Tina Stoeberl's College Hill Coffee Company and Casual Gourmet
By John Erardi, Contributing Writer
Photos and video by Madison Schmidt
At times like this, one wishes for the technology of being able to add scent to print. Problem is, Tina Stoeberl's College Hill Coffee Company and Casual Gourmet would require every aroma in the house -- bacon frying, coffee percolating and muffins baking, just to name a few -- to bring the whole story to life.
You're on your own for that. Or, perhaps, pull up a chair at CHCC & CG at the corner of Hamilton and North Bend, order a cup of coffee or tea and a piece of Tina's mom's homemade pie, cue up this story on your laptop or phone, and let the delightful smells waft over you. Plenty of people do just that.
I’ve seen customers here who look like they’ve settled in for the day; I’ve seen meetings held; heard the stories about the people who’ve dropped in for lunch and come back for dinner with friends on a first visit. One thing’s for sure: It’s a totally different vibe, morning, noon and night. Live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
As Tina emailed me recently. signaling that my peg for this story had arrived: The Reds’ “etched bottles” of wine are finally in. We are indeed the only place (in town) that has them; we have the exclusive.
That’s a tribute to how much retail CHCC does from it boutique shop of specialty items: It was the No. 1 seller of the Reds’ etched bottles last year, which garnered it being named the exclusive outlet for it in Cincinnati this year.
Out-performing the competition is something CHCC regularly does. In 2014, Cincinnati magazine voted CHCC’scoffee cake (cinnamon streusel) the best in town.
I first became aware of the restaurant at the corner of Hamilton and North Bend -- what Tina calls the city’s “second busiest intersection after Galbraith and Winton” –– when my buddy, former newspaper colleague Cliff Radel, took me there for lunch. I had the black bean burger and a piece of apple pie, and was immediately hooked.
Tina: “We make the guacamole, the hummus plate, the cole slaw. . . homemade sides (not to mention the entrees, of course). If we don’t make it, we don’t say we do . . . Homemade pies by my mom, Carol. She didn’t know when she retired she was going to get a new job. Usually three fruit pies, plus deep-dish apple. In the summertime, we’re known for her Shaker Lemon Pie, lemon rind and all, shaved very thin, tart and yet custard-like, nine eggs, 100-year-old Shaker recipe and people who visit Shakertown say ours is better. My mom says it’s the hardest pie to make. . . We call her Mama C. On good days we call her C-Dawg.”
Tina is a pistol, a firebrand, great with a quote, quick with a hug. An only child, a Capricorn, and a believer.
She points to the empty space where a Kroger supermarket used to be, catty-corner to the College Hill Coffee Company. “That used to be last stop for the old street-car line. The car barn was there. People would take the street car to the Linden Park Hotel that set up on that grassy knoll and go there for dinner and dancing.”
After talking with Tina last Tuesday morning, I returned to College Hill that evening, hoping to sample some more of the neighborhood by grabbing a beer at Brink craft brewery and the goat cheese-and-marinara appetizer next door at Red Rose Italian restaurant.
Alas, Brink’s dark day is Tuesday, so my buddy and I re-park up the street at Marty’s Hops & Vines and enjoy an appetizer and some smooth pours of Old Man Johnson’s Farm Dark Dank Imperial Stout with Raspberries from the SweetWater Brewing Co. in Atlanta, and absolutely love the whole experience. We’ll be back for Brink and Red Rose another night. The point being that there’s a lot to enjoy in College Hill.
“To someone driving down the street, they probably still think nothing is going on,” Tina says. “But what we know is that we’ve put in 15 years of hard work in property acquisition.”
College Hill is the seventh biggest of the city’s 52 neighborhoods (both in area and population) as gleaned from lists of the six leading demographics. CHCC is located in a diverse neighborhood, and its customers reflect it.
The neighborhood’s history begins… “Originally a wealthy suburb called Pleasant Hill due to its prime location, it was renamed College Hill because of the two colleges that were established there in the mid-nineteenth century (including an academy that became an agricultural school called Farmer's College for which the area was renamed in 1846). That school became Belmont College in 1885… A separate school, the Ohio Female College, was founded in in 1852… College Hill was incorporated as a village in 1866, then annexed to the city of Cincinnati in stages in 1911, 1915 and 1923…”
Tina rattles off a litany of property and plans, far too long to go into here, but rest assured that this is a neighborhood whose total transformation is inevitable.
She credits the hard work of many people – an active business association, community council and urban development corporation -- but when I ask Tina to single out one in particular, she cites Mike Cappel, a College Hill resident (of course), and president of the urban development group.
Tina: “We would not be where we are today if it wasn’t for Mike’s relentless volunteer commitment and many hours of work. He’s a great negotiator, an attorney – he knows what he’s doing.”
One of the beautiful things about looking back on any venture in which you sink your blood, sweat and tears in act-of-faith fashion, is the 20-20 hindsight-clarity with which you’re able to see who were the people -- besides yourself and whatever good influences you had in your young life – that helped guide you to overall success.
I asked Tina who was one of those early, big-picture people in College Hill’s early 21st century transformation.
“Dale McGirr,” she says, without hesitation.
McGirr, who retired from the University of Cincinnati in late 2006 after overseeing the school’s amazing transformation over the past 15 years, was a guiding light.
His advice came to the fore just as College Hill was undergoing what appeared to be its toughest transitional pains. Kroger had moved from the northwest corner of Hamilton and North Bend, catty-corner to College Hill Coffee Co. It hadn’t been that long before, six or seven years, that Shuller’s Wigwam, a restaurant that opened in 1922, had shut its doors. A big pharmacy was supposed to be a fixture, but instead closed down.
Tina: “Dale told us, ‘You guys have got to stop thinking about a new grocery store. Those times have passed. You’re sitting on a golden opportunity. It took Columbia-Tusculum 25 years to acquire this kind of land. You are sitting on the opportunity of a lifetime.’ He really changed our mindset in one day about how we had to be thinking long-term...
“We bought five storefronts at the south end of the business district. Another building was going up for sheriff’s auction – we wanted to protect it; we were afraid what might go in there – (and that was taken care of). . . We decided we would only rent to somebody that needed the same type of opportunity that we needed -- a good start – and that’s the Red Rose Italian restaurant now. . . People started putting their money where their mouth was, and that was the turning point. A lot of the businesses that have come in are those of people who live here.”
The restaurant and retail life that Tina began 11½ years ago was a leap for her after 23 years in the health-care field. She had no training for it. She was born and raised in Cheviot, and bought her first home in North College Hill 25 years ago, then moved a few miles down the road. Things started to come together -- or fall apart, depending on one’s perspective.
“I wanted a career change,” she explains. “I was involved in the neighborhood, community council vice president, College Hill gardeners -- which ain’t your grandma’s garden group; it’s more a group of community activists. I figured, ‘How hard can it be” (to own and run a restaurant)? The owner asked me, ‘Is anybody telling you not to do this?” I said no. He said, ‘Well, go find somebody who tells you not to do this.’
“My accountant gave me a book that said, ‘Why you shouldn’t buy this restaurant.’ I read two pages of it and threw it on the floor by my bed and never picked it up again. I drank a bottle of wine and said ‘I’m doing this.’ There was no looking back, no fallback plan, no room for failure... I was too cocky and confident to realize that the restaurant business is absolutely insane. I should have been petrified and I wasn’t.”
The advantage she had is that she had run businesses for other people. One was a spinoff from a doctor’s group, a training company.
Tina: “I felt like if I surrounded myself with professional people to help me – a great accountant, a great lawyer, people who knew the things I didn’t – I thought I could do it.”
And the biggest inspiration of all? College Hill itself.
“It’s the first place I had lived that truly was a neighborhood,” Tina says. “People asked me, ‘Why would do this (run a restaurant) here?’ I answered, ‘I would only do it here.’ If something happens in College Hill, you’ve never seen people rally together like they rally together here.”
Proof of that was in her very takeover of the business.
The owners didn’t want the patrons know during the holiday season that the restaurant was being sold. So, Tina celebrated her 40th birthday at the restaurant on New Year’s Day, and announced, “You’re all invited back tomorrow, because we’re going to tear the place apart. I’m buying the business and we have 10 days to do this big turnaround.”
Word got around, and people started showing up she had never met before.
“One woman took all the salt and pepper shakers home and scrubbed them clean. The microwave didn’t fit where I wanted it to go. All of a sudden, I hear this electric saw. My friend said, ‘Don’t worry, he knows what he’s doing.’ The health department said, ‘This whole ceiling has to be replaced and sealed.’ Next thing I know, there’s a guy putting ceiling tiles in, and I’d never even met him.”
College Hillers wanted CHCC to be live up to its reputation as “the jewel of the neighborhood.” They wanted it have longer hours, be staffed adequately, serve home-cooked meals, to be succor and attraction to neighborhood regulars and passers-through. They wanted CHCC to represent.
Tina: “I love that we are everybody’s place, the community’s place, a true neighborhood place.”
I see an older couple walk in with two friends, obviously newcomers. I see the veteran couple’s hands begin to move as they start to describe what they see, feel, and smell. The cinnamon, the brown paint changed from periwinkle blue (blue is an appetite suppressant), the impeccable window dressing. CHCC and CG looks like a European coffee house; it could be in Germany or France, or New York or Chicago.
A downturn in the national and local economy a year after CHCC opened placed Tina in more difficult straits than she had anticipated. “You would not believe the number of dish towels I sold,” she says. It kept things afloat. She credits her staff for sticking by her.
“I was so lucky to have my original staffing team, right on down to the teenagers, the high school kids who I hired in the beginning,” Tina says. “Those kids were the backbone of this restaurant. I’m in touch with many of them to this day.”
Even though Tina has proven to be a natural in her role as restaurateur and civic leader, it’s not as though she had a crystal ball.
I asked her if she was seeking something akin to fellowship by getting into the restaurant business. From her smirk, I could tell I was as far from the truth as one could possibly get.
“My mom told me she had to learn to like me,” Tina says. (We both laugh at that.) “I don’t have any children. My aunt watched me; she had me in the grown-up world every day. Then, all of a sudden, I bought myself a business and I’m surrounded by teenagers. I told my mother, ‘I’ve been paid back a million times over for everything I ever did.’ What I never wanted, I was in the thick of. (We both laugh at that, too.) But I’m molding their young little selves. I’m developing their brains, teaching them common sense, which I am full of. It’s painful at times, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
As though on cue, a longtime customer, Alissa Stachowski, with a grade schooler at her side, walks into CHCC, providing Tina another opportunity to explain this unique business of restaurateuring.
“Here Alissa was eight years ago, just out of the hospital, newborn baby, her husband goes back to teaching, and I see how dead-tired she is, and I say (to the waiter), ‘Make that a decaf. She’s going home.’ I end up taking this newborn baby – who was in a stroller, and I’ve got one bottle and one diaper – and Alissa is on her way out the door to go home to sleep. I say, ‘What’s her name?’ She answers, ‘Talia.’ And here I am the person with no kids, and now I’ve got this newborn baby. So I stroll her that whole afternoon until dad comes home from school.”
All three of us laugh. Even eight-year-old Talia smiles.
One final nugget. . .
Some restaurant veterans predicted Tina wouldn’t be able to work with Theresa Perkins, a strong, take-charge woman (much like Tina), born and raised in Northside, who had run the coffeehouse for the previous owners. That operation was built around the hours (7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) when Theresa was able to work, raising a family as she was.
The prediction turned out to be inaccurate; the people predicting it didn’t totally understand Tina’s and Theresa’s personas. They are strong women, but able to work things out. Here’s how it went:
“She respects my area, and I respect hers,” Theresa says. “I think our individual personalities help make it so different here day and night. I’m here during the day; Tina’s the night person. It’s ying-yang.
“Tina’s great at what she does. Give her a nook and cranny and she’ll turn it into a masterpiece. She introduced the made-to-order omelets. She brought in 95 percent of the retail. It was her idea to ‘open it up’ -- the space and the hours. ‘Open the doors and let them come in’ was her approach. And come they did. It takes a team, the whole staff, and the neighborhood support to make it work.”
Six months in, after seeing Tina at the restaurant every minute it was open, Theresa told the boss matter-of-factly that she didn’t have to be concerned on a 24/7 basis about her new venture.
“The one time you don’t need to be here,” Theresa said, “the one time you don’t have to worry, is when I’m here.”
“I slept in the next day,” Tina remembers.