There’s a place in Milford many have come to call their home away from home. Sparkomatic Café & Talkhouse opened its doors smack in the middle of the pandemic. It’s already famous for its coffee, and renown for its food is coming right behind.
“The Spark, as we like to call it, opened its doors on July 1, 2020, but did not receive its approval from the Milford Zoning Board to officially open until August 3,” said owner David Barol. “So, we had to fly under the radar for the first month awaiting the change in zoning from ‘retail store’ under which the previous business operated to ‘café/restaurant/coffee house.’”
Opening a business is hard enough these days, and Sparkomatic opened under some very difficult circumstances, given Covid.
“After March 2020, we saw businesses closing due to the pandemic, including the previous occupant of our space,” Barol said. “We had this nightmare vision of our town, Milford, Pennsylvania, with for-sale signs, shuttered windows, locked doors, and trash blowing in the street. We knew it would be difficult — and costly — to fight back, but we wanted to take a stand. We wanted to say ‘no’ to the pandemic. Not here in Milford. Not now. We did not want our town to fail.”
First, the pandemic
Federal and county governments provided money to keep existing businesses open— but not to those that opened during the pandemic.
“We had to bear the entire risk,” Barol said. “Covid exacerbated the strain on the supply chain, and someone gave us a one-star review on Yelp because we could not sell her a matcha latte, even though we had ordered more matcha powder weeks before. We often ran out of lids and various cup sizes despite placing orders weeks in advance.”
When the café first opened, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) rules forbade indoor dining. So, the business started with takeout only. Fortunately, Barol said, the Milford Borough Council temporarily relaxed the rule prohibiting outdoor dining in the borough.
Sparkomatic purchased its furnishings from the previous occupant, but these were indoor tables and chairs that warped and fell apart outside from the sun and rain. They had to replace them with outdoor furnishings.
“Also, the sun beats down on our side of the building, making sitting outside on the deck unbearable,” Barol said. “We addressed this challenge with the colorful sails, which provide shade and give us our identity. Because it took weeks before the Milford Architectural Review Board approved our signs, the sails were the only way we could tell people we were open.”
Cold weather presented another challenge. Because there were no outdoor heaters available in nearby stores, Sparkomatic ordered them online. The website turned out to be a scam that preyed on businesses struggling to stay open as winter closed in. Sadly, Sparkomatic was one of the victims.
Then, the politics
As if the pandemic wasn’t enough, the political divide that consumed Milford before the November election presented another hurdle.
“Although the conflict between individualism and community has existed since our nation’s founding, we heard people were boycotting us over our perceived political bias,” Barol said. “We purposely promote no political parties or candidates. We treat everyone fairly and equally. As we say, we don’t care whether you are red or blue, so long as your money is green.”
Because the café has such a small space, it cannot store meat. That, too, angered potential customers.
“Some people stormed out in rage rather than try our substantial and tasty sandwiches and wraps,” Barol said. “A rising tide lifts all boats. Fortunately, when we were desperate for solutions, nearby businesses offered help, such as Balch’s Seafood, Hotel Fauchère, the Village Diner, Brooklyn Boy Pork, Daily Grind, and John’s of Arthur Avenue. They realized we were all in this together. If people enjoy visiting and living in our region, all of us, in turn, will benefit.”
Art, talk, sip
The owners of the Sawkill Creek Outfitters up the road suggested they add the word “talkhouse” to the name.
“A talkhouse conveys the image of a place to drop by, hang out, listen to music, and hold a relaxed conversation with friends new and old,” Barol said. “Although the pandemic prevented us from scheduling indoor events until now, we welcomed musicians on our deck, and we co-sponsored a fantastic Reggae concert in September. Coming soon, we will hold a series of local Author readings, and we have at least one book club planning to hold a meeting at the café.”
Moving forward, Sparkomatic Café will provide space where local artists, writers and crafters can offer their wares for sale, whether books, candles, art, soap, or jewelry. The café offers free internet and configures its space to meet the needs of its guests.
’Come for the coffee’
“We have a saying, “Come for the coffee, stay for the food,’” said Barol. “We want to prepare the best-tasting coffee you’ve ever tried. We may never reach perfection because that is a journey, not a destination, but we won’t stop trying.”
He said the café uses a reverse osmosis system to purity the water, a state-of-the-art Mazza coffee bean grinder, and a La Marzocco, “the Tesla of espresso machines,” which he said “squeezes every drop of flavor from the beans with a dedicated steamer to whip up silky milk blends to make your favorite drinks.”
They use locally roasted beans from Boxwood Roasters, which specializes in finding small Arabica coffee farmers worldwide.
Every month, the café invents a new drink for customers to try, like its Autumn Latte or its Espressomatic, the cafe’s signature drink.
‘Stay for the food’
“We next wanted to bake something to eat with our coffee,” Barol said. “Although we bake different cookies, scones, muffins, biscotti, bars, brownies, they have one thing in common. We want you to say, ‘Oh Wow!’ when you eat them, or maybe ‘Oh My God!’ To get to that place, we constantly test new recipes and procedures so you can enjoy these goodies day in and day out.”
One very popular item is the Sparkomatic Carrot Cake Muffin, modeled after the carrot cake sold at the Commissary in Philadelphia.
“In its day, the Commissary sold 500 carrot cakes a day,” Barol said. “We took their recipe and shrunk it to a muffin. We macerate the raisins in an orange liqueur, we cut off the head of the muffin, then paste it back using a pecan or hazelnut cream. We top it off with cream cheese icing topped with toasted coconut.”
Next, the café went Mediterranean. Part of the menu was modeled after Michael Solomonov’s Zahav, Philadelphia’s award-winning Israeli restaurant. “Not only is the Mediterranean home to many of the world’s best tasting cuisines, but they are also known for promoting good health,” Barol said. “Try our hummus and felafel, then you decide.”
Sparkomatic also invented Hot Pressed Wraps (HPWs), consisting of a cup of cheese melted in a folded tortilla (comes vegan too). The Provencal contains a tapenade of artichokes and roasted peppers topped with truffle oil. The Sicilian has sautéed mushrooms, garlic, and onions, topped with pasta sauce and Parmesan cheese.
And then there’s Sparkomatic’s avocado toast. piled with an entire avocado. Variations like the Aegean are spread with sundried tomatoes, feta cheese, and oregano The Denissimo is drizzled with balsamic vinegar from Ghiggeri’s thick, flavorful collection. Check out the full menu at sparkomatic.cafe/menu.
“We want to earn your business every day,” Barol said. “If there is anything we can do to make your experience better, please let us know. You can reach us at email@example.com.”
Sparkomatic Café & Talkhouse is located at 611 Broad Street in Milford.
“We knew it would be difficult — and costly — to fight back, but we wanted to take a stand. We wanted to say ‘no’ to the pandemic. Not here in Milford. Not now. We did not want our town to fail.” David Barol