Mainstays in the Queen City coffee scene, Chandler Wrenn and Tanner Morita have given their near decade-old coffee roastery, Hex Coffee, a permanent flagship home as Hex Coffee, Kitchen & Natural Wines (201 Camp Road, Charlotte) in Camp North End. This under-the-radar, semi-new space opened in May 2023, with a Japanese-Hawaiian food menu helmed by chef de cuisine Obadiah Rysztak, a sprawl of coffee, tea, and natural wines, and community-centric pop-up events.
The sleek, multi-identity Hex Coffee, Kitchen & Natural Wines evolved from Morita, Wrenn, and business partner John Michael Cord’s 2014 pop-up coffee shop, which gained a loyal line out the door for waffles and cold brew in the former Good Bottle Co. Southend spot.
Wrenn, working in city planning then, craved a more hands-on engagement with his community, witnessing Southend in its expanding infancy. Leveraging that growth, the Hex team, alongside starting their own roastery, took over the Good Bottle Co. space and founded still-standing Stablehand, adding natural wines inspired by Wrenn’s travels and a small food menu to Hex’s signature coffee, chipping away at elements the duo always hoped to incorporate.
A key component in the initial buzz surrounding the Hex pop-up and Stablehand was the loyal relationship with their customers, says Wrenn, despite the shifting shapes of Hex’s form. One such loyal customer was Obadiah Rysztak.
“The first time I ever met Tanner was the first time I had espresso,” says now-chef Rysztak, referring to his long tenure as a customer of Hex’s OG pop-ups. “Chandler bought my first espresso and Tanner made it.”
Wrenn, Morita, and Rysztak’s partnership, or friendship really, started in this storybook way and persisted even during Rysztak’s stint in South Africa, where alongside nonprofit work, he developed his craft of cooking, learning to make Durban curries from a local chef for swaths of volunteers.
So, when Wrenn and Morita got wind of the Camp North End space, they invited Rysztak, who also honed his skills on the line at Charlotte’s Vana, to take the lead on a menu anchored by Morita’s Japanese and Hawaiian childhood staples.
Hex’s daytime and evening food menus honor a blend of these two cuisines, highlight local produce, and ultimately give Hex an identity beyond coffee.
“Chandler and Tanner invested a lot into building the kitchen in a way that we are able to cook dishes that other shops can’t have — it grants us creative freedom” says Rysztak.
Avocado toast gets a makeover as an avocado tartine blanketed with tomato miso and furikake, balanced by bright lime. A breakfast bowl becomes a rice porridge — a melty pork belly, poached egg, and smoky charred cabbage atop velvety rice.
“We want this food to be a sincere representation of all of us,” says Rysztak, who doesn’t have Hawaiian or Japanese descent, but works collaboratively with Morita to pay homage to these cuisines.
Hex’s housemade shokupan, traditional Japanese milk bread, embodies the hybrid approach as the pillowy foundation for the panko-fried pork katsu sandwich and the peach and brie fruit tartine with crunches of pistachio. The Spam musubi is another mainstay menu item (and chef favorite) merging cultural identities and extracting all the salty umami with sizzled Spam, a hint of teriyaki sweetness, a rectangle of rice, and a wrap of nori.
The drink options —coffee, beer (try the Hex x Suffolk Punch Japanese rice lager), and natural wine — complement Hex’s dishes, which point to what Wrenn says is a guiding force in their work, terroir, the character of the environment and climate of where wine is produced.
However, these often cerebral, high-end terms and movements, like terroir, natural wine, and six-dollar craft coffee can sound pretentious and often inaccessible to the everyday coffee or wine sipper. Hex hopes to break down the barrier to access through good old-fashioned hospitality.
“We need to do a better job of welcoming people into the conversation,” says Wrenn.
“I try to look at hospitality like my dad does,” says Wrenn, who grew up going to his dad’s South Boulevard motorshop, watching a cup of Maxwell House coffee bring mechanics and customers together each morning. So, despite Hex’s clear emphasis on often gatekeep-y products, the approach is in the unpretentious character of Wrenn’s dad and his motorshop lobby.
A facet of this approach takes place once a month at Hex’s Tipsy Food Series where familiar, friendly foods, like smash burgers, Nashville hot chicken, and hot dogs, are paired with chilled wines. While the prices do match most other specialty cafe costs, Hex embraces an informal education route and an approachable backyard party with these ongoing pop-up events, led by Rysztak and soon-to-be guest chefs.
Amongst all of Hex’s identities, it is this creative commitment to community that makes Hex’s brand new weekend brunch menu, with karaage and waffles and taiyaki (fish-shaped pastry), and upcoming 2024 sister cafe Fly Kid Fly more enticing for Charlotteans stuck in the rhythm of brewery-rinse-repeat.
“Something I believe in Charlotte is that we have a world-class community. It can be daunting to come into a new city, but in Charlotte, if you meet one or two people, you all the sudden can meet a lot of people,” says Wrenn.
Wrenn, Morita, and Rysztak want Hex Coffee, Kitchen & Natural Wines to be at the center of that, as a third space, a pocket of Charlotte somewhere between home and work that introduces people to a new flavor palate, to generational Charlotte hospitality, and maybe, over a light boujelais and/or the sweet companion of a smash burger, to one another.