I remember in 1996, when I first discovered the downtown Lincoln Mill Coffee shop, it felt like it belonged to me.
I drank countless cold granitas — a frozen coffee slushy, basically — on its Haymarket patio on warm spring days while studying journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Then, I was still a coffee novice, so my drink of choice during the winter months was a steaming hot, chocolatey mocha, which I read seated by the window, most likely reading a print copy of the Daily Nebraskan, the student newspaper where I worked.
When I graduated in 2001 I knew one of the things I was going to miss the most were the days spent lingering with a book or newspaper at the warm, cozy, welcoming Mill. I only had a desktop computer then — what a concept! — and smartphones didn’t exist. It was just me, my drink, my printed-on-paper reading material and some of the best people watching I’d ever encountered in my young life.
Now, with the opening of Omaha’s first Mill, tucked into an old art deco building on 31st and Leavenworth Streets, I’m rediscovering those moments more than 20 years later just minutes from my home, again.
It’s the best kind of deja vu.
Coffee culture in Omaha has grown a lot since the days of the 1990s coffee shop boom — this was when the show “Friends” was still new, my friends — and for me, The Mill fills a niche that’s a mix of nostalgia, comfort and, honestly, simple, good coffee.
The beans are not as complex as the ones you’ll find at Archetype. The drinks are not as finely crafted as the ones I’ve ordered at Rally, in north Downtown. There’s no extra creamy, vegan pistachio latte like the one we discovered at Amateur Coffee, on Cuming.
Though I love all those shops, I go to The Mill for specific, easy drinks, like a cup of their gently flavored hot hazelnut brew topped with steamed milk, or a cold brew mixed with house made cookie butter syrup that gives a hint of Biscoff mixed with Trader Joe’s speculoos. It’s divine.
The shop also has the locally owned chain’s first drive-thru, which I have taken advantage of more than is probably acceptable.
The Mill opened in Lincoln in the mid-1970s by the owners of a bicycle shop that wanted to upgrade its coffee, eventually opening the first Mill in a spot adjacent to the bike space. That original shop moved into its current space in Lincoln’s Haymarket district in 1988 and began to roast its own coffee beans, according to current owners Dan & Tamara Sloan and the story shared on the shop’s website.
In addition to that Haymarket location, the Mill has locations in Lincoln’s College View neighborhood, on the NU Innovation Campus and inside the Telegraph building.
I exchanged several emails with Tamara, but we were not able to schedule a phone call before my deadline.
Inside, the Mill Leavenworth has an updated version of that worn-in cozy vibe I so loved about the original Lincoln location. Chairs are comfortable and abundant. There’s a trendy but appealing library wall covered with a literal rainbow of books. Lighting is soft and warm. And, after 5, the bar seating area becomes an actual bar, with a menu of beer, wine and house-created cocktails, along with a limited menu of savory snacks.
I’ve spent several hours during the day and in the evening at the Omaha Mill, and I’m not the only one. Every time I visited, the place was packed. Of course, a few people still read newspapers, which I found deeply comforting. But most were like me: headphones on, laptops on, work hours being logged. To that end, I can hardly believe how many wall outlets the shop has, tucked behind curtains or underneath chairs. It’s impressive. Coffee culture has changed, and the Mill has, too.
I tried a handful of the baked goods on the menu, and my top pick is the impressively chunky hippie cookie. I don’t eat many cookies, but this one is worth the indulgence, packed with crunchy walnuts and pepitas and stuffed with milk chocolate chips throughout, it’s got a soft-crisp-crunchy thing going on that’s deeply appealing. It’s also not dry, and hits that sweet spot between under-baked and too brown. If you feel like a treat, consider this.
The banana bread is a classic, tender and moist, with nuts and a sweet, banana-forward finish. A cakey lemon poppyseed muffin is one I’d skip in the future; it was a little too sweet for me and I wished for a more lemon forward flavor and more poppyseeds.
Every Mill location has a large retail area in front, and this location does, too. There’s no shortage of tshirts, travel mugs, hoodies, coffee and tea brewing supplies and Mill-branded nickacks. (Yes, I want them all.)
There’s also a coffee and tea retail area, where customers can buy loose-leaf teas and whole coffee beans in a wide variety of flavors, single origin blends and custom Mill creations.
For several years, I’ve ordered bags of Mill coffee beans from Lincoln, and it’s what we brew at home on the regular. Some of my favorites are the Sulawesi, an Indonesian medium roast coffee with flavors of molasses; the Mill Blend, a lighter bodied coffee with fruity notes and an earthy finish that is one of the shop’s signature blends; and the aforementioned Hazelnut.
To purchase coffee or tea, select the oversized mason jar you want and take it up to the counter, where a member of the staff will weigh it, bag it and grind beans to your specifications, if you wish. You can also order coffee and retail goods online.
Staff is friendly, speaking of. In particular, the folks working the drive thru, which has become increasingly busy, are very nice, chatty and kind. I didn’t encounter any mistakes on any of my coffee runs.
One night after work, Matthew and I, as you should have already guessed, checked out their cocktail menu. There’s seven original drinks, of which we tried two, plus a list of around a dozen old-school and modern classics, like the Sazerac, the Old Fashioned and the Paper Plane.
I had to get the Mill’s version of an espresso martini. I’ve tried several around town, and it makes sense that a coffee shop would know how to make a good version, which this one is, with a hint of Irish Cream; a ristretto shot, which is a short shot of espresso that is made with the same amount of coffee but less water, resulting in a stronger and more concentrated flavor; and their house-made cold brew liquor. Despite the Irish Cream, it’s not too sweet, and has a balanced, creamy, caffeinated finish. Recommend.
Matthew tried the Telegraph District, a springy take on a gin and tonic made with hibiscus syrup, Violet colored Empress gin and elderflower tonic water. It had a refreshing, distinctly floral finish and an appealing bright magenta color.
The snacks at the bar include complimentary, well seasoned bowls of popcorn — one of my favorite things at any bar is popcorn, even though I know it’s there to make people thirsty for more drinks. It’s still a nice touch.
Pretzels with cheese dip and spinach artichoke dip with pita chips are available, too, for purchase. We tried the spinach artichoke dip, which was fine, though nothing remarkable, and our pita chips looked like they’d settled at the bottom of a bag, mostly broken with a lot of crumbs.
Here’s my one big complaint: The bar is super slow, and not staffed to where it should be. Our bartender warned us ahead of time that he was new, and the drinks were going to take time, and we weren’t in a rush. But it did take a while, and if someone stopped in for a drink before a show or a dinner reservation, that time commitment might be too long.
For now, I’d advise checking out the bar, but sticking to beer and wine while the team has time to catch up on its cocktail making skills.
The Mill Leavenworth hits all the sweet spots I was hoping it would. Many times, memories of a place can be overwhelming when a new version of it arrives. But there’s enough old charm, warmth, hospitality and yes, people watching, to make the Omaha Mill a favorite once again.
See you on the patio this summer, granita in hand.
The Mill on Leavenworth
3105 Leavenworth St.
Open daily, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.