This seems to be the basic need of the human heart in nearly every great crisis—a good hot cup of coffee.
—Alexander King, I Should Have Kissed Her More
“In times like these, Clare, failing to take a risk is the biggest risk of all.”
Across the café table’s cool marble surface, Madame Dreyfus Allegro Dubois pinned me with her near-violet eyes. “Don’t you agree?”
Of course, I agree. I wanted to shout this, scream it. Risk and I were old friends, and if anyone knew that, my octogenarian employer did.
“Investing in the new coffee truck was my idea,” I reminded her between robust hits of espresso. “I know it’s a smart idea.”
“Good. Now all you must do is convince him.”
Him was Mateo Allegro—due to arrive within the hour. An international coffee broker, Matt was the Village Blend’s coffee buyer, Madame’s only child, my ex-husband, and the father of my pride named Joy.
“Like I told you, I tried to convince him . . .” (Half a dozen e-mails worth of “try” to be precise. When text didn’t work, I placed calls overseas. Lengthy calls. Enriching AT&T hadn’t helped, either.) “The man doesn’t listen, and he’s still in a state.”
Beneath the mauve silk of her mandarin jacket, Madame’s narrow shoulders gave a little shrug. “What can I say? He’s his father’s son. All that passion, all that intensity, all that tenacity—”
“Tenacity?” I knocked on the coral-colored tabletop. “Matt’s head could break this.”
“I wouldn’t count on it, dear. For one thing, that’s Italian marble. Very old Italian marble. Old things tend to be stronger than you think.”
Sitting back in my café chair, I ran my hands along the thighs of my blue jeans and attempted to fill my lungs with a healthy dose of equilibrium. It wasn’t easy. The sun may have set, but our coffeehouse commerce was far from winding down. A line of caffeine-deprived customers hugged the espresso bar; and beyond our wall of wide-open French doors, laughing latte lovers still packed our sidewalk tables.
The city was enjoying one of those glorious stretches of early summer weather, before the high humidity hits, when afternoons are sunny and clear, and nights are pleasantly temperate. Madame and I were perched between the two—the warmth of midday and the chill of midnight, when the sun clocks out and a magical light seems to soften New York’s hard edges.
I tried my best to drink in that gentleness, that calm. All day long I’d been on my feet, dealing with bickering baristas, demanding customers, and low stock. With the arrival of my assistant manager, Tucker, I finally took a load off, along with my Village Blend apron, to welcome the coolness of early evening with warm sips of caramelized peaberries.
Unfortunately, a single shot would not be enough caffeine. I wasn’t aware of it yet, but something blacker than nightfall was headed my way, and before I knew it, the business troubling me would be murder.
At the moment, however, the business on the table (literally and figuratively) was coffee—and the question of how best to keep this business selling and serving it through the next century.
So far, Madame had seen things my way. And why not? Despite appearing as starched and restrained as a Park Avenue blueblood, Madame was a bohemian at heart, embracing the odd and offbeat. To her, authenticity mattered more than money. Flouting convention was a virtue; taking risks an asset.
“When you’re a war refugee,” she once told me, “you learn to take chances, to cross boundaries. If you don’t dare, you don’t survive . . .”
The woman had done more than toil when she’d arrived on Manhattan Island. New York City ground up polite little girls like beans through a grinder, and Madame quickly understood that working hard was not enough.
After her Italian-born husband died young, she learned how to maneuver and strategize. In order to ensure the survival of herself, her son, and this landmark business, she outwitted the scoundrels who thought they could swindle or crush her. And she’d won. This century-old business was still thriving.
As for me, I was no war refugee. I’d come to New York from a little factory town in Western Pennsylvania. But I shared Madame’s admiration for the virtue of daring—and she well knew of my long-standing relationship with the “R” word.
At nineteen I risked my future by quitting art school to have my (surprise!) baby. At twenty-nine I risked my security by leaving my marriage to an incurably immature spouse. At thirty-nine I risked my sanity by returning to my old job of managing this coffeehouse, which required working with said spouse. Since I’d turned forty, I’d risked even more to ensure the safety of my friends, my family, and my staff (a redundant mention since I considered them family, anyway).
Spending my energy reminding Madame of all that, however, would have been a waste of good caffeine, so I returned my cup to its little round porcelain nest and took a new tack.
“You know what I think?” I said.
“No, dear. I only read minds on weekends.”
“I think we’re missing the simplest solution.”
Madame’s elegant silver pageboy tilted in question.
“You’re still the owner of the Village Blend,” I pointed out. “You can break your son down with one firm conversation. Please. When he gets here, talk some sense into him.”
“I’m his mother, and he respects me. And I could do that—”
“But I won’t.”
“Because, my dear, I won’t be around forever—”
“Oh, no. Don’t start that kind of talk—”
Her gently wrinkled hand waved me silent. “One day you and Matt will own this building and this business. You must learn how to handle him.”
“Learn how to handle Matteo Allegro? I’ve been handling your son since I was nineteen!”
“You handled a boy, Clare, then a man. A lover, then a spouse. You managed your relationship through a divorce and even his remarriage. But handling a man as a romantic partner is not the same as handling him as a business partner.”
Ready to argue, I opened my mouth—and closed it again.
A single imperious head-shake from my former mother-in-law was reminder enough that further protests would be pointless. This I knew after having spent so many years being a part of this small but remarkable family (my daughter included): Matt wasn’t the only Allegro with a head harder than millennial marble.
“Just remember, Clare, conversations about money are never easy when emotion is involved, and in any long-term business relationship, emotion is always involved. But a good relationship isn’t about making things easier.”
“Then what is it about?”
“Making things better.”
Expelling a breath, I rose to fetch more caffeine. “You’ll stay for our meeting, at least, won’t you?”
Madame passed me the cup and smiled, an insightful little expression that implied her words carried more than one meaning.
“I’m not going anywhere just yet.”
“You must be crazy, Clare! Out of your managerial mind!”
Matteo Allegro’s Italian-roast eyes were wide with indignation, his voice loud enough to startle my baristas and disturb the peace of my late evening customers.
“You’re overreacting, Matt. Calm down.” I lowered my own voice an octave or twelve, hoping he’d take my cue. “This is simply an expansion. It had to be made.”
“You threw hard-earned capital out the window to purchase a food cart?!”
On a long exhale, I threw a desperate look his mother’s way. Help. Across the table, Madame allowed her gaze to meet mine in simpatico, but her jaw remained set. I warned you, dear. You want this business decision to stand? Prove it should. Handle him.
Shifting in my chair, I stared at the man.
Matt stared back—after swiping aside a dark swath of low-dangling fringe. For years, my ex had kept his hair cut Caesar-short. These days, he wore it longer than a Musketeer. With his return from this coffee-hunting trip, the locks were downright shaggy, plus he had face fur.
I knew Matt loathed shaving in hot climates, but now he’d finally pushed the “devilish rogue” thing too far. The trimmed goatee had sprouted into a caveman beard. Not that it was any of my business if he looked like he was about to plant a suitcase bomb, but I did think it time he made a date with a barber—or a Weedwacker.
While he’d let his hair go, I had to admit, the rest of his body appeared fitter than ever. Under an open denim shirt, his tight white T-shirt outlined his broad shoulders and sculpted chest. Encircling one wrist was a braided leather bracelet given to him by a coffee-growing tribe in Ecuador; fastened around the other, a costly Breitling chronometer.
Such was the recipe that defined Matteo Allegro: one part daring java trekker, one part slick international coffee buyer. Not that there wasn’t more to my ex, but that paradoxical blend epitomized Matt’s addictive appeal. At nineteen, I got hooked on the guy. By forty, I found him harder to swallow than a doctor-prescribed horse pill.
“I’m going to say this again. Try to listen this time, okay? What I invested in was a truck. Not a cart. A gourmet coffee and muffin truck—”
“Not only are you squandering capital, but you actually took on debt to seek out some magical customer base that might not even exist? That’s risky, Clare. Risky and reckless!”
Okay, that tweaked me. Matt never held back an opinion, especially a negative one, but a sudden aversion to risk? This from a man who thought nothing of traveling deep into lawless regions of Africa; trekking Central American mudslide zones, diving off the cliffs near Hawaiian volcanoes?
“The Village Blend coffee truck has been up and running for almost a month. And guess what? We haven’t lost our shirts—”
“Yet,” he said.
Pushing aside my empty espresso cup, I rested one arm on the marble tabletop (and yes, I was betting I could break it with his head).
“In this competitive environment, you either expand or perish.” By way of a truce, I rested a hand on his muscular shoulder. “I promise you, Matt, I’m trying to save the Blend, not ruin us.”
My soft touch appeared to have a favorable effect. The tension in the man’s body slackened, and his booming voice finally came down to a semi-normal decibel level.
“Clare . . . We tried expanding once. Remember my kiosks in high-end clothing stores? I do, and not with feelings of nostalgia, either. We lost a bundle.”
“So we failed once. That’s no reason not to try to expand our customer base again.”
“Did you consider advertising?”
“Ad campaigns are ephemeral. What the Blend needs is a long-term strategy for our modern market—although, technically, we’re post-postmodern . . .”
I handed him a spreadsheet of stats tracking profits since I’d resumed managing his family’s coffeehouse. With hard work and discipline, I was able to keep costs low and squeeze more profit from every ring of our register. The baristas I’d painstakingly trained were making higher amounts of sale to every customer, but the overall number of patrons was not growing.
“I considered opening a second store, but rents are outrageous. The truck solves the problem of choosing a dud location—or having a hot neighborhood go cold. If one area doesn’t produce a steady customer stream, we simply drive to a new one.”
Matt reviewed the data, exhaled. “What’s your strategy?”
Ignoring the man’s skeptical gaze, I mustered the same polite but firm tone I’d used on our paper cup supplier when he announced the third price hike in as many months and said—
“That’s a business strategy?”
“It’s a philosophy and a business strategy. We have faith in our Blend, in the quality of our coffee, the commitment to our customers, the century-old tradition of family ownership. We’re simply going to spread the word.”
I flipped to a customized map of New York. “There are five boroughs in the Big Apple, right?”
“Last I checked.”
“Well, there’s no way we can get everyone in New York to come to this Manhattan shop, even if it is a landmark business. So Esther and I worked out a day and time schedule for our Muffin Muse truck to go to them. We serve commuters during morning and evening rush. On weekends, there are parks, fairs, and flea markets. We track the revenue at each location, test new locations daily—”
“On paper, it seems reasonable . . .” The man actually sounded conciliatory.
I glanced at his mother. She slipped me a fleeting wink. Then Matt looked at her and she raised her demitasse, hastily hiding her pleased little smile with a sip of espresso.
“You could have tested this theory out some other way, Clare. A cheaper way. Did you have to invest in a food truck that cost nearly one hundred thousand dollars?” Matt’s shaggy head shook.
“Believe me, I did my homework on median costs and earning potential. You need to start trusting me on things like this. Have a little faith. You know I’m the one who’s a better judge of it.”
“Yes, me. We each have our strengths. I don’t tell you how to source coffee—”
“You don’t know how to source coffee—”
“And you don’t know a thing about managing at retail.”
“Now that’s a load of crap!”
The roar came back, and now he was turning on his mother. “Why are you so quiet tonight? Don’t you have an opinion? Can’t you talk some sense into her?!”
Ack. Little more than an hour before, I’d asked her to do exactly the same thing—with him.
For an agonizing minute, Madame sat completely still. My spirits began to flag. Is she going to take his side? Tensely, I watched as she set her demitasse down with a click.
“Clare is not wrong about your lack of experience on the retail end.”
Matt gawked. “I’ve worked in this shop since I was nine years old! Bussing tables, pulling espressos; you’re the one who taught me to be the best.”
Madame’s features softened at that, but her tone remained resolved. “You’re an exceptional coffee buyer and a fine barista. But Clare is a better shop manager. She’s constant and committed yet innovative; fair but firm with staff and suppliers. Clare is also an artist at heart, which means she knows how to see and how to listen.”
The effusive praise struck me numb for a moment. But only me.
“What you do is hear, Matteo; it’s not the same thing. Clare is also a genius at artful critique.”
“Artful critique?” Matt echoed. “What the hell is that—a neo-management term? Sounds like a cross between Vincent van Gogh and Donald Trump.”
“It’s to do with insight . . .” Madame exhaled. “My dear boy, you are an excellent coffee hunter, and you clearly adore circumnavigating the globe. But this little patch of ground needs a sovereign, not a Magellan. Clare is here, day in and day out. Business may be good at the moment, but each month brings new challenges—and the broader economic picture is far from stable.”
“I assure you, Mother, things are tough all over this planet.” Matt’s expression clouded. “I know that better than anyone—”
The passing shadow may have been momentary, but I knew my ex-husband. His words weren’t rhetorical. Before I could press the man with questions, however, an amplified voice interrupted him, a noise so loud it rattled the spotless glass of the Blend’s French doors and startled my evening customers.
“Chocolat! Ooooh la la—chocolat!”
Blasting at maximum volume was a musical cliché—the Francophile classic “La Vie en Rose,” rendered via tinny instruments, the usual lyrics replaced by an infantile caricature of a French woman’s voice reciting (hard to believe, but . . .) a cupcake menu.
“Straw-bear-wee! Lee-mon! Butt-tair-cream!”
All three of us stared as a long, rainbow-colored food truck came into view. Festooned with sparkling lights and capped by a Vegas-worthy Eiffel Tower, the vehicle made its turn off Hudson to pull up beside our sidewalk café tables.
Matt turned toward me. “What is that?”
I closed my eyes. How to answer? The phrase “my new archenemy” wouldn’t do much to back my argument here.
“Ooooh la la! Chocolat!”
Like a neon shark, Kaylie Crimini’s famous Kupcake Kart had arrived for its second, obnoxious feeding of the day. I told Matt as much.
“Feeding?” he repeated. “Feeding on what?”
It pained me to say it, but Matt had to know. “Our customers.”