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Fire Escape Coffee & Tea fills a need … and cups

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 9:41 p.m.
From left to right, Mike Henry, 40, chats at the counter with Jennifer Bett, 43, Michael Bett, 48, Sarah Bett, 13, all of Ben Avon at The Fire Escape in Ben Avon as owner Melanie Holcolmb, far right, serves up some coffee for customers on Saturday, December 1, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Julie Barnes, left, 34, of Emsworth, talks to Mara Bett, center left, 10, of Ben Avon and Hadley Holcomb, center right, 10, of Ben Avon, as they pet her dog Winston 'The Double Doodle' Barnes outside of The Fire Escape in Ben Avon while Geoff Barnes, 40, of Emsworth, has some breakfast at the picnic table on Saturday, December 1, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Geoff Barnes, 40, of Emsworth, reads and has a morning coffee and muffin surrounded by hanging art at The Fire Escape in Ben Avon on Saturday, December 1, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

When a family of coffee shop fans moves into a caffeine-deprived community, there's only one thing to do: Brew your own.

That's just what Melanie Holcomb did three years ago.

Holcomb, husband David, and their daughter enjoy hanging out in coffee shops.

After they bought a home in Ben Avon, they discovered the nearest java joints required a drive of 15 minutes or more.

Rather than move, Holcomb decided to fill a need in her community.

“I realized our neighborhood could use one. The neighbors love to gather but didn't have a place to do it,” says Holcomb, who opened The Fire Escape Coffee & Tea in Ben Avon three years ago.

In addition to being a cozy place to get a cup of hot cider ($1.73) and a peppermint brownie ($1.87) while using the free wi-fi to catch up on your email, The Fire Escape has become the go-to place for meetings of swim team parents and Friday-morning knitters.

At 7 p.m. Friday, the Community Theatre Players will take over the shop to perform a free-admission reading of “A Christmas Carol.”

If that puts you in a gift-buying mood, the shop offers a nice selection of coffee and tea-oriented gift packages.

Clientele evolves throughout the day: Moms drop by for morning coffee after delivering kids to the nearby day care; businessmen arrive to meet clients or use their laptops. By the time the last lunch customer finishes, it's almost time for kids who drop by to share homework and a smoothie ($3.55, made with real fruit, no syrup or additives) or the currently favored hot chocolate ($2.57 with marshmallows and/or real whipped cream).

The huge space accommodates everyone with groupings of cozy couches and chairs, a large wooden dining table for more formal meetings, stools along a counter and a scattering of small wooden tables and chairs for more private tete-a-tete conversations.

A small fire stove and a life-size plush Dalmatian provide additional comforting touches.

It's not just nearby residents who use the space.

“It's people from the whole north boroughs from Emsworth to Brighton Heights,” Holcomb says.

Bulletin boards of fliers and business cards alert patrons to community events or available services. The upper shelves of bookcases hold paperbacks for adult borrowing or exchanging while toys and children's books occupy the lower shelves.

Holcomb prides herself on the menu of pastries — all of which are baked in the shop — such as the buttery scones ($2.24) and the Chubby Muffins ($2.10).

Steel Cut Oatmeal ($3.74) has become a big seller since it was introduced last year, possibly because customers get to choose which dried fruits and nuts will accessorize their order.

In winter months, there's also a nice selection of paninis, such as the Turkitude ($6.77) with slices of turkey, cranberry sauce and greens on whole wheat bread.

The shop has a good reputation for its soups and chilis. Soup varieties change daily but all are made either completely or partially in the shop. Smoky Split Pea and Ham Soup ($3.59 cup, $5.33 bowl) was a welcome treat on a cold day, as was the hearty Firehouse Chili ($3.92 cup, $5.93 bowl), made with ground beef from nearby McElhaney Family Farms.

Despite its name, the chili is mild, not fiery. Its name and the name of the shop refers instead to the Ben Avon firehouse that's next door. That makes it “the safest coffee shop in Pittsburgh,” Holcomb jokes.

The Fire Escape Coffee & Tea, 7221 Church St., Ben Avon. Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays; 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays. Details: 412-772-8569 or

Alice T. Carter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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