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.
Photo by Daniel Noguera, Cinque Terre
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.