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March 1, 2014

The Boy Next Door

Joshua Miller is the creative mind behind FATVillage’s latest hotspot, Next Door at C&I Studios.

Like all good ideas created by young, fear-of-failure-adverse entrepreneurs who opt for fitted jeans over business trousers, it started with the phrase, “It would be cool if…” That’s exactly how the story of Next Door at C&I Studios began. Nearly a year ago, Joshua Miller and his team at C&I said, “It would be cool if we could create a place for people to hang out.”

It was that simple—build a hangout spot. Just what Miller, founder and creative savant of C&I Studios and its accompanying Next Door, wanted: to bring people together in a casual and hip environment conducive to good conversation and exchanges of ideas.

What was formerly a 2,650-square-foot printing company in the heart of FATVillage has morphed into an urban oasis just north of downtown Fort Lauderdale’s concrete jungle. During the day, Next Door is a relaxed coffeehouse manned by local favorite Brew Urban Cafe. And, on weekend nights, it becomes a laidback bar with specialty cocktails and a craft beer list curated by Riverside Market.

Next Door shares a wall with the 4,000-square-foot C&I Studios, where the 31-year-old Miller and his cool, progressive staff of media production professionals create buzzworthy video, graphic design and photo projects. He came to Fort Lauderdale in 2008 by way of Washington, D.C., with the desire to develop and incubate a creative community here. And with Miller leading by example, it’s safe to say that movement is happening right now.

Next Door is a new chapter to C&I Studios’ established community events, such as its popular Live at C&I series, where up-and-coming musical acts perform, and its movie nights, BBQ Friday get-togethers and Art Walk parties. But that wasn’t enough for Miller & Co. For them, it was more about bringing the community together in a lasting way.

“We’re trying to give the city something we’re proud of,” explains Miller, who also produced and penned an independent feature-length film in 2012 called “Me You & The Road.”

Ask him if he had an initial vision for Next Door, and Miller will tell you yes. That vision is on a single sheet of white paper folded up inside a black, threadbound notebook. Drawn sometime during the early summer days in 2013, the initial sketch describes Next Door to near perfection. Diagrammed is what we see today: a long walled walkway that leads patrons to the big reveal: a spacious gathering spot with exposed-beam ceilings, a vintage chandelier, banquet seating, a rustic wooden bar and more than 3,000 hardback books (sans dust jackets) standing at attention on a near-floor-to-ceiling, custom-built bookshelf. The washroom walls and ceiling are painted black and littered with clever sayings scribed in chalk. And what gathering spot would be complete without a vintage Airstream and photo studio?

Since opening on Nov. 8, Next Door has achieved another requisite on Miller’s list. “We wanted people to know people,” he says. At any given time, young, plaid-wearing hippies sit next to suit-wearing business executives at Next Door, and it all just fits.

Next Door brings together a triad of popular Fort Lauderdale businesses. Brew Urban Cafe has long been a beloved coffeehouse with origins in the Himmarshee district and later opening up a second store in Victoria Park. When it came time to renew the Himmarshee lease or move into Next Door at C&I Studios, owner Bob Denison realized what the best decision was.

“I just adored that little shop,” Denison, who is also a yacht broker, says of the Himmarshee location. “Leaving there was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But we really believe in what Josh is doing at FATVillage. We really want to be a small part of that story he’s trying to develop in that area.

And while Brew and its coffee reign during the day, it’s the cocktails and beers that take over Next Door on weekend nights. The seasonal beer list is hand selected by Julian and Lisa Siegel, owners of Riverside Market. A selection of nearly 50 micro/craft beers, many of which are from local brewers, rotate on the menu.

The Siegels, who already had a relationship with C&I Studios from the many times Riverside Market provided craft beers for C&I events, were thrilled when they were approached to curate the beer menu.

“You’re dealing with a great group of artists, musicians and people who care about the community,” Julian Siegel says of the clientele who frequent C&I Studios. “There’s nothing better than younger people caring about each other.”

The cocktail list reflects the eclectic, fun vibe that’s fundamental to Next Door. The menu is handwritten in a Moleskine-esque notebook and includes drinks called the Edgar Allan Poe, Harper Lee and Maya Angelou. Its “straight-edge” menu has non-alcoholic drinks with names like the Patrick Flynn, Aaron Sorkin and Ray Cappo.

Funny enough, Next Door almost didn’t come to fruition until a chance golf outing Miller had with his father, who gave the piece of encouragement Miller needed to open up shop.

“My dad said, ‘The dock is the safest place a boat can be, but that’s not where it’s meant to be; it’s meant to be out and on adventures,’” Miller recounts. And so Miller didn’t play it safe, and he’s out and on adventures.

“I had that feeling,” he says. “You know, when you think it’s going to work out. That ‘I-think-it’s-going-to-work’ feeling.”

Today, while sitting on a banquet-style bench at Next Door, Miller can’t get over his excitement with how the place turned out. He still smiles when he overhears guests tell their friends how cool Next Door is, or when a cyclist rides up to Next Door’s backside bay door to grab a cup of coffee.

As Bob Denison puts it, what’s happening at Next Door is more than just coffee and drinks. “We think it’s much bigger than that,” he says. “It’s what it does. It’s more than just the coffee-drinking. It’s about the people you share it with and the conversations you have over it.

“People didn’t have a house, and C&I just built you a house for ideas,” adds Miller, who looks to add a drive-up coffee service to Brew at Next Door soon. If you’d like to have a coffee with Joshua Miller, he’d love to join you. The thing is, he probably won’t be ordering a cup of java for himself—rather, chocolate milk with plenty of chocolate syrup, please, for this non-coffee lover.


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