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North Hills Monthly

Local Coffee Shops Offer Connection, Community

Oct 31, 2018 07:51AM ● By Kathleen Ganster

Hallowed Grounds Coffee Roasterie

How about a cuppa java? Cuppa Joe? Or maybe just a cuppa?

No matter how you word it, lots of folks love their coffee, but local coffee shops have become so much more than just a quick place to pick up a cup of one’s favorite brew.

For Renee Tokar, a local coffee shop meant serving her community. Before she opened The Muddy Cup in Bellevue, Tokar knew coffee. She worked for Starbucks as an operations trainer, but that meant being on the road a lot.

“And I’m a homebody. I wanted to take what I knew and start a place that had a hometown feel. I wanted people to say, ‘This is my Muddy Cup,’” Tokar said. 

In 2008, she opened the Bellevue location in what she calls a “cute little walking town,” and one close to her home and family in Brighton Heights. “I quit an amazing job and jumped in feet first with pennies in my pocket,” she said. 

Tokar created the shop of her dreams, a place where people feel comfortable. “I’m really picky about who I hire; I want there to be a real connection with our customers,” she said. 

And that means just what Tokar had hoped for–a one-to-one connection. “We serve one customer at a time; we cater to their needs and take time to work with them. For example, we have hundreds of flavor combinations. We can take the time and see which a customer wants, not just hurry up and make a cup and get them out of there,” Tokar said.

The Muddy Cup is known for some of their specialty drinks including the Salty Cow, Muddy Monkey and toffee cream lattes. They also sell coffee ground on site and whole beans to take home plus bakery items to have with those cuppas. 

In October of 2017, Tokar opened a second location in Dormont. Although both locations are small, she said that they allow friends to meet or individuals to sit and work. And soon there will be a third location in Beechview, slated to open in November with a much larger space than the other two shops. 

“We are part of the community where we are located. We want our customers to feel at home,” Tokar said. 

New Brighton is home to Hallowed Grounds Coffee Roasterie, which is owned and operated by Kathy Chabala, who opened the shop in 2008. Hallowed Grounds is a family business that started as a small roaster. 

“My husband, David, is the founder of the business; it was his idea. In the beginning, he roasted all of the beans, but he still has a day job where he makes real money and has benefits,” Chabala explained. The couple’s son, Drew, now also works at the shop, roasting the coffee beans and taking care of the deliveries for their commercial accounts. 

The idea started from the couple’s visits to the Strip District where they used to go to purchase coffee.

“My husband was fascinated by the roasting process and was going to start roasting coffee as a home hobby. Instead, he purchased a $10,000 commercial coffee roaster and installed it on our enclosed sun porch at our old house,” laughed Chabala. “He said that some guys have Harleys, but he has a coffee roaster.” 

David began roasting and giving away 2 oz. sample bags of coffee, and soon they had more than 100 customers. As the business grew, the Chabalas decided to open their shop. 

They are not a “sit and sip” shop, according to Cabala, but a coffee roaster, importing green beans and roasting them daily in small batches, which is called micro-roasting. They even have a Beaver Valley Espresso, named after their hometown. 

“This guarantees the freshness and uniqueness of our coffee. We sell coffee by the cup or by the pound and we like to say, ‘That by cup or by pound, Hallowed Grounds coffee is the best around,’” she said. 

Although they know coffee, Chabala is quick to point out that they are not ‘coffee snobs.’

“You don't have to speak coffee lingo to shop in our store. We believe that coffee and conversation go hand- in-hand and love to share our passion with our customers,” she said. 

Like Tokar, she feels that it is important for the shop to be part of the community. 

“Our store offers an old-fashioned country atmosphere like the mom-and-pop shops of yesteryear. We believe that small business is the backbone of the community and want to do everything we can to preserve and protect that concept for future generations,” Chabala said. Because of their dedication to other local businesses, they offer locally made baked goods and snacks in addition to their own coffee and specialty drinks.

Mike Witherel was having a hard time finding a job in a dismal job market after he completed his MBA, so he decided to open a shop in a property that his family already owned in Ross Township. Having grown up in nearby West View, he knew the area well.

“I asked myself, ‘What would have been nice to have when I was growing up?’” he said. 

Coffee Buddha was the result. Witherel opened the shop on July 6, 2011, and over the past seven years, the shop has become part of the community, not only serving high-end coffees but acting as the local go-to when, Witherel said, “Someone wants to grab a cup of regular coffee without having to think.” 

As a local shop, Witherel said that they are approachable and want to give their customers whatever types of drinks they want. They make their own syrups from scratch and pick herbs, such as mint, from their own garden.  This past summer, Witherel also added two bakers to his staff so that they now offer homemade muffins, scones, cookies, quiche and more, including pies for their very popular pie night, which occurs on the last Tuesday evening of each month. 

Coffee Buddha also hosts events, including after-hours game nights and concerts. “It’s BYOB and we make mock cocktails, so customers can add their own favorites to them,” Witherel said. 

A labor of love, Witherel is glad that he made the leap to open Coffee Buddha. “It’s stressful and hard, but I love it,” he said. “We will grow as much as we can. We feel like we are part of the community.”