Sunday, July 11, 2010

Aldo Coffee Considers Its Future on Washington Road

Aldo Coffee's new sign is greatIt's no secret that Aldo Coffee is my favorite place to get coffee in Pittsburgh. Five years ago, I wrote on my blog about having wandered into the coffee shop, expecting to be disappointed, but leaving impressed. I'm still impressed.

What impresses me, and this is something evident to other coffee lovers, is that Aldo's owners, Rich and Melanie Westerfield, care about coffee. What's less obvious but supremely important is that, out of this care, they have been willing to sacrifice the bottom line.

It's expensive and difficult to source good coffee, to find and train and keep authentically skilled staff. These expenses are hard to bear, especially when most potential customers see coffee as a utility beverage for caffeine delivery or a backdrop for frothy milk confections. To care about coffee, simply put, means sacrificing profits.

And sacrificing profits isn't known to be a sustainable business strategy. Which brings us to the real story.

There's a new post on Aldo Coffee's blog: Aldo 2.0 - Part 1. In it, the Westerfields reveal that the lease for their shop on Washington Road is expiring. They're trying to decide what to do. Stay? Go? Try something else?

For selfish reasons, I hope they stay. But I can't ignore that my coffee preferences represent only a tiny minority of Mt. Lebanon's coffee drinkers. And that's something that the Westerfields can't ignore, either.

In their insightful and revealing blog post, the first of what is likely to be many about Aldo Coffee's future, they discuss the realities of running a coffee business the way they want to run it. They boil it down to one central challenge: doing for coffee what Sharp Edge did for beer and Il Pizzaiolo did for pizza. In Mt. Lebanon, a town that takes its coffee with milk and sugar, that's not going to be easy.

But if anyone can do it, my money is on Rich and Melanie. They have earned a huge following in the specialty-coffee industry and can draw upon an impressive network of industry friends and admirers for ideas and assistance. Plus they are marketing marvels. Whatever they decide to do, it won't fail for lack of word.

So stay tuned, Mt. Lebanon coffee lovers. Things are about to get interesting.

Update 2010-07-11 19:59: Minor edits for clarity.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Cindy W. said...

The Autism Center is also moving off of Washington Rd. The parking problems, the traffic, the terrible building conditions, etc. -- we'll be out by December. Sad to go..... Get rid of the slum lords.

July 11, 2010 5:39 PM  
Anonymous Bill Lewis said...

Wonder if this and other outmigration has anything to do with tax increases now confronting us...taxes on individuals and businesses from the likes of our school district (+ 10.5% for 2010/11), possibilities for the Muni., likely for PA, absolutely for Federal in sooo many categories and such significance.

These taxes will result in rent increases and ownership increases for all businesses everywhere; and, maybe we are witnessing that it will in fact affect LeboLand afterall....we're not immune. And it is not going to be limited to senior citizens and others on fixed and lower incomes who will be forced out of their homes and apartments either.

July 12, 2010 11:18 AM  
Blogger Dave Franklin said...

Perhaps one of the supreme differences between Aldo's and Il Piz and/or the Sharp Edge is that the latter two do not rely as heavily on the *local* community for patrons. Certainly, folks come from all over the Pittsburgh area (or at least the South Hills) for Il Piz and the Sharp Edge's various locations draw from all over Allegheny County.

Even if you really love coffee, are you going to cross borders and pass other options for a cup? Some might, but I can't imagine most will. And that's not a knock on Aldo's. Call me crazy, but I just don't see coffee as a "destination" product.

I also don't look at the Sharp Edge as a spot frequented exclusively by beer snobs. Sure, a large number of their patrons stop in for the rare Belgian beer or a great microbrew, but stop into the Friendship or Crafton locations and you're just as likely to see a group of folks having lunch/dinner with a couple of Miller Lites. If they relied exclusively on beer snobs, I think they'd probably suffer from the same limitations as Aldo's - and they certainly wouldn't be opening a new location Downtown.

Similarly, while I'm a fan of Il Piz, more often than not my family's pizza fix comes from Carbonarra's or Cestone's. I sure hope that enjoying a traditional greasy pie with my kids, the baseball team or my golfing buddies doesn't make me a culinary loser.

I have to think that coffee shops fail or succeed on the basis of a large group of regulars who frequent the spot on a non-waivering basis, foregoing all other options. We have plenty of coffee options in Lebo and just over our borders (5 or 6 come to mind quickly), so I'm guessing a large market share is hard to come by. I also have to think that regardless of the type of coffee you sell (or any product for that matter) the key to a business that sells a $2 product is volume.

I can personally attest to the struggles of independent retail in Mt. Lebanon. My mom owned a great women's clothing store on Beverly Rd (where Iovino's currently resides) for many good years. Like Aldo's, Mom focused on high end, hard to find product lines and as a result she had a wonderful, loyal customer base both from withing from outside Mt. Lebanon. Unfortunately, with significant landlord problems and the pressures of the then new Galleria, the big hurdles started to out numbered the great days. Notably, this is a not a symptom unique to Mt. Lebanon. Think back to the number of great independent retail establishments that populated Shadyside and Squirrel Hill some 10-20 yrs ago. Now, compare that to today. Most of the great independent spots have been replaced by large, mainstream chains. Sadly, timnes have changed.

I wish Aldo's and all small businesses in Lebo nothing but the best. We need more of them. Our thriving restaurants and certain other shops are proof that independent businesess can succeed here with the right anmount of good judgment good luck, good service and goodwill.

July 12, 2010 11:24 AM  
Anonymous Rich Westerfield said...

Dave,
First things first - we love ourselves a greasy slice now and then (actually quite frequently).

But we wouldn't go to Il Piz for that. And that's the point of our original post - we need to differentiate ourselves even further in order to eliminate the comparisons to Starbucks and other mediocre providers of coffee.

That doesn't make someone a culinary winner or loser. All it means is you can get A at store X and B at store Y, so you make your choices based on whether you want A or B that day.

As to being a destination, we were at one point. But other really good shops have opened in the city in the past 2-3 years, so we're not drawing from the north as well as we once did.

We believe we can be a destination again through offering something (or many things) uniquely ours. We have to create a bigger pie, and that may mean that a number of regulars will be upset at forthcoming changes. Those losses will be offset by new business from new customers who self-select and demand a different level of quality and interaction.

One of the reviews of our shop on Urbanspoon was from a guy who lamented, "Can't a working man just get a cheap cup of coffee?"

Yeah, he can. At a gas station, at 7-11 or a billion other places. We're not looking for that guy to build our business on.

What we don't understand is why a "working man" wants something that cheap. Because there are people on the other end growing the coffee who I can guarantee are working much harder for far less in atrocious conditions for "working man" to get his dollar cup and free refill.

Why is "working man's" work so much more important than that of the folks who grow the coffee? There's something latently imperialistic, provincial or worse, racist, about that kind of thinking.

Our philosophy is that we support economic models for coffee farming that respect the product and the people who grow it. Farmers actually make money on the coffee we sell. Their communities benefit. It's sustainable.

Not everyone gives a rip about that. We accept that even if we don't agree. But if we can get our message out to the 5% or so in the South Hills who actually do care, we'll have won our bet.

To Bill's point, we're well aware that there's even more penny-pinching to come as school taxes go through the roof.

To our line of thinking, that means we have to be even more exceptional to stand out and keep going. The dollar stores and the places that offer exceptional experiences will succeed. The ones in the middle are most at risk.

Stay tuned. If nothing else future posts will be entertaining.

One last thing: I've never seen a Miller Lite served at Sharp Edge. Maybe that's just because I was enjoying my west coast IPA a little too much :-)

July 12, 2010 3:54 PM  
Anonymous Michael G. said...

I probably fit the profile of a person Aldo's would love to have as a customer. I am a coffee snob. I roast my own beans (when I have time) for my morning coffee, I have an afternoon espresso drink everyday (decaf please) and I care about sustainable coffee growing and fair labor practices.

However, the trip to Aldo's from my house is equidistant to that of trip to Starbucks in the Galleria. While the coffee at Aldo's may be of a slightly higher quality than Sbux, the difference in quality isn't enough for me to sacrifice the convenience of parking at the Galleria. To go to Aldo's in the afternoon means dealing with rush hour traffic, paying for parking and then walking a couple of blocks from the parking spot (which isn't the problem -- it's waiting for lights to turn to cross the intersections that's the issue). I may sound like I am spoiled, but for the time and hassle involved for an espresso drink, it's just less fuss to go to Sbux for a high quality beverage than it is to go to Aldo's for an arguably slightly better drink.

The issue is for those who do care about the character of Uptown Mt. Lebanon is solving the problem of Washington Road. While many in Lebo would love to see it function as a Main Street in small town USA, for the state and most people in the region, Washington Road viewed much like McKnight Road in the North Hills -- a speedway to get out of downtown to home.

July 16, 2010 12:39 PM  
Anonymous Rich W said...

Michael,
We understand we might be inconvenient for you for all the traffic/parking reasons mentioned.

But given you're a 'coffee geek', we're surprised you'd choose Sbux when there's another option across the street.

July 16, 2010 1:58 PM  

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