Urbana Cafe, from concept to reality

The Driving Force

I have always been passionate about creating something new from scratch, but, even better, something unique. For many years I have been creating textbooks for a large publishing house in Cincinnati, loving the creation process and not so much the politics of it. Therefore, creating something like Urbana Cafe was a good and different challenge to face.

Growing up in Venezuela, the sight of the Vespa Ape was very common. These vehicles were mainly used for light construction and ice cream trucks. They have that distinctive engine sound that alerted all the kids in the neighborhood that the ice cream truck was around the corner, even when the annoying ice cream music wasn’t playing. I was never a fan of the Vespa Ape; I didn’t like the sound of the engine or the looks – mainly because they were always in rough shape.

Falling in Love

My best friend Roger called me up one day early in the morning and told me that his marriage was done and he is going to Italy with friends for a wedding.  He said, “We are leaving next week, why don’t you come?”  My first reaction was to say, “No, that’s kind of late notice.”  But then I got to my office, thought about it and bought my ticket to Italy. I had no particular plans other than just going with the flow. I was not a friend of the couple getting married, so I knew I needed to make some plans and travel solo for few days. 

At this time, I was working with a great author and friend, Robert Brechner (Bob), at my job.  Bob recommend that I check out Cinque Terre during my solo traveling days, so I did. While in Cinque Terre, I appreciated the simplest things such as going my own pace, playing with a random dog on the beach, buying a cup of coffee and having a conversation with whomever was around me, watching the dynamics of the Italian people living and working in the region, and, of course, the Vespa Ape was part of the scenery. Seeing it this time made me feel nostalgic as I had not seen one for so long.  And, I can’t explain it.  Something happened and I felt in love with it.  

Sunset in Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

Sunset in Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

The Concept

Receiving the Ape from Canada

Receiving the Ape from Canada

A few months after my return from Italy, the idea of something like what Urbana Cafe is now was lingering in my head. I kept imagining how to build something using an Ape.  I started looking for an Ape in the States and couldn’t find one.  In my endless search, I ran into websites, photos, and videos of people running businesses using an Ape. The images and the videos were encouraging and frustrating at the same time as my search for the Ape was unsuccessful. Then one day, the day that all the planets aligned, the God of Apes decided that it was my turn to own one.  I had found one in Canada!

Ape, check; coffee education, check…

Now I had an Ape…so, I guess I needed an espresso machine. Wait a minute, I make good coffee at home, I’ve known the basics about coffee since I grew up in a rich coffee culture country, but I had no idea how to use an espresso machine; I didn’t even know what a good espresso machine looked like. I had a memory of a very elaborate espresso machine from Venezuela.  One that looked like it was made in the 40’s and 50’s, very tall, rich gold color, a piece of art really.  Well, it was time to do some searching again.

Getting Barista training in Chicago

Getting Barista training in Chicago

I spent time reading and researching espresso machines.  While doing so I ran into a specialty coffee organization called “Coffee Fest.”  To my fortune, they were holding their semi-annual convention in Chicago in a week of two.  Naturally I went!

Coffee Fest was excellent; it was an intensive all-in-one experience, barista training, coffee education, product testing, equipment researching, vendors, etc, etc. With all that knowledge in my back pocket, the time had come to put my attention to putting all the pieces together:  buying new equipment, getting a vendor’s license, selecting my coffee blend, and, most importantly, assembling the espresso bar on top of the Ape. I designed the espresso bar and measured twice.  Now that I had the equipment, I realized that I wasn’t a carpenter, plumber, or electrician.  I stood back and asked, “How do I put all this together again?”

An Organic Construction

During a Sunday joyride, I stopped at a gas station.  My Ape was not running well, and I couldn’t figure out why.  This is when I met Nelson Thomas.  He came by and asked about the Ape, took some photos, and chatted for few minutes with me. I almost didn’t want to talk since I was getting frustrated trying to understand what was going on with the Ape, but I made an effort and had a good conversation with Nelson.  He mentioned that he was a general contractor and I immediately asked him for his number.  When we talked a few days later, I told him that I needed some help with plumbing and electric, so he stopped by. I told Nelson that I needed three things done.  When I finished my list, he replied “And…”  So I added one more thing.  Nelson replied, “And…”  And so I added a few more things.  A few minutes later we were working on the Ape, and it was obvious that he was enjoying the project as much or more than me. I had the plan and he solved the problems to get the project done. We spent countless nights working on what today is Urbana Cafe while working at our day jobs too.   

Nelson Thomas working on the espresso bar

Nelson Thomas working on the espresso bar

Jessica making a healthy snack for Nelson and I. 

Jessica making a healthy snack for Nelson and I. 

Some nights we only worked for a few hours.  Other nights we’d get stuck solving a problem.  It was normal for us to work until midnights sometimes.  Jessica, my girlfriend (now my wife), made midnight snacks, and Michi, my roommate, made coffee every now and then to keep us going.

Once the construction of Urbana Cafe was done and we were celebrating with friends, I heard Nelson talking to friends and explaining how organic the construction of this project was for him.  It was at that moment that I realized that it wasn’t a plan that made this happen.  Rather, it was an organic recipe of one part dream, one part great partnership, and one part constantly flowing coffee; there was nothing forced or calculating about this project.

Urbana Cafe

We are now up and running and our experience so far surpasses our expectations. Most weekends (weather permitting) we are at Findlay Market, which was yet again another organic partnership. Our friends and family have been instrumental in our early success and in this new adventure. Along the way we have met amazing people, such fellow vendors at Findlay, great customers that always make a point to stop by and chat for few minutes, and new friends that are cheering for our success on this project now turned into a reality.

The end of a Sunday work at Findlay Market

The end of a Sunday work at Findlay Market

I keep thinking and planning how to grow Urbana Cafe into something much bigger.  I want it to reflect its Cincinnati roots and be a point of reference to the city.  But if there’s one thing that I learned from my experiences in 2013, dream and plan, but let organic growth take its course.

Daniel Noguera     

A Brief History of The Vespa APE

Ape: A success story “Italian style”

Over sixty years ago a vehicle was built to fit the demands of the era.  This vehicle became a success story, better yet an staple of Italy...yes, the same place where the Coliseum and the Vatican are. The success of this vehicle did not only come because of its charm, but also thanks to its unbeatable versatility. No other commercial vehicle in the world can tell a story like the Ape, a three-wheeled vehicle that has always kept in step with the times, putting the working force of Italy on the road.

By 1948 more and more Vespa scooters were taking to the roads of Italy and Europe. Vespa produced 19,822 a significant step forward with respect to the 2,464 scooters built in 1946, the year the Vespa was launched. The Italian economy was slowly getting back up to steam, and with it industry, commerce, and the artisan sector. Goods were carried on heavy trucks based on military models, costly commercial vehicles based on automobiles or heavy and slow three-wheeled delivery vans; while in town you can often see tricycles and pushcarts.

Thanks to the intuition of Enrico Piaggio and Corradino D’Ascanio, a gifted aeronautical designer, Vespa starts working on a product to meet the obvious requirements of daily life in Italy. As result Vespa launches the Ape in 1948. The Ape, a three-wheeled vehicle available at a reasonable price, with low fuel consumption was within the reach of even the smallest company in Italy and Europe. All the essential characteristics of the first Ape were based on a Vespa scooter, including a full front end and a 125cc engine.

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D’Ascanio:  "What we did was find a solution to a demand for compact transportation in the post-war period, introducing a three-wheeled light goods vehicle with a small displacement, and limited fuel consumption, at a modest price and it was easy to service and drive too, highly manoeuvrable in the busiest city traffic, and particularly suitable, fast and practical for delivering goods from shops."

Through the years the success of the Ape embraced evolution, in 1952 the Ape was engineered with more power, from 125cc to 150cc and also more loading capacity. From 1958 to 1968 the dimensions grew, more models and fittings, even an Ape with five wheels.

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One of the most remarkable changes happened  in 1958, the Ape rolled off the production lines bigger than its predecessors, a cab complete with doors, headlight mounted on the front of the cab instead of the mudguard, and a displacement of 170cc.  By now everyone associated the idea of light transport with this three-wheeler, but this year the Ape’s image had taken its rightful place in popular culture.

Today the Ape still a symbol of compact dimensions, unbeatable maneuverability, a very reasonable purchase price, low running costs with a great loading capacity, and as solid as its legend would have it. A vehicle that has remained faithful to its constructional philosophy, has adapted continuously to meet the requirements of professional mobility in the best possible way.

Over two million units have sold in Europe alone and the Ape is still very much one of the products of reference for the Piaggio Group. Every year more than 10,000 Ape vehicles roll out of the Pontedera factories to travel the roads of Europe, but Ape’s success goes beyond the boundaries of the Old World; it’s a success story of global proportions. In 1999 India also began production of the Ape. Over 140,000 Ape vehicles are produced every year for the Indian and Asian market.

Today the Ape is available in many variations and all of the new engines meet the strictest European regulations in terms of exhaust emissions. The use of the Ape is no longer limited to the world of heavy work. The Ape in fact is being used more and more often by numerous companies to advertise, in retail, tourism, and even coffee brewing...one might say in Cincinnati!

The rich history of the Ape represents a single bite into the Italian culture, transcending all barriers and borders. Its rightful place in history is set, but its evolutions for the years to come is yet to be seen.