May 17, 2017 10:56 AM

Thomas Peters and Nathanael Johnson
Photo by Robin May

A few weeks back, Thomas Peters stood in line at Rêve Coffee Roasters in Downtown, and ordered a cup of coffee to go. Rêve regulars looked askance at Peters. Jaws dropped. Brows furrowed.

As owner of The Lab, his mere presence in a café owned by “rival” Nathanael Johnson was taboo. He was a stranger in a strange land as they saw it, an interloper, a man behind enemy lines in a cold-brewed war that, as it turns out, existed only in a collective imagination.

“There’s this thought that Nate and I have always had this competition and this fight; that it’s Rêve versus The Lab because we’re the two specialty coffee houses in town,” he says, “that it’s the two of us against each other, and it never really was.”

Thomas Peters
Photo by Robin May

Now Peters is selling his beloved cafe to Johnson, a move sure to boggle the mind of any who subscribed to the notion of an ongoing feud between the two and their cafés. Consider that hatchet, fictitious though it was, buried in the way that all great wars are settled: by transaction.

Starting June 1, virtually nothing will change at The Lab. Johnson says that, aside from changes to the branding and the installation of Rêve's line of coffees and products, most everything Lab regulars know will remain in place: the pastries, the sweet creams, the rotating menu of exotic pour-overs, the croissants, my God, the croissants. Lab baristas have the option to stay on staff. For now, the only real change will be the logo that hangs on the door, and even that pays homage to The Lab’s legacy. Johnson intends to call it Rêve: The Lab Experience.

It makes sense of course. The two, despite the Lafayette social scene’s best stab at pitting them against each other, have long held a mutual respect. Their products are different and approaches complementary. The Lab’s environment is quaint and genteel, catering to the long-sippers and dreamers with individualized artisanship and worldly bean connaissance. Rêve shares The Lab’s commitment to roast quality and quality sourcing, but provides a more urban experience: a shop patronized by busybodies, bandying about Downtown in business attire of all shades and shapes, buzzing on kombucha and social energy. Putting them together unites two flagship and pioneering local businesses, and keeps a great Lafayette brand in local hands.

“I love community building. This is about that. I want to make sure that anything I have a part in stays in the community. I’m not a big Chili’s guy,” says Peters.

By measure of business acumen, Peters appears to be leaving The Lab in more than capable hands. Johnson has taken what he calls the Bruce Lee approach to business growth, riding the ebbs and flows of opportunity from his first café, Café Mosaic in Eunice, to the Rêve mothership on the north end of Jefferson Street.

Nathanael Johnson
Photo by Robin May

“Be like water, business is like that too. You gotta shape and mold your way,” laughs Johnson.

Rêve’s success is a testament to Johnson’s knack for calculated risks. Since opening Cafe Mosaic more than decade ago, Johnson, 31, has consistently proven skeptics wrong with his choices. Why build a coffee shop in Eunice? Because there’s a college there. Why open a shop in Downtown? Because Rêve needs more space to roast, and the district can take all the coffee it can get. Why buy The Lab? Because it’s a good product that’s already succeeding.

A roaster at heart, Rêve beans are sold independently through 20 wholesale accounts; it’s a brand that’s well respected in the state coffee scene, and its influence is only growing. Rêve will open two cafés in Baton Rouge in the next year, all on top of the runaway success of his flagship shop in Downtown.

Since last year, Johnson estimates that his company’s gross Rêve-nue — shoot me — has grown 35 percent, a healthy clip that’s made the opportunity to purchase The Lab easy for the young brand to absorb.

Peters is relieved that his shop is going to a good home. Last year, a larger coffee shop brand approached him with an acquisition offer that he declined. The offer wound the gears of Peters’ ambling brain and turned him toward what he perceived was an encroaching ceiling for his venture. The Lab has remained profitable and popular in its River Ranch location, but Peters was drained by years at the wheel. It was time to move on, a move he makes without regret but not without emotion.

The Lab is his baby, he says, one that he wants in good hands if he’s to give up custody. He laughs fondly and pridefully at the thought of Johnson raising The Lab to adulthood, now in high school “drinking too much,” he chuckles. “He’s the perfect person to take this and bring it to college.”

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