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Coffee Shops Stay Alert to Changing Tastes

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The first two weeks after Pressed Coffee Bar & Eatery opened were supposed to be a shake down cruise, co-owners Frank Tuscano and Pam VonBergen say. Instead, they’ve been awash in the constant flow of people who stopped in the two-story gray mansion, long known as The Beat, on Lincoln Avenue.

“I knew we’d be busy because we’re right by campus,” VonBergen says, “but I didn’t expect the volume of people we’ve gotten without advertising. We have done no advertising outside of social media. And we haven’t even done much with that.”

For a little over a year after The Beat closed, the house sat empty. After VonBergen’s landlord approached her – VonBergen also owns the Subway and Hot Head Burritos near the campus of Youngstown State University – to gauge her interest in opening a restaurant in the building, neither she nor Tuscano had the least doubt that the coffee shop should reopen. Or that they should run it.

“A lot of the feedback we got from the university and the people around here showed us that there was really a need for a coffee house,” Tuscano says. “It’s not better or worse [than The Beat]. It’s just different.”

In the downtown, coffee shops are almost as common as bars. And it’s easy to see to why: In 2011, the nation’s 200,000-plus coffee shops generated $10 billion in revenues, the Small Business Development Center reports. The center’s 2012 report on coffee shops, the most recent available, also found that the percentage of coffee drinkers ages 18 to 24 jumped to 40% from 31% between 2010 and 2012.

“The state of the coffee business in Youngstown is very similar to the rest of the United States. It’s a growing sector because the product lines continue to expand and people are more willing to spend disposable income on better beverages,” says Mike Avey, owner of Joe Maxx Coffee Co. on the first floor of the Realty Building.

Joe Maxx opened three years ago and has seen its revenues increase each year since, Avey says, despite new coffee shops opening nearby.

“Everyone’s bringing a very similar but somewhat different product and approach to the coffee business. Each of us finds a core group of consumers that become fans,” Avey says. “We’re certainly in competition, but there’s enough business down here that we can all survive and do well.”

For Friends Specialty, a coffee shop on the corner of West Federal and South Phelps streets, the growth downtown spurred expansion from their first store in Salem.

“We watched the progress being made here. You could see the energy building and we wanted to be a part of that,” says Patricia Tinkler, who owns the stores with her husband, Mitch Lynch.

The coffee at Friends is roasted in-house and all of the foods offered – mostly pastries although a lunch menu is in the works – are handmade by its employees, if not Tinkler and Lynch themselves.

“Coming from a food background, I feel that if we put an emphasis on healthy foods with a garden-to-table emphasis, that’s something we want to represent,” Lynch says. “If there’s anything that we can’t get that’s grown around here, we’d like to import just as we’ve done with our coffee and cocoa.”

Driving independent coffee shops, Avey notes, is a growth in an insistence on better coffee. Fewer people will settle for a mediocre cup of coffee anymore. They have become connoisseurs who look for variety in blends and flavored coffees.

“Whole-bean brewed coffee is down something like 7% over the last three years. Espresso-based beverages are up like 19%,” he says. “So as regular coffee drinkers are fading away, more and more specialty coffee is emerging, along with special ways of brewing it, whether it’s through coffee pots or pour-overs or French press.”

At Pressed, the patrons and their demands have been diverse in the first month. Among the stream of patrons are students – both commuters and residents, according to Tuscano – professors, young professionals from downtown, nurses and doctors from St. Elizabeth Health Center and, on weekends, churchgoers.

At Yo Doughnut Co., on East Rayen Avenue two blocks from Jones Hall at YSU, a steady stream of people come in and out of the small store from when it opens at 6:30 a.m. until it closes at 1:30 p.m. – if Yo isn’t sold out by then.

“Even though it isn’t always full in here, we do tend to sell out almost every day,” says co-owner Mitch Scott. “We’re rarely open that late.”

And, he notes, he sees a different group, one not as common at those at the other coffee shops around downtown.

“We have a lot of police, both Youngstown and YSU, that come in here at sit for a bit,” he says.

While not a cafe like Pressed or Joe Maxx, Yo Doughnut does serve coffee. “Certainly, coffee and doughnuts go well together,” Scott says. Its own blend comes from Marlowe’s in Canfield. What the shop brings, Scott believes, is something a little different.

“There aren’t a lot of places to go get doughnuts in this area. You have places in Liberty or Boardman or Canfield, but none downtown,” he explains. “People seem to be excited about having a doughnut shop downtown and they like the fact that they’re made fresh every morning.”

While Yo Doughnut brings something new to the city, Tuscano says that Pressed is something essential to the college experience. Tuscano, a YSU graduate, points out that students look for comfortable places to wait between their classes and hang out with their classmates.

“When you have class all day, you still need somewhere to go and hang out,” he says. “There are almost 3,000 residents on campus and I’ll talk to them and a lot of them are here for hours studying and talking. They seem to enjoy working and studying here.”

The ambiance of a coffee shop, regardless of location, is “absolutely critical,” Avey says. In Joe Maxx, music – most often jazz from the ’40s and ’50s – is always playing. TVs are nowhere to be found.

“People come in here and it allows them to step out and step back,” he explains. “This isn’t what people are going to play in their office or in their car. When you’re in here for meetings, it’s noninvasive white noise. It’s kind of like a mental timeout when you hear Mel Tormé or Dinah Shore. Some people take that timeout and they don’t feel pushed because none of this stuff is commercial.”

Whether it’s for the variations of the coffee, the food, the ambiance or any other reason that customers patronize the coffee shops around downtown, having a dedicated customer base is what helps growth continue, Avey says.

“She’s a fan. He’s a fan,” he says as he points to a table in the corner. “That’s where my customers come from. Old customers bring in new customers by telling them about us. If someone asks her where to go for a cup of coffee, she’ll only have one answer.”

For the newly opened Pressed, positive reaction and a base of loyal customers have already been established. The next step, VonBergen and Tuscano say, is developing a relationship with the university. Already, the cafe has provided coffee at a track meet and it hangs artwork made by YSU students around the store.

“Having a good relationship with the university is important. If you give to them, they give back to you,” VonBergen says.

Pictured: Victoria Clark and Mike Avey greet customers at Joe Maxx downtown. Avey opened the coffee shop three years ago.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.