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Revamped ‘ESP’ on King Street Ditches Old Ownership and Controversies

Erik Muendel wants the new ESP Tea and Coffee to be what the old Killer E.S.P. should have been.

The coffee shop at 1012 King Street was a beloved, hip hangout spot in Old Town featuring sorbet, pie and espresso, that latter from which the bistro derived its name. Behind the scenes, however, its controversial owner Rob Shelton clashed with staff who alleged inappropriate behavior toward women and minors working at the shop. The conflict culminated with the entire staff quitting in early 2020 followed by the replacement staff quitting just months later.

Muendel, a local tech entrepreneur, was one of those customers who was a fan of the coffee shop but was disheartened by last year’s revelations. He’s taken over the space and the equipment and looks to reopen to the public on Monday, Feb. 1.

“There was a little fanbase, myself included, so that’s why I got involved,” Muendel said.

Landlord Ian McGrath confirmed that Shelton has left the business entirely, and said that the shop will maintain its boho vibe.

Now, Muendel said the challenge is to create the kind of coffee shop those who were regulars at the old place wanted it to be. It starts with a minor name change.

“I worked with the name to get something that was familiar but different,” Muendel said. “It was something I loved when I first started going there; I thought it was a cool name before I realized it stood for ‘espresso, sorbet, and pie.'”

The new name is ESP Tea and Coffee with a third-eye motif to represent paranormal “extrasensory perception.”

“I personally have a passion for tea,” said Muendel. “I loved the selection at Killer E.S.P. but I specialize in a special kind of tea from the Hunan Province of China called Pu-erh.”

Pu-erh, as Muendel explains it, is a type of fermented tea that comes in a cake form rather than loose leafs. ESP will be an exclusive provider of Pu-erh tea in the region, selling both the cakes and offering mini-cakes for single servings. Like wine, Muendel said Pu-erh is aged and fermented, with a bold taste and varying notes of flavor.

“It’s very high end, very exclusive, and there’s no shop in the Metro area that sells it,” Muendel said.

Almost nowhere: Blueduck Tavern in D.C. (1201 24th Street NW) also has pu-erh tea on the menu, as does Ching Ching Cha — as of 2018 at least..

The old Killer E.S.P. tea selection will be narrowed down to around 30 loose leaf teas and six Pu-erh options.

Along with the rebooted tea selection comes a return of some of the old staff.

“I was a long time customer and I got to know many of the managers and baristas over the years,” Muendel said. “[Contacting them] was one of the first things I wanted to do. I’ve run several small businesses in Old Town but I’ve never done restaurant/retail. It’s a new space for me, so it was important to get connected with past employees in the leadership position.”

Two former Killer E.S.P employees will work as the new general and assistant manager.

“I’ve put a lot of trust in them and am learning a lot from them,” Muendel said.

Muendel is planning to do a soft opening for the new cafe starting on Monday, Feb. 1.

“I’m excited to reconnect with the community,” Muendel said. “I’ve kept the core interior pretty similar, so it will be pretty familiar. It will almost feel like a parallel dimension, familiar but different and cool.”

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