Downtown cafes grow like crazy

| Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ken Zeff, owner of Crazy Mocha Coffee Co. stores, isn't waiting for results of a study to continue his expansion Downtown.

"We now have seven locations in the Golden Triangle and plan to open three more, the first one in August, then in September and the third by October," Zeff told members of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership on Tuesday at the group's membership meeting in his 801 Liberty Ave. store.

The three are slated for William Penn Place, Stanwix Street and Liberty Avenue, he said.

Sixteen months ago, he had none Downtown. Overall, since opening his first coffee shop in Shadyside in 2000, Zeff has opened 17 locations in the region.

A study of Downtown's retail business by the Downtown Partnership -- noting the lack of certain retailers and expansion projects for existing stores -- is nearing completion with a September release of findings.

The study is expected to be completed in about two weeks and reviewed by the staff of the Downtown Partnership before recommendations are presented, first to the mayor's office, then to the public, said CEO Michael Edwards.

Downtown and its fringe areas have a large selection of coffee houses, besides Crazy Mocha.

Among them are nine Starbucks locations, including one each on the South Side and at Station Square; seven Cool Beans Coffee Co. locations, including one in Allegheny Center, North Shore; six Au Bon Pain Co. Inc. shops; a 21st St. Cafe in the Frick Building; a Dunkin Donuts in Market Square; and a coffee bar opened by Nicholas Coffee, also in Market Square.

Although Starbucks is closing 600 locations nationally, none in Pennsylvania is being closed so far.

Operating coffee shops is a departure from the career path Zeff, 40, began following his graduation from the University of Pittsburgh.

He joined J.C. Penney Co.'s management training program and worked there for 10 years. But when he was scheduled to relocate to Plano, Texas, Ken and his wife, Michelle, with a young child, decided to stay in Pittsburgh.

"My father owned a scrap yard so it led me to want to own my own company," he said.

Using his own funds, he opened his first Crazy Mocha coffee shop in 2000. Since then, he has continued adding locations.

Other food establishments are taking advantage of opportunities Downtown.

Some 16 shop owners have joined the Downtown Partnership's "Paris to Pittsburgh" promotion, with work completed on two -- Moe's Southwest Grill in Market Square, and Sonoma Grille in the 900 block of Penn Avenue, Edwards said.

The program, which promotes outdoor seating along with indoor for restaurants, cafes and coffee shops, was funded by a $1 million grant from the Colcom Foundation. To date, $138,000 of the Colcom funds have been used, resulting in investment of $480,000 by the owners, Edwards said.

Eight others, including Palate Bistro on Sixth, Mix/Stirs Cafe in Market Square and Cafe Milano on First Avenue, are in the process, he said.

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