What's Brewing: Local cafes venture into some high-profile spots

Pittsburgh has an impressive number of cafes serving high-quality coffee, but if residents and visitors don't find them, they're as likely to be guided by marketing as they are by quality or value.

The expansion of three local cafes into some of the city's highest profile spots -- 21st Street Coffee in the new PNC building, Downtown; Tazza D'Oro in the Gates Center for Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University; and Coffee Tree in the Bakery Square development in East Liberty -- could go a long way toward enhancing Pittsburgh's reputation as a city that values quality coffee and prefers special, independent shops to generic national chains.

National companies with larger financial resources often have a leg up in acquiring spaces in new developments. But sometimes the locals can grab opportunities. Luke and Alexis Shaffer, owners of 21st Street Coffee & Tea, noticed that construction had started on the new PNC building at Fifth and Market and sent Howard Hanna a proposal for a coffee bar in May 2008.

"We knew that there was the possibility that there would be retail space available," said Mr. Shaffer, but "about a year went by and we didn't hear much, so we thought that was probably not going to happen."

Then, in April of this year, a PNC representative asked the couple to put together a presentation for the committee that would select the tenants.

"We wanted to do all coffee fresh by the cup, smaller drinks, eliminating artificial stuff, using local ingredients whenever possible, really focusing on the coffee side."

A few weeks later, the committee selected the Shaffers.

Their space at the PNC building is only 600 square feet, but it's the right size for 21st Street.

Along with espresso-based drinks and French-press coffee, there will be room for two Clover coffee makers, the individual-cup brewers that the Shaffers believe best showcase the complexity and balance of top-quality single-origin beans (the Strip District cafe also will continue to offer Clover coffee). There's a lot of work left to do, but the Shaffers hope to have the new space up and running before the end of the year.

Tazza D'Oro, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary in Highland Park, may open its second location at CMU's Gates Center for Computer Science as early as next week, after a similarly long application process. In May of 2008, owner Amy Enrico was notified that Carnegie Mellon University would be interested in seeing a proposal for the cafe space. She learned on June 19 -- the day of its anniversary -- that Tazza D'Oro had been selected.

The cafe can be seen as the heart of the building, positioned below a helix-like walkway leading to classrooms and offices, with a view of the new winter garden. The Gates Center is connected to the Hillman Center for Future Generation Technologies by pedestrian bridges. The complex includes office space for 600 people, with another 1,100 to 1,200 people expected to attend class there each day.

CMU's dining services emphasize their commitment to offering food that is environmentally sustainable by purchasing from local farms and making organic and hormone-free foods available to students. The CMU dining Web site emphasizes Tazza D'Oro's commitment "to serving fair trade and organically grown coffee." But Tazza D'Oro also is known for fostering a large and unusually tight-knit community, a quality that is important to the CMU community as well.

Separate seating areas were designed with flexibility in mind. Comfy chairs in one area are on wheels, so they can be reconfigured. Another area had sturdier chairs around tables, all with built-in electrical outlets. Once all the furniture is brought in, there will be seating for about 80 people. The cafe will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m Monday through Friday, but eventually Enrico hopes to extend hours to the weekend and later into the evening.

The Coffee Tree at Bakery Square won't open until May. This will be the cafe's fifth location in the area, but owners are still cautious about expansion.

"We try not to have all our stores be cookie cutters of each other," said owner Bill Swoope Jr., who owns the company with his father, Bill Swoope Sr.

That's a view expressed by other cafes as well.

"We don't want to just expand for the sake of expanding," said Mr. Shaffer of 21st Street. "It's about finding the right places, the right locations."

China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman .


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