Case Study: 21st Street Coffee and Tea

After our recent case studies of Gasoline Alley in New York, and Publican Restaurant here in Chicago, we spoke with Luke and Alexis Shaffer, owners of the wonderful 21st Street Coffee and Tea in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Luke & Alexis are both engineers by training, and they apply the same exacting standards and attention to detail from that profession to their coffee approach, to the great benefit of the good people of Pittsburgh. Each of their two locations boasts single origin menus and a variety of different brew methods for customers to enjoy.

What equipment do you use and why?

We brew all of our hot coffees by the cup. Right now we offer an 8oz Aeropress or 12oz Hario v60. We also offer an Aeropress over ice and a Cold Brew (Filtron + other tricks) in the warmer months. We're using a group of Baratza Vario-W grinders for our by-the-cup offerings so we can dial in the right grind for each coffee.

Espresso drinks are prepared on a 2-group Synesso (one at each of our two locations), and we have Mazzer Grinders (Robur-E, Major-E, Super Jolly). We also have a scale under just about everything, and a timer right beside just about everything. The Synessos we own have just been so solid and we've done all our own maintenance over the years so we never really have downtime.


Give us an overview of your menu - Black Cat Classic? Single Origins? Blends?

We have two shops, and usually try to have four total coffees on the menu. That may mean two espresso choices (blend + single origin) and two coffees, or three coffees and one espresso. Lately we've been featuring the seasonal espressos like Sugar Glider and mixing in some of the other coffees on really busy days.

For brewed coffees we mostly offer single origins but also occasionally feature some of the terrific seasonal blends like Persephone. Since we have three brew methods all the time and dial them in daily (espresso, Aeropress, V60), four total coffees seem to be a good balance for us to stay on top of quality and offer a nice variety without getting caffeine fatigue. Right now is my favorite time of year because of all the fresh new Centrals!


How do you ensure quality execution behind the bar?

We have developed a series of training documents over the years that we update continuously. We also have an educator on staff that works with new folks according to a training plan. We try to have regular educational events for the staff, have staff cuppings, etc. We focus on simple techniques for making a brewed coffee, pulling a shot of espresso, and critical tasting. We also focus on maintaining good brew recipes to go along with that technique so the coffees don't taste radically different from shift to shift. Aside from that, it’s like an apprenticeship. Newer staff members work with more experienced folks and we build that knowledge every shift.

We place an equal emphasis on customer service, drink quality, and operations, so while a newer person may not be ready to pour a tulip in a macchiato, they have the fundamentals down after a few months to make a tasty drink and deliver a pleasant experience for our customers. It's important that our baristas enjoy working with us, too, as happy people make happy coffee and happy customers.


How long have you worked with Intelligentsia?

We started working with Intelligentsia in 2005 based on a bag of Los Inmortales, El Salvador and some great conversation. We opened in March of 2006. I can't believe it's been 7 years.


What do you value about your partnership with Intelligentsia?

It starts with outstanding quality coffee. Having been an Intelligentsia customer for 7 years I remember different points over that time when I noticed a startling increase in quality. The coffees get better each year and the variety of in-season single origins is almost too much for our menu sometimes. The roasting has been very consistent and anytime we have an issue with an order they make it right immediately.

Loyalty is also very important. Intelli's been good to us- they've supported what we do with numerous visits (Geoff Watts, Jay Cunningham, Jesse Raub), regular phone calls, supporting us in competitions, having us out to Chicago for the most recent Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, taking great care of my baristas when they're in LA or Chicago, listening to us complain about that time my store flooded or caught on fire, you name it. We value their loyalty to the coffee producers, to us, and it's just been a terrific partnership.


What’s on the horizon for 21st Street?

In the short term we're focusing inward to see where we can improve in service, operations, and quality. We relocated our original store down the street to a brand new spot about 6 months ago, so right now it feels good to just run the business and work on improving it every day. When we started back in 2006 we couldn't have imagined having this amazing staff and these wonderful customers, and having two really busy locations. No concrete plans for a third location, but you never know.

Luke & Alexis Shaffer