Boom and buzz: Can a coffeehouse save the neighborhood?
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Bill Goodrich and a partner opened The Vault Coffee and Tea Bar in a former Brighton Heights bank in May. The Vault shares a block of California Avenue with two hair salons, a barbershop, a pizzeria, a food market, a phone store and a child-care center.
He wanted to "jazz up" the North Side corridor, in part to give his neighbors, and himself, a place to buy a good cup of coffee. A coffeehouse also struck him as the right business for leveraging others.
The premium coffee bean's rise to icon status bred the coffeehouse of a new era in the late 1980s and early '90s.
Much has been written about the coffeehouse as a "third place," and it's the first thing on many neighborhoods' wish lists. No data seem to exist linking coffeehouses to economic revitalization, but people who work on neighborhood development say a well-placed coffeehouse does provide more than a buzz.
"We target certain kinds of businesses, and a coffeehouse is one," said Linda LeFever, executive director of the Northside Community Development Fund. The fund has been advertising for viable coffeehouse business plans and, in February, helped the Beleza Community Coffee House open in the North Side's Mexican War streets. "It's my instinct that this kind of business would encourage other investors."
The fund picks up where banks leave off, "so all our loans have some risk attached," she said. Coffeehouse investment comes in on the low end of, or well under, the fund's spending on restaurants, which ranges from $35,000 to $200,000, she said.
Buzz leads to boom
But as the Starbucks and Caribou chains have proven, a small buzz can lead to a boom.
Ken Zeff calls his Crazy Mocha "a micro chain" which has earned brand recognition all over the city. He opened his first store in 2000, taking over the Dancing Goat on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside. The goat remained the logo as he opened shops in Oakland and one each in the South Side, Bloomfield and Lawrenceville. He will open his seventh soon, in Sewickley.
A 2006 market report by Mintel International indicates the popularity of the modern coffeehouse shows no sign of waning. Starbucks' expansion, it reports, "has driven adoption of premium coffee into the zeitgeist."
It seems a long time ago that the color-splashed Beehive opened on the South Side in 1991, when the bars were mostly elderly and the neighborhood showed just a glimmer of what was to come. The Beehive was the city's first sit-down coffeehouse of the premium-bean persuasion and funkier than any since. Scott Kramer, the owner, remembers a few businesses around him then which are still around.Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photos
Sun pours into The Vault, a coffeehouse on California Avenue in Brighton Heights. The Vault is credited by some with helping to revitalize the area.
Click photo for larger image. Audio Slideshow / The Gathering PlacesSuzanne Pace, left, and Pat Clark share a space and some time at the Beehive Coffeehouse on the South Side on Thursday.
Click photo for larger image.
Today, he has competition from a Starbucks across the street, a Tuscany one block away and numerous other coffee hangouts the length of Carson Street, but he has tripled his space in recent years and used his success to leverage partners in opening what were the South Side's hippest bars when they opened, the Lava Lounge in 1998 and the Tiki Lounge in 2002.
Mr. Kramer said he believed the Beehive did help pry open the lid on the South Side's boom: "With any economic growth, the artists come in first, and we've always attracted a lot of artists. Everyone wants to hang out with them."
David Morgan, an architect who was on the South Side Local Development Corp. when the Beehive opened, concurs. "I think it played a pretty big role. We moved our offices [to the South Side] in 1982. It wasn't grim, he said, but the mill-bar orientation lasted long after the mills had closed. "There was always a bohemian streak in the neighborhood because property was fairly cheap, and when the Beehive came in, it became sort of ... well, I don't think they named it that by accident.
"It was not only a place for people who were here, but, I think, it brought in a lot of younger people."
The landscape is strewn with places to buy coffee, but a coffeehouse, whether the furniture is new-chic or used-funky, is like a clubhouse, where some people occupy the same table or sofa for hours.
Jill MacDowell, owner of the Quiet Storm, calls them "hang-around people" and surmises that their endurance encourages occupation of other spaces in the neighborhood.
Becky Mingo, executive director of the Friendship Development Association, credits the Quiet Storm's influence in the revitalization of the area. "It definitely played a role," she said.
The shop is in Bloomfield, where that neighborhood meets Garfield and Friendship. Within its block, Penn Avenue and Graham Street, a new apartment building, the Fairmont, and the Children's Home of Pittsburgh are both under construction. The apartments will sit atop retail space, for which the Friendship association is scouting business.
The Quiet Storm used to be a nuisance bar. The Horoscope Lounge across the street became a nuisance bar. The Friendship association bought the Quiet Storm in 2000 and installed the coffeehouse in 2001. The Horoscope closed last month under pressure after years of violent and illegal incidents in and around it.
Ms. MacDowell said the coffeehouse's glass was broken, it was burglarized and tagged by vandals early on, but has earned what she calls "a grudging respect" from street denizens. Its following includes some of them. It serves former customers of the Horoscope, vegans, people who are pierced and tattooed, readers of novels and textbooks, laptop users and, on one recent day, a little girl reading the book "Puppy" at the counter. Nearby, a man sat reading, nudging a baby stroller rhythmically with his foot.
The standard for both reach and loyalty might be Amy Enrico's Tazza d'Oro in Highland Park. Cozy and metropolitan, the 1920s-era pharmacy has become its neighborhood's signature destination, drawing most of its customers from Squirrel Hill and Shadyside, which have several coffeehouses of their own.
The Friendship Development Association and East Liberty Development recently recruited Ms. Enrico as a consultant to their small businesses.
"She has a great entrepreneurial spirit," Ms. Mingo said. "She fundamentally gets it."
Highland Park also has been collaborating with East Liberty on housing and business start-ups. Like coffee drinkers, "issues cross borders," said David Hance, director of the Highland Park Community Development Corp.
Beyond the East End
Compared with other parts, the East End is the most awash in coffeehouses, including a new place on Reynolds Street called Make Your Mark, with an art studio upstairs and art classes planned. Across town, Mount Washington has the 2-year-old Cafe Cravings near Chatham Village, but people perched nearer view's edge are without. "We need one," lamented Ethan Raup, who left Seattle this year to become the executive director of the Mount Washington Community Development Corp.
Brighton Heights has bragging points it has never exercised, Mr. Goodrich said. "Now we can brag we have a coffeehouse."
He has an awning on order for the Vault and plans outdoor seating and flower boxes. A knitting club meets there regularly, and more customers are stopping on their way in from northern suburbs, he said.
"I'm looking at the possibility of buying another building. I'm thinking a small Asian place [restaurant]," the idea being that "if you come down here for one thing, you're going to see something else."
First Published April 9, 2006 12:00 am