University City

Cafeccino gives area a fresh shot of espresso

UNC Charlotte students Patrick O'Reilly and Mariah Huffman discuss their student organization at Cafeccino. Huffman, who lives nearby, says “Cafeccino is my favorite coffee shop, and I don't even drink coffee.”
UNC Charlotte students Patrick O'Reilly and Mariah Huffman discuss their student organization at Cafeccino. Huffman, who lives nearby, says “Cafeccino is my favorite coffee shop, and I don't even drink coffee.” DON BOEKELHEIDE

Shortly after Cafeccino opened 11/2 years ago, I dropped by to check it out.

I liked the back story: A raggle-taggle band of college students had occupied an empty Caribou Coffee site on Mallard Creek Church Road.

Their plan was to replace corporate coffee with a local coffeehouse, just 10 minutes away from the UNC Charlotte campus. Leading them was their manager at Central Piedmont Community College’s Victory Coffee, CPCC math instructor Phillip Tran.

Tran, Cafeccino’s founder and owner, raised the required funding and attracted media attention for his very un-corporate approach to management. Instead of demanding uniformity and groupthink, Tran, a former IBM employee, set up a democratic workplace designed to honor creativity and help build entrepreneurial skills for his young employees.

“If you’re small, you have to work at rooting yourself in the community,” Tran said in early 2014. He wanted to try student ideas, from selling crepes to hosting live music. “We’re just trying to mix and match, and hope it works.”

By the time I visited Cafeccino, University City’s indie coffeehouse scene had gone further downhill after Jackson’s Java, across the street from UNC Charlotte, unexpectedly closed. I was ready to embrace Cafeccino.

There was just one small but existential problem. The coffee was awful, at least on the day I visited.

The young man working the counter lectured me on the superiority of flavored beans – he recommended something like butterscotch – and told me Cafeccino would mostly serve blended ice drinks, anyway.

“That’s all people want, man,” he said.

I thanked him and made for the door, not sure when I’d be back. In spite of Tran’s inspiring vision, I did not think Cafeccino held much promise.

I was wrong.

After hearing friends praise Cafeccino over the past few months, and seeing enough glowing reviews on Facebook to eclipse potential fakes, I decided to give Cafeccino another try.

The most obvious change for the better is Cafeccino’s brewed coffee, now every bit the equal of any coffee chain. Cafeccino uses beans from Cactus Creek, a veteran-run roaster in Aberdeen, near Fort Bragg.

The coffeehouse now serves simple breakfasts (in response to a customer suggestion), light lunches, crepes, cheese plates and pastries. They serve chai and other warm and iced drinks, including beer and wine. And yes, they still have lots of flavorings and blended ice drinks, too.

Cafeccino’s espresso drinks are still on the learning curve. Sometimes they’re excellent, if you get a skilled barista, but overall they are far from the consistency of Starbucks or finesse of a coffee-savvy local shop such as Central Coffee. I have a feeling they’ll learn, however, and baristas are eager to honor customer requests and suggestions.

Odd elements from the old Caribou remain, including a towering Alaskan stone fireplace, but Cafeccino’s interior space now feels less corporate and more like a big community living room, with lots of table space for budding novelists and serious studiers, and a big outdoor patio.

An old, battered guitar migrates through the space; sometimes behind the counter, sometimes propped up beside the fireplace; always available (with a bit of tuning) for impromptu jamming. A few cardboard boxes of supplies and a somewhat disorderly bookshelf of travel books add to the homey ambiance.

Cafeccino also offers a welcoming spot for hashing things out with friends, colleagues or classmates. In a single morning, I overheard topics ranging from pre-schools to Proust. The highly diverse customers looked, well, just like a college community.

CPCC and UNC Charlotte students remain the backbone of Cafeccino’s workforce. They have nothing but praise for Tran.

“He’s the best boss I’ve ever had.” Said Kathleen Leung, who has been with the coffeehouse since it started. “I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”

Baristas Meri Jenkins and Corinne Kunberger-Striep agree. Both have been working at Cafeccino for about three months.

“There are creative types here.” Kunberger-Striep said. “And we are treated with respect.”

Tran, a hands-on visionary who delivers his own supplies in his gray Prius piled high with bagels, napkins and other restaurant basics, has grown and learned over the past year.

“We were so naive when we opened,” Tran remembers. “If people knew the pain and suffering that every small business owner has to work through, I don’t know if anybody would ever start a business.”

Tran and his crew have been expanding entertainment options, including salsa dance parties on the back patio, and he hopes to set up some 3D printers so the community can use them. He has also started offering coffeehouse-based tutoring for K-12 subjects over the summer, following up on another customer suggestion.

Tran plans to lead the tutoring at first, then train his employees. That way he can offer them employment during the relatively slow summer break. He also is moving toward being able to offer a $15 minimum wage.

Tran also has plans to expand. A second Cafeccino location will open this summer near the Panthers’ stadium, followed by sites at two CPCC campuses later this year.

Don Boekelheide is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Don? Email him at Unicity3@gmail.com.

Want to go?

Cafeccino is at 2706 W. Mallard Creek Church Road in Charlotte; 704-281-2585; www.cafeccinos.com. Open 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

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