What's Brewing: Tazza brews up a sense of community on its milestone anniversary

On Friday, Amy Enrico, her family and the staff at Tazza D'Oro Cafe and Espresso Bar in Highland Park celebrated 10 years of business with food from their favorite local restaurants, beer from the East End Brewing Company and more than 200 customers, neighbors and friends.

"I was overwhelmed and grateful for how many of you showed and for your generous well wishes," Enrico wrote on the Tazza D'Oro blog a few days later.

Ten years in the life of a cafe can be measured in cups of coffee sold and dollars made, but at a cafe like Tazza D'Oro, it's also measured in the life of the community.

People stop by the cafe on the way home from the hospital to show off newborns. Half a dozen couples have met there and later married. Customers say they've bought their houses nearby to be within walking distance of the cafe.

Clearly, this isn't just any coffee shop.

Ironically, Amy Enrico grew up wanting to do anything but own a small business. She was certain that she didn't want to, because her family did -- the third-generation family-owned Enrico's Bakery in Jeannette (today the bakery is run by Enrico's brother, Rob). Instead, she set her sights on big business and pursued a career in the health industry.

It took her more than 10 years to figure out that she didn't want to spend her life overseeing medical labs. In fact, it was while starting a big business that she realized how much she wanted to get back to running a small one.

Enrico encountered the thriving coffee scene in the Northwest on frequent trips to Seattle. She saw the effect that cafes had on the city's communities. She wanted to do the same for her own neighborhood.

"The passion that was around those coffee shops was contagious and it was obvious our culture needed somewhere else to hang out besides bars," she says.

It all came together when she was walking her dog up North Highland Avenue one morning and noticed a for-sale sign on a small commercial building amid blocks of houses. "That was the decision point for me," recalls Enrico, "I'm going to open a coffee shop."

No one thought that was the right spot, but Enrico was determined. "I decided that I wanted to have a place where people understood what we were trying to do and came to us."

Batdorf and Bronson, Tazza D'Oro's coffee roaster for the first 10 years, helped give her confidence.

"They were just incredible on every level," says Enrico, describing her first visit to the roastery. "I walked into their roastery cold. I walked into their tasting room and said I wanted to know whether they sold wholesale. They sat me down at their cupping table and it was the first time I'd ever cupped."

Tazza D'Oro held its soft opening on June 19, 1999. "We were really busy. There was such a need and such anticipation." But there was no guarantee of success. Enrico remembers, "We opened at 7 a.m. and there were some days we didn't see our first customers until after lunch."

And today? "Today they're waiting outside the door at 7 a.m."

From day one, Tazza D'Oro offered a rotating single-origin coffee -- Batdorf and Bronson had "relationship coffees" before direct trade became the specialty coffee world's darling -- and Enrico devoted countless hours to training staff in the fine art of pulling shots of espresso.

"My family comes from Italy and having the title barista is a title to be proud of and it can take 20 years to achieve that title," she says.

The quality of the coffee and the quality of the community aren't necessary connected in a cafe. But Enrico understood that to be really successful they had to have both. "When the two came together, the coffee and the community, that's when the business exploded," she says.

Although she's enjoyed marking the cafe's 10th anniversary, the occasion also is bittersweet. In planning for the next 10 years, she had to make a difficult decision -- to switch roasters. While she still considers Batdorf and Bronson a first-class roaster, she needed to find a roaster that could provide more opportunities for education and growth for her staff.

For Enrico, this was the biggest decision she's made for the business since starting it, and she wanted her employees to have a say in the cafe's direction. Since December, she and her staff cupped 46 coffees from 19 roasters, using a brewing method that highlights defects in coffee, the preferred method of evaluating coffee for experienced tasters. Each time, one roaster's coffees -- Verve Coffee Roasters, a small company in Santa Cruz, Calif. -- practically jumped off the table.

"These coffees were undeniable," Enrico says, explaining why she chose the new roaster for the cafe. Together they created the store's new espresso blend, "Bicycle Love," named in honor of the cycling community that has found a home at Tazza D'Oro. Enrico and many of her staff are active members and today as many as 40 people attend the community Tuesday-night bike rides.

Enrico wants her staff to be able to learn more about where coffee comes from, the different processes that affect it and how they can brew coffee and espresso that lives up to the potential already present in the beans.

She looks to the next 10 years at the cafe with optimism.

"I love my job," she says. "I can't imagine doing anything else."

China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman . First Published June 25, 2009 4:00 AM


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