The first time I spoke to Mark Thiede, the main proprietor and personality behind Two Wrasslin’ Cats in East Haddam, he noticed the name on my debit card and proceeded to play a song by 1970s singer-songwriter Michael Martin Murphey off his phone, which emanated out over the cafe’s speakers. Myself and several other people standing waiting for their coffees and sandwiches paused and listened. What could have been, and would be in most other coffee places, a harried interaction of commerce — give money, get back less money, take coffee, move on — was instead now a shared moment among people becoming something more than strangers.
When I call back weeks later, Thiede remembers me. “I enjoy those moments when you get somebody in and you can have some fun with them,” he says. It’s the feeling of community. And an interaction like that would only be the second- or third-most striking thing about the place.
You might first notice the brash blue paint job with almost neon green trim that illuminates the formerly residential building on even the cloudiest of days at the junction of routes 82 and 151, just a mile or so up the road from the Goodspeed Opera House. You might notice the two 6-feet-tall cats that stand guard above the front door like playful sphinxes. Maybe you notice the various signs with messages, including one promoting a weekly Saturday morning anti-war vigil from 10 to 11. Or you could notice the large sign, posted there after the November presidential election, with a paraphrase of New York Daily News columnist Shaun King: “Dear Muslims, immigrants, women, disabled, LGBTQ folks & all people of color, we love you — boldly & proudly. We will endure,” the sign reads.
Two Wrasslin’ Cats
374 Town St., East Haddam
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Let no one be confused about the values Two Wrasslin’ Cats operates under. Thiede, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and biochemistry, and is retired from a career at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, opened the cafe in May 2013 and has for four years been building that sense of community through breakfast, lunch, coffee, ice cream and conversation. “My main goal was to set up a place that would be open to the community to do their own things,” he says.
There is local art on the walls from the East Haddam Art League, the cafe sponsors a local baseball team, and Two Wrasslin’ Cats has recently begun hosting a Narcotics Anonymous meeting on Tuesday nights. “We’ve always been open to supporting the general idea of kindness,” says Thiede.
There are cat-themed decorations everywhere, though the allergic need not worry — there are no live cats. But the spirits of Larry and Bruno (Thiede’s two cats) live in the names of the various sandwiches ($4.75-$8.25) on the menu. The Catprese is a wonderful mozzarella, tomato and basil sandwich on ciabatta bread. Thiede says the Tom Cat turkey — with turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce — is one of his big sellers year round. The newest sandwich is the Et tu Bruno, a Caesar wrap. (Get it?)
In preparation for opening Two Wrasslin’ Cats after leaving Pfizer, Thiede traveled to Portland, Oregon, to attend what he calls “coffee school,” a five-day seminar hosted by a coffee-consulting firm offering aspiring coffee shop owners advice and education. Back in Connecticut, Thiede has been sourcing his coffee beans from Saccuzzo Coffee in Newington. The result is a java menu that, while fairly classic and traditional, is exactly what you want in a coffee shop. (Larry and Bruno are there on the coffee menu, too, as Thiede has the Catpuccino as his answer to the cappuccino.)
A selection of breakfast sandwiches ($3.76-$4.25) are served till 11 a.m. While also sticking to the classics — bacon, sausage, egg and cheese — meats are sourced from a variety of outfits in the Hartford area. Baked goods such as muffins and croissants, as well as a variety of bagels, are also offered.
Ice cream from Salem Valley Farms keeps the summer crowds coming in. The food is fresh and familiar, and the coffee is strong.