There isn’t a sign in the window yet on this Friday afternoon, but Urbana Café is open for business.
There was supposed to be a sign, said Daniel Noguera, Urbana’s creator and chief coffee fanatic, and one was in fact delivered. When he tried to apply it to one of his storefront’s full-length windows facing Broadway in Pendleton, though, he noticed something odd.
“It was printed backwards,” he said. Noguera, sitting at a table in his coffee shop, smiles. He smiles often, a blend of relaxed calm and enthusiasm. “If that’s the worst that happens, I figure that’s great.”
Though it hasn’t had a brick-and-mortar home, Urbana has been in business since 2013, an espresso machine mounted on the back of a micro-truck usually found at Findlay Market. It has built a zealous following thanks to Noguera’s passion for coffee and his personal connection with his customers.
Noguera announced plans to open a storefront in the summer, and he had planned to have it open in September. The usual surprises of designing a business and rehabbing a historic building delayed that three months, but on Dec. 14 he finally put the word on Urbana’s Facebook page: “Our little blue bar is open.”
GALLERY: Take a tour of the new Urbana Café
That’s a reference both to the small, light blue tile that covers his front counter and to the space’s intimate size: There’s seating indoors for at most a dozen people.
That’s fine with Noguera. He wants the shop, at 1206 Broadway, to serve as Pendleton’s coffee shop, a focal point for the neighborhood.
He believes a big store would be a poor fit. “It’s small on purpose,” he said.
Goal: Connecting to Customers
Staying connected with customers was key to the design. The counter is lower than usual, and Noguera’s manual espresso machine — “It makes a good barista great and a bad barista terrible,” he said — is the lowest profile he could find. “That way you still interact with the barista,” he said.
The décor is minimalist, with exposed brick walls and industrial-style, high-top tables and stools. Like most coffee shops, people are welcome to work in the store. (There’s Wi-Fi, too.)
It was a winning plan for Brandon Trame. He moved to Pendleton in June from Clifton Heights.
“It’s lower key than [Over-the-Rhine],” he said during a recent visit to Urbana.
He said he thought Urbana’s relaxed atmosphere gave it a good shot at becoming the neighborhood living room Noguera was hoping to create. He said at least he would be back for sure.
Working Out the Kinks
Though it technically opened Dec. 14, the grand opening came on Dec. 19. The soft opening let Noguera refine his operation’s logistics, not the least of which is working with a baker. “We had to get used to each other,” he said.
That baker is Elizabeth Zylka, whose arrival at Urbana was the result of a serendipitous meeting with Noguera in September. She was taken by his enthusiasm, his passion for coffee and his goal of serving Italian-style baked goods with his coffee drinks.
“He fascinated and inspired me,” said Zylka, a Dayton, Ohio, native who had moved to Cincinnati from Seattle to be closer to family. She had been leery of the Queen City’s food scene but was pleasantly surprised to see the city’s recent culinary revival.
She worked at Boca, chef David Falk’s restaurant on Sixth Street, and enjoyed it, but eventually she wanted a change of atmosphere. Enter Noguera.
“It was an opportunity to be a true collaborator, not a minion,” she said. “I could really grow with this place.”
Noguera had always planned to offer Italian-style baked goods, he said, but he had assumed he’d get most from an outside source. Now it’s almost all being done in house. On Saturdays, Urbana will offer gourmet toasts, with Zylka’s creations topping Blue Oven Bakery bread.
It’s a natural pairing. Urbana and Blue Oven are neighbors at Findlay Market, and Noguera and Blue Oven’s Mark Frommeyer had plenty of time to get to know each other.
Café Fits Evolution of Pendleton
As it turned out, Urbana’s later-than-planned opening is working out perfectly for Noguera. His micro-truck, a light blue Ape, will soon be parked at his Pleasant Ridge home for the winter. With construction on Broadway now complete, too, he’ll move on to transforming his space at Findlay into a roasting operation.
His vision is to have a three-headed business: mobile, built around the Ape, storefront retail and wholesale coffee sales. Will there be more Urbana Café outlets? Noguera isn’t opposed, but he said that won’t happen until he can guarantee the experience will be the same quality as at Findlay or Broadway.
Though its footprint isn’t large, Urbana is integral to big changes in Pendleton. The neighborhood’s renaissance got a jump-start with the first phase of Broadway Square, a projected $30 million redevelopment undertaken by Walnut Hills-based Model Group. The first phase included nearly 40 apartments and more than 11,000 square feet of retail space. The Model Group recently announced the second phase would begin soon.
Urbana’s next-door neighbor is Nation Kitchen and Bar, whose back patio is available to Urbana customers in the morning.
A half-block north, the century-old former Woodward High School, better known as the original School for Creative and Performing Arts, is being converted into more than 140 apartments as part of a $24 million project. It’s slated to open in 2016.