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Oakland has no shortage of excellent coffee shops, but news last March of yet another one still managed to stir interest in java fans. That’s because this one, planned for the ground floor of a new high rise in Downtown Oakland, is the first spot from one of the East Bay’s most iconic brands: 45-year-old Mr. Espresso.
You know Mr. Espresso, of course, and have likely encountered its beans. Born in Salerno, Italy, elevator repairman Carlo Di Ruocco founded the company in his Alameda garage in 1978, just a few years after he immigrated to the U.S. The business, which is family-owned and operated to this day, started as an espresso machine import company intended to help local restaurants serve Italian-style coffee drinks, a novelty at the time. Then, Carlo started oak-roasting his own beans in the machine showroom. The coffee he created was a hit, and became an institution at cafes and restaurants in the East Bay and beyond, as well as a bodega and grocery store staple. You might have a bag of Mr. Espresso beans in your pantry right now — I certainly do.
But though the company (which Carlo has since passed on to the next generation) is almost 45 years old, its beans have always been served by others in the East Bay. Decades after the company began, Carlo’s son, Luigi Di Ruocco, opened a mini-chain of sleek shops called Coffee Bar in San Francisco, an effort to, Di Ruocco told Nosh in 2014, “sell our own coffee in a more modern context.” But there’s never been a Mr. Espresso-branded cafe anywhere, before now.
That will change this September, when the Caffe by Mr. Espresso is expected to open at 1120 Broadway in a new 1,200 foot space. Originally slated to start serving in May, “typical construction delays” set that timeline back, Di Ruocco told Nosh this week. “As you can imagine, things are moving a little slower due to COVID.”
When planning for the Caffe began, Downtown Oakland was very different that it is today. “We first signed the lease … back in January of 2020,” Di Ruocco told Nosh, “just as Downtown Oakland was experiencing a surge in development and activity.”
While much of that boom has been tamped down by the pandemic, Di Ruocco remains hopeful, saying that the spot is still “a great opportunity to have our first café in a bustling neighborhood blocks away from our roastery.”
One of the reasons to believe in its success, above and beyond Mr. Espresso’s household name status, is the Caffe’s distinctive service style. Architect Hulett Jones, whose firm jones | haydu is behind the design of the space, explained it to Nosh thusly: “Rather than queuing up behind someone and waiting to give your order to the cashier, one simply finds an open spot at the bar,” he said, eliminating the coffee shop line situation. “This is much more like ordering drinks at a bar,” Jones said. “The server comes to you.”
The Caffe’s layout also means laptop lingerers should probably choose another spot to get their java fix. Other than the massive wood counter, which is being made by Gregory Hay Designs, there’s not much room to stop and smell the crema.
That’s also by design, as the space is “influenced by the standing bar of Italian coffee culture,” Di Ruocco said, which means customers are expected to grab their orders and go, as opposed to settling in for the long haul. It’s a model that Di Ruocco believes will work for Downtown Oakland, “where we think people will be on the move,” he said. “We wanted to create a place that was interactive and bustling.”
Expect those orders to include “traditional espresso drinks with some fun and delicious specialty drinks, as well as unique takes on coffee that customers may not have experienced before,” Di Ruocco said. To eat, the Caffe will serve “simple, high-quality café fare, including pastries, a few breakfast items, fresh salads and sandwich items to go.”
That’s a food program that might have the Italophilies in Nosh’s readership cocking a brow, as some would argue that while a quickly downed espresso jibes with their experiences in the bel paese, a sandwich consumed on the run is not. But Di Ruocco is prepared for that objection. “We know the industry well and have a unique vision and approach to specialty coffee,” he said, reminding Nosh that Mr. Espresso has been in action longer than most of the region’s biggest coffee destinations. “This is a continuation of the traditions of Italian-style espresso that we inherited when we started the company in 1978, blended with contemporary North American-style coffee culture.”