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Coffeehouse demise: disposable as demitasse

Thursday, August 21, 2003

I took a 10-minute walk across the Golden Triangle the other day and passed within a block of six Starbucks operations along the way.

I was heading to the US Steel Building because I'd heard there'd soon be yet another one there. A locally owned coffee kiosk in the upper lobby, meantime, is getting the boot.

A Starbucks spokesman in Seattle could not confirm late yesterday afternoon that a store would be opening in the Steel Building. But then, with 6,400 stores worldwide, it must be hard to keep track.

Almost every human seems to like Starbucks coffee. I'm no different. I have sipped in at least a half-dozen of the approximately two dozen stores that have opened in Allegheny County in the past eight years. The other 6,394 have thus far muddled along without me.

But it's not as if nobody else makes good coffee. If you don't have a favorite independent coffeehouse in Pittsburgh, you don't get around much. The Coffee Tree made me a great cup the other day, well worth the security guard escort required at 5:15 p.m. in the ultra-tight Steel Building.

Owner Bill Swoope was there to tell employees that the building had put the kibosh on their kiosk. The five-year lease ran out in May and the building's agent won't renew it. The agent wouldn't tell me why, but Swoope says he was told a Starbucks would be taking his space.

"If they were putting in a woman's shoe store, I wouldn't take it so personally," Swoope, 39, said. "But somebody else who does the exact same thing -- that's very puzzling to me."

That doesn't mean this was hard to see coming. Swoope and his father, also named Bill, opened the first Coffee Tree on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill 10 summers ago. Starbucks -- which started as a single store in Seattle in 1971 -- opened its first store in Pittsburgh two years later, a half-block away.

"They go where the other coffeehouses are because they know there's a market there," Swoope said.

A 1981 graduate of West Mifflin South High School, Swoope had been living in Boston selling specialty toys when he became a fan of a coffeehouse there in the early '90s. He liked it so much he decided to move back to Pittsburgh and launch one himself. The Squirrel Hill store opened on July 3, 1993. The elder Swoope, now 65, would open it each morning and the son would close it at midnight. The Bills, as they're called in the stores, prospered.

A second Coffee Tree opened in Fox Chapel Plaza in 1994 and then a third on Beverly Road in Mt. Lebanon in 1997. The kiosk in the Steel Tower became the fourth location in 1998. A fifth is planned for Walnut Street in Shadyside in November, except now that will be the fourth.

The six employees at the Downtown Coffee Tree have been offered work at other locations, and it looks as if two will go to Mt. Lebanon and the others to Squirrel Hill. With school starting and summer help leaving, there should be enough work for everyone.

That couldn't keep the tears from Michelle Longstreth's eyes. She has managed The Coffee Tree in the Steel Building for five years. A single mother of four children, the location was convenient to her three children in city schools. Getting to them won't be quite so easy from Squirrel Hill.

"I'm going to miss my customers," Longstreth said. "When you get to know not a person's name but a person's drink -- the medium dark coffee -- that's what you get to know and that's what you get to love."

Working 10 to 12 hours a day, she said, regulars become your family. Gina Detar, the district manager who managed this location at its opening in 1998, and Sonny Chatterji, working the counter Tuesday, said much the same thing. Jodie Cawley, hired this week to be a shift supervisor, will not have the convenience of working in the same building as her mother and stepfather. But she says she'll go to Squirrel Hill, too.

As business closings go, this business is closing with far less trauma than most. Pittsburgh just became a little more like every other place in America is all. The small local operator is as disposable as a coffee cup.


Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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