Walkabout: Manchester gets jolt and whiff of coffee from La Prima site

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The contest over whether the produce terminal in the Strip District remains intact or loses one-third of its five-block identity may take years to play out.

A recent nomination for historic designation will at least delay plans the Buncher Co. has to develop the site by demolishing 535 feet of the terminal for a $400 million residential and office complex.

What an irony: The building is nominated for protection for its role as the city's wholesale food delivery nexus for more than 80 years, but it has almost no wholesalers left carrying on that tradition. Buncher's plans made several antsy enough to leave, and others had no choice.

Sam Patti, the owner of La Prima Espresso, was one of the latter. His lease was up at the end of last year and could not be renewed. But La Prima has found a welcoming home in Manchester for its production and wholesale unit.

"I was looking for a place to rent, and a real estate agent told me about this place being for sale," said Mr. Patti, who bought the former Snyder Electric Co. at 1500 Chateau St. "When I saw that it had a 5,000-square-foot parking lot and 4,000 square feet of space, I thought, 'This will work.' "

La Prima, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this fall, roasts coffee to order -- 1,000 to 2,000 pounds a week for restaurants and stores and its retail coffee shop on 21st Street in the Strip. It donates a portion of proceeds to Grow Pittsburgh and the Rachel Carson Homestead.

"We're a microroaster," Mr. Patti said. "We're trying to do fair trade and organic to sustain Mother Earth and the farmers."

Its new location is a square building with offices and an in-house cafe being planned in the front and the production area behind. Two roasters work on 25 pounds of green coffee beans at a time. Caleb Sisco, head roaster and production manager, monitors the time, the temperature and the beans as they deepen from a green lentil color to varying shades of brown.

"You have to use all your senses," Mr. Patti said as Mr. Sisco turned a lever that sent a cascade of dark, smoking beans into a cooling drum. It revolved like a carousel, its paddles gently nudging the beans around. "You even have to listen because they crack like popcorn" when they are ready, Mr. Patti said.

La Prima is a quiet and small piece of industry on the outer edge of Manchester, which is mostly residential. Zoning variances were needed for use and for parking. Much of Chateau Street is blighted, and that's what people traveling north on Route 65 see when they look to the right. The other side of Route 65 is the industrial neighborhood of Chateau, which used to be part of Manchester.

If Mr. Patti had any doubts about where his company should relocate, the Manchester Citizens Corp. made it clear with its support.

"I can't emphasize enough how open-armed and kind they have been," he said.

LaShawn Burton-Faulk, executive director of the Manchester Citizens Corp., said La Prima's investment is highly valued in the neighborhood. She spoke on its behalf before the Zoning Board of Adjustment and Historic Review Commission.

"Anytime you have someone fixing up a property in a blighted community, it's a positive thing, not to mention who wouldn't want to wake up to the smell of roasted coffee?" Ms. Burton-Faulk said. "That corner building had been sitting for quite some time. It is critical that Manchester was a place they found comfortable to bring their entire team.

"There is opportunity for community benefit, potential positions, mentorships from Sam, who not only runs the roasting portion of the business but has also done retail and has offered his expertise and skill" as a mentor.

La Prima will be on Manchester's annual house tour Aug. 4. Mr. Patti said people can come through the new roastery and sample coffee.

As good as the Manchester move has been, he remains passionate that the produce terminal should one day resume its old role, especially with the fervor of the local food movement and farmer-to-household transactions that include the community-supported agriculture program, or CSA.

"It's the one section of town that's about food," he said. The opportunity for food security is what brought so many Europeans to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, he said. "We're here because we needed to eat."


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk


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