By Erica Nonni, Foodable Contributor
If ‘prize for best costume’ didn’t get you excited for the Halloween parties and your Turkey Day host won’t welcome store-bought dinner contributions, New York City’s fastest-growing coffee chain has a party trick that will score more smiles at holiday parties than a six-pack.
As a source of high quality coffee, bright contemporary design, and especially delicious chocolate, the FIKA chain has grown at record speed, outpacing all other New York City coffee shops in 2014 and springing up on every corner of Manhattan. FIKA hosts the usual morning commuter rush and freelancer coffee ‘shoffice’ in the afternoons. But it’s also for coolly casual business lunches, creative industry job interviews, and pre-dinner drinks. A gathering space that features coffee, chocolate truffles, and a bar with wine, beer, and cider has its finger on the pulse of how this city works and plays. To pull it off in less than 10 years as a chain coffee shop takes a special kind of savvy.
Chocolate Meets Sophistication
Enter Håkan Mårtensson, Master Chocolatier, who has one of the Big Apple’s most interesting food jobs. He spends long days — especially at this time of year — in his chocolate workshop at the FIKA’s Tribeca store, whipping up award-winning, eyebrow-raising truffles in flavors like goat cheese quinoa and yuzu licorice.
At least, those are the curiosities you first see when you approach the counter at any of FIKA’s 17 locations (two more will open by March 2016, including a World Trade Center location). Look around and you’ll spot an oddly macabre element of FIKA’s otherwise bright, contemporary, Swedish-inspired atmosphere: Skulls. Lots of skulls, all made of chocolate. Peer into the chocolate workshop itself and you might spot the skeleton of a glowering dinosaur, as near-perfect a replica of a real one in the Natural History Museum as one can achieve with chocolate. This workshop is a confluence of taste, tempering and temperature; culinary rigor and whimsy.
For the holidays, there are friendlier, cozier specialties in the works. First, we’ll see Swedish Lucia Buns, traditionally enjoyed around the Feast of St. Lucy in early December. For Christmas, you’ll see a wider selection of cookies than usual and perhaps a specialty truffle or two.
Håkan trained as a professional chef before he discovered that his passion was really for chocolate. In New York, he found a very receptive market for his creations and a fit with the ideals of the FIKA experience.
FIKA was started in 2006 with a single shop on Central Park South by founder and co-owner Lars Åkerlund who saw what he calls “an immediate love connection between Sweden and New York.” Håkan joined in 2009 to create a selection of hand-rolled chocolate truffles, drawing on his experience at Sweden’s top chocolate house.
Beside the centerpiece of its truffles, which catch your eye as soon as you walk in, FIKA has all the trappings of a contemporary coffee shop: different brews labeled with the origin and roasting pedigrees of its 100 percent Arabica beans, standard espresso drink preparations, a range of its own jams, and all-day selection of pastries. Those pastries just happen to be seasonally Swedish: cardamom buns this time of year, cream-filled semlor (Swedish cream puffs) in early spring, and dense chocolate balls all year round. Everything is made in-house and by hand, a feat for a food chain with so many outlets and such rapid growth. FIKA’s mission statement “commits to making [a visit] one of the best moments of your day.”
What of the name? The word fika [FEE-kah] means “taking a coffee break to indulge in the ritual of conversation, often accompanied by something sweet or savory. Having a daily FIKA is a way of life in Sweden and an important part of the culture. It offers a way of both relaxing and staying connected.”
The spirit of relaxation and connection may partially explain FIKA’s local success. In a city that runs on coffee and ambition, the reminder that our daily (hourly?) caffeine hit is actually about connecting off-screen resonates.
FIKA is a New York City coffee company building a national retail presence. Its jams are served at Omni Hotels & Resorts nationwide. Its chocolates can be found at select Whole Foods Markets in Manhattan and (under private label) at Dean & Deluca.
Back to that holiday party tip. Don’t spend the $12 on cliché cookies or cheap wine. Go with something sweet and Swedish.