We've always been unconventionally transparent and honest with this blog's readers. Even so were a bit nervous about how to approach some upcoming decisions regarding the shop and whether we should talk about it publicly.
At the risk of having the our intended message completely misconstrued and alienating a portion of our customer base, we've decided to just plow ahead and be ourselves. So here goes...
We signed a six year lease on this space in September, 2004. That lease is expiring in a few weeks.
To be perfectly honest, we have given serious consideration to just walking away and moving.
But we're not.
However, we do believe that the current format of Aldo Coffee Co. has reached its peak. And maybe even passed its peak. We've stopped growing. The number of daily customers dropping by has leveled off - and on some days, and particularly afternoons, decreased. While we understand the economy is part of the problem, we believe that the main culprits are our location, and our own compromises of important visions and ideals in order to fit community expectations.
We know we're going to hear comments like, "Location? You're right in the middle of our biggest business district on the street with the highest traffic in Mt. Lebanon. How could you want more?"
To which we say, take a look around. Lots of businesses have up and left. Others aren't doing very well. Some storefronts have been vacant for months. It's not a panacea here, nor is foot traffic very strong - perhaps 1/10th of Squirrel Hill or Shadyside or Oakland. But the rent doesn't reflect that - it's still a premium rate (not the fault of our wonderful landlord who's simply charging market rate).
The store is profitable and has been for a couple of years now. But in addition to providing Melanie and I with basic living expenses, it now has to start returning money we sunk into it the first three years, which was a pretty good chunk of our entire retirement savings.
At the end of the day, we're businesspeople and this is a business. If it's not sustainable, it's time to leave. Or to change.
Change is good.
In making any decision as to continue, we have to look at cold hard facts and not just our emotional attachments or naive hopes that suddenly everything will fall into place. We have to make things happen.
Fact #1: There simply isn't enough business in the immediate area to support any idea of significant growth for just serving beverages at this time. When it comes to coffee, more people around here value convenience than taste or ethics. So our coffee and tea revenue growth has to come from other sources.
Fact #2: The community demographics by and large don't place a high value on sustainability or quality. How else to explain the continuing development of chain restaurants, red sauce Italian and Applebees/Fridays imitators? To generalize, the population is split between old people and 30-something families who live here just for the schools. The typical resident is more at home in a mall than in an independent store. It's not an enclave of foodies - we know many in the community would rather have a Panera here than us.
Suffice it to say most everything we do here runs counter to what the immediate neighborhood is programmed to support. We survive on the goodness of perhaps 500 folks who are exceptions to the above generalizations and like that we offer an alternative to mass produced mediocrity. But without income from catering and non-traditional revenue streams we'd barely break even. Remember also that we used to draw many coffee geek customers from the city. Now that there are good cafe options in most city neighborhoods, there's no longer a need to cross a river to come here. At least not nearly as often.
Fact #3: It's ridiculously difficult to attract good baristas in the 'burbs. And by that, we mean people who really want to understand coffee and tea and everything that goes into producing the best. We're not talking about simple customer service or people who think Starbucks or Uptown is a pretty cool place to work. With only a couple of exceptions, the best baristas we've had were not born and raised in the South Hills.
Fact #4: This is a big space. Bigger than almost every other coffeehouse in town. And we pay rent on every square foot of it. Other than mornings and weekends, a good part of that space isn't producing revenue while we're still incurring operational and labor costs. That has to change.
If we are to re-up for another lease term, it has to be with the promise of an interesting financial payoff along with adherence to our ideals, professional satisfaction and an environment where we can attract exceptional talent.
That's a tall order. And it could very well be that you don't care if we stay or go and won't care for the changes we're going to make. We're willing to accept that risk.
So in considering whether to renew our lease - and for how long - the first thing we have to accept is that whatever we do is going to be an uphill battle and that we're going to make some enemies. The reality is that many of the things we've been doing for the past 5.5 years aren't going to get us to where we want to be 5.5 years from now.
We've got some ideas on what we'd like to do and those goals are extremely challenging. While we're not going to announce those just yet, the following (and subsequent posts) should get across what we're hoping to achieve in the next couple of years.
However, we will start that discussion with the following premise:
How do we get the Average Joe to appreciate an Exceptional Joe?
We've been thinking a lot about what we'd do differently (and in many cases should've done all along). We keep coming back to places like Il Pizzaiolo and Sharp Edge. If you want a cheap, greasy, industrial delivery pie, you don't call Il Pizzaiolo. If you want a cold glass of tasteless Coors Light, you don't go to Sharp Edge. The former strives for an authentic Neapolitan pizza experience, the latter focuses on Belgian beers and American microbrews.
You wouldn't compare Il Pizzaiolo to Mineo's let alone Vocelli or Pizza Hut. Everyone who walks through their door understands they're getting something better and are willing to pay for it.
And you wouldn't compare Sharp Edge to the Saloon or Korner Bar. Again, the guy looking for an icy mug (or several) of watered-down mass-produced beer wouldn't even consider going to Sharp Edge to spend the night with perhaps one pour of a delicious and refined triple-hopped ale.
So our challenge going forward is to get across and cement the concept that what you get at Aldo Coffee is something entirely different than at Starbucks. And certainly vastly different than Uptown Coffee or Get-Go.
If you look at online reviews of either Il Pizzaiolo or Sharp Edge on Yelp or Urbanspoon, it's obvious the public understands that both offer a different experience than the typical pizzeria or bar. And higher expectations.
Reviews for both are overwhelmingly positive. And the negative reviews are interesting in that for Sharp Edge they usually focus on the limited food offerings (not the beer), while for Il Pizzaiolo it's the noise level or some service issue (not the pizza).
While distinct styles and quality of pizza and beer have crossed the threshold into public consciousness, coffee hasn't. At least not in most of Mt. Lebanon or the South Hills.
The "concept" of coffee for most people here remains that of a somewhat tolerable beverage that provides caffeine. Thus for many it's almost irrelevant where they purchase their coffee - a bakery, a mediocre coffeeshop, a gas station, Starbucks. Enough sugar and milk can cover up many sins.
Worse, the concept of specialty coffee is that of huge cups of commodity milk steamed inconsistently mixed with boatloads of high fructose corn syrup flavorings and substandard espresso with unlimited options for customization - all of which neglect to address the basic problem that the ingredients themselves suck.
To try and rise above that dreck brings cries of "pretentiousness" and "attitude" from a public that isn't ready to accept the fact that coffee - like beer or pizza (or steak or wine or cars or mobile phones) - has readily defined and obvious levels of quality as well as numerous varietals and roast profiles that offer taste beyond "bitter" and "burnt".
"Pretentious" means elevating the status of something that's not deserving of it. It's right up there with hyperbole as the sign of a fraud.
When you're serving and talking about coffee that actually is better than anything else available locally, that's not pretentiousness. That's simply selling something you believe in. No hyperbole. No fraud.
All coffee isn't the same. Nor are all coffee roasters or coffeehouses.
This is the first post of we don't know how many that will set the stage for what we hope to achieve next. We believe most of our customers will want to come along for that ride, although we recognize that some won't. And that's OK.