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How ready was Buffalo for coffeehouse culture in the 1990s?

A few days after Mike and Sally Morin opened Spot Coffee on Delaware Avenue, Mike found himself having to act like any other bartender further down the Chippewa strip.

"Our barista came to me and said a kid from Hutch-Tech had just done eight espressos, one right after the other, and she was worried," says Mike. "I went to talk to him, and his hands were shaking, he was that wired. I said "Look, I'm sure you're having fun, but I gotta cut you off.' "

The kid's response? "I think it made his day," Morin grins. "He was really into the scene."

That was in 1996, and Seattle-style coffeehouses were just starting to hit their stride in Western New York, and it shortly became a full-out, caffeinated sprint.


In 1986, the local yellow pages didn't even have the category "coffeehouses."

By 1996, the category was in bold-faced type and there were seven listings underneath.

By 1997, there were 23 listings - and five more have been added since.

In 2001, the natural question might be: Has Western New York, like that espresso-filled teen, now been overserved its gourmet coffee?

But the answer may jolt you more than a triple espresso.

"If anything, this market is undersaturated," says Morin. "There's room for more. Way more."

The Morins intend to prove that at their Delaware Avenue location in a few weeks, opening the Spot Coffee Roastery, accessible through a doorway off the parlor area and through a door off Delaware.

There, green coffee beans will be roasted, packaged and sold, and customers will be able to enjoy "cuppings" - the coffee equivalent of wine tastings, in which small samples of freshly roasted brews will be available.

In addition, schools eventually will be able to bring students through for tours, and Spot will be expanding its office-coffee service to local businesses, with a variety of coffees, teas and baked goods from its bakery on Main Street.

"This was always our goal, to be able to roast on site," says Sally Morin. "We want people to be able to see the process and the product that they're eventually going to taste."

Spot isn't the first place to do this - bean-roasting has been going on at Premier Gourmet in Kenmore and at Blue Mountain Coffees on Elmwood Avenue since 1984, and at the Buffalo Coffee Roastery in the Main Place Mall since 1994.

But Spot's roastery is the biggest ever to come downtown. And Morin hopes it will spur the next wave of coffeehouse culture.

"I want to see coffeehouses outnumber bars," he says.

And if industry predictions come true, they just might.

"Talk about being wired'

How much have we grown to love freshly brewed gourmet coffee and coffee drinks?

Enough to make it possible for more than a dozen shops to open somewhere in the United States every week in the last 20 years. According to the non-profit Specialty Coffee Association of America, there were only about 200 specialty coffeehouses in the United States in 1979, a number that had swelled to nearly 15,000 by 1999.

Put in more personal terms, in 1993, there were only about 4.5 million daily gourmet coffee drinkers (that's someone who downs at least three eight-ounce cups per day) in the United States - but by 1999, that number had swelled to about 21 million, according to the National Coffee Association.

And here's the forecast: By 2010, some 130,000 gourmet coffee shops will be in business.

It doesn't surprise the Morins, who have also opened Spot Coffee houses in Ellicottville, on Elmwood Avenue and in downtown Rochester.

"In Seattle, your dentist's office has an espresso machine. Your car wash has one in the waiting room. Talk about being wired," he enthuses.

"Here, Elmwood Avenue still has space. Main Street obviously has space. There are lots of city corners still open," he notes.

And other local baristas and coffeehouse owners agree with Morin's assessment.

Sophisticated tastes

While few others seem eager to shell out the roughly $50,000 the Morins did to cover the costs of construction and their massive copper and stainless steel roaster, they aren't averse to the notion of the specialty-coffee industry expanding locally.

"I think some Elmwood neighborhoods may be hitting their peak, but in the city there's definitely room for more," says Dave Cosentino, owner of the Caffe Aroma shops on Elmwood Avenue, in Ellicott Square and on Main Street in Williamsville.

"People locally are getting more educated about good coffee all the time, and we're always inventing new coffee drinks that they want."

Peter Fremming, who has been the master roaster at Premier Gourmet since 1994, has seen local tastes grow more sophisticated over time.

"Mostly we had people asking just for Colombia Supremo or French Roast," he explains. "I think they were intimated by other names."

But seven years later, he has customers regularly asking for Kenya Double-A and Costa Rican varieties.

"We're nowhere near our peak, as far as coffeehouses go," says Fremming. "As the population gets older and bar culture dies out, that's where you're going to see people going."

Kate Edwards, who has owned and run Buffalo Coffee Roastery since it opened, has a second shop a block away at the Liberty Building and feels that's enough expansion for her - but not for the industry.

"I think we're definitely undersaturated as a market in Buffalo," says Edwards. "In some cities, like Seattle, there are five coffee shops on one corner, some next door to each other. You don't even say the word "Folgers' there."

And while many Western New Yorkers wouldn't say the word "Starbucks" when it first set up across the street from Spot Coffee downtown, it, too, has a well-established presence now, with nine area locations and a training center in Amherst.

The local spokesman for Starbucks, Gary MacGregor, did not return phone calls seeking commment on possible local expansion, but "they have 170 in Seattle, and 12 on Vancouver's main street alone," Morin notes. "So don't be surprised."

And don't be unnerved by it either, advises Jim Greer, longtime roaster at Blue Mountain Coffees.

In his view, coffee is a nearly recession-proof, small luxury item that will remain popular for years to come.

"Do you think they're oversaturated with coffee shops in Paris?" he asks rhetorically. "I don't know if you can ever have too many coffeehouses. I'm happy where I am. But I certainly wouldn't mind seeing more here."

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