. "We also do a great caramel latte with whipped cream," said Gary.

Cappuccino — 1/3 each espresso, steamed milk and foamed milk — normally comes in a 5-ounce cup, but can be ordered in a larger size. Another popular drink there is a chai latte — milk mixed with chai (organic black tea, honey and spices). Also offered are hot chocolate and Italian sodas (club soda plus flavoring).

"AND WITH the warmer weather, we're adding cold coffee drinks blended with ice," said Tessa. Soy milk is available, as are pastries such as cream cheese crumb cakes and cinnamon twists."

So far, the new coffee shop is getting rave reviews from customers. Artist Kristen Poleski — who painted a lovely scene of the Virginia countryside on one wall of the store — comes from two miles away to get coffee there.

"I'm very excited about the coffee store," she said. "When we had a coffee emergency, we used to have to go to Centreville or to Burke Centre, but now we can come here. And it's nice to see our neighbors and friends coming in. It's a neighborhood feeling. And it's a nice meeting place for the town because the atmosphere is inviting to sit and chat." On a recent Saturday, Poleski was enjoying a soy latte there and said it had "perfect foam and smooth flavor."

Clifton's Mark Knauff has gone to the Clifton Coffee Mill several times and, he said, "I produce Adirondack furniture at the Clifton Farmers Market so, from May through October, I can see my customers here, too. My favorite drink is a raspberry mocha, and they do it real, real well." He also recommends the shop to others because "it's a good business, good atmosphere, good coffee and it's convenient."

Laura Burk, who lives just outside Clifton, brought her husband Scott, father-in-law Ken and two friends with her to the store, one rainy Saturday, "to enjoy the coffee and the conversation." Burk said the coffee's great there, but she also enjoys the chai tea and cinnamon twists.

Ken Crowder, visiting the area from Colfax, Calif., was impressed that "they didn't try to get away with a cheap brand of coffee. I got a mocha, and I'd recommend this place to others because they made my drink the way I wanted it."

Not surprisingly, Gary Anderson said his philosophy of business is to "focus on product quality first and everything else will follow. I want to make sure that everybody walks out of here satisfied." He believes customers will return because of that quality, plus the friendly service they receive. And if anyone's unhappy with what they ordered, he'll make it over for them.

THE SHOP'S walls are painted red and yellow, and the custom-made cherry-wood counter has matching tables and chairs to make the Clifton Coffee Mill warm and inviting. And the light fixtures hanging above the counter are eye-catching, reddish-orange glass pendants. In addition, local artists' work adorns the walls and is rotated regularly.

The Andersons opened their shop in Clifton because they wanted the ambiance of a small town and a picturesque setting. "And Clifton has that," said Gary. "But it also has a steady stream of commuter traffic, and people are starting to notice we're here."