On the Espresso Trail in Torino

Torino It was a good day at the main location of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on Ponce de Leon Street in New Orleans. Largely due to the inspiration of Cafe Degas across the street from the coffeehouse the Saturday evening after Bastille Day for something of a block party celebration. We do our small part by waving French flags from the balcony and see who wants a cup of coffee before they head home. There’s good spirit, and it’s not one of the military parades that President Trump greets with such relish, since it’s much more of a family affair.

In solidarity, my companera and I walked the streets of the city from dawn until dusk in Italy in the fascinating city of Turin, as English maps call it, and Torino, as the city calls itself. In a full disclosure, I’m a Fair Grinds blend coffee-and-chicory guy. I squirrel away a pound for an over two-week trip like this and try to ratio it so that I can have one or two cups of home brew every day on the road. Mi companera though has become an espresso girl in recent years. She was a stove topper in the manner that we learned in Buenos Aires for a while. Then she went with an Italian brand made somewhere around Milan. I got her an espresso maker for her birthday last year, and recently she got it working to her satisfaction.

recycling in Torino

But, as they say, “when in Rome,” and in this case we were in Torino, and though I was hoarding Fair Grinds coffee-and-chicory, it only make sense and good company to join my companera for an espresso in a bit of field research for our coffeehouses. Howard Schultz, the billionaire behind Starbucks, famously claimed that his experience drinking espresso in Italy drove him to evangelize for coffee and propelled his chain forward. In truth Starbucks did a lot of things but not as much for coffee as it did for milk, by creating a fetish for all manner of drinks that were not simple shots of espresso.

super recycling station

I’ve had some good espressos with perfect crema, the layer of foam on top, but what has amazed me more is the wide variety in pricing. We had a near perfect cup this morning on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II for one euro a cup and I spent another euro on a delightful nut and confection bar called a “torinocino.” That might not be exactly the right name, so I’ll obviously have to go back and have another and write it down this time to see if we can get someone to make them at Fair Grinds. Darned this field research is hard work. Elsewhere it has been a euro thirty, a euro twenty, and a euro fifty. In France sometimes it was two euros. One euro seems right, since that’s more than a dollar in the States, and no matter how good, there are only a couple of sips to it.

Mi conpanera thought she should help out and wanting something cold she spotted some women at the coffee bar in the marketplace near the River Po spooning a white substance out of their glasses from a machine with Eraclea labeled on it. Turned out this was a granita, and Eraclea makes a bunch of them with different mixes. Hers had a lemon flavor, I thought, and pineapple she felt, so maybe it was both or neither.

one of many public water fountains in Torino

Of course one of the reasons she swears by espresso is that the machines require filtered water to work well, and of course that means no lead to the head. Fair Grinds uses filtered water on all of our machines, and we assume the same goes for the espresso makers of Torino.

There are worse ways to spend your time that trying to figure out the city and stand at a coffee bar and take a couple of quick sips to down an espresso shot.

park bench along the River Po

A glass espresso on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II

Eraclea granita machine

An espresso along the River Po

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Gilmore Girls Blow up Fair Grinds Coffeehouse

dscn1914Little Rock    It all seemed simple enough. Through the on-and-off challenge of erratic email in Cameroon, I got an email from a marketing company asking if Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, our social enterprise fair trade operation in New Orleans, was willing to do something they called a “Luke’s Diner” pop-up for 5 hours on a Wednesday for Netflix. It seems they were trying to revive the old “Gilmore Girls” television show sometime later in the year. They would pay us for up to 250 free cups of coffee to giveaway. They would do the promo and send us cups, sleeves, and some t-shirts or aprons and such.

What did I know from the “Gilmore Girls?” I might have watched them for a couple of minutes sometime back in the day while flipping through channels perhaps. Sort of a rom-com, adult soap opera of sorts tilted toward a female demographic. I looked at the calendar. It was a Wednesday. Someone willing to buy 250 cups of coffee on a Wednesday morning, usually a somewhat slow day, what did we have to lose, I thought? I forwarded the message over to Zee Thornton, our manager, saying as much, but warning that I was buried, so she would have to pull the trigger on any contract, since I couldn’t sign and scan from Douala.

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I was a little worried when I read the contract they sent over which had a line that they could unilaterally disregard everything they said in the contract on a whim, so I objected to the marketing company. Their agent replied. Hmmm. Then he suggested we just scratch that line out and sign it and see what might happen. That seemed a little sketchy to me, but, what the heck, Zee could handle it, and how bad could this be, Gilmore Girls, maybe 50 or 100 folks would show up. I would roll by and check it out as I left for meetings in Greenville, Mississippi, and Little Rock, Arkansas.

The “Gilmore Girls” blew up Fair Grinds! It was crazy! When I got there at 730 AM, an hour after we opened on Ponce de Leon, the line stretched from our counter, out the door, and snaked down the street, and around the corner of ’s grocery store at the end of the block. I took a picture from our balcony and, having seen many marches and demonstrations, it looked like Fair Grinds was the target of an action! Luckily Zee had showed up for a look too, so she was behind the counter with two baristas. The opener said that when he got there at 530 AM, there was already a line. I left at 8 AM to hit the highway after trying to reassure folks along the line that we were slinging the coffee, and it wouldn’t be long.

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I asked the crowd of largely younger, white women, what was up? Many said they had watched it with their mothers. The series had run between 2000 and 2007. This would have been its 16th anniversary. One young woman on a bicycle who used to work at Canseco’s told me when she was working in the neighborhood, she had told her parents that this whole neighborhood reminded her of the Gilmore Girls neighborhood. Unlike most crowds, they were totally mellow, chitchatting as they inched along, patient, just sort of grinning about being at some kind of a Gilmore Girls lovefest. It could have been drugs, but I don’t think so.

It turned out we were out of the free coffee before 9 AM, and had used all 500 cup sleeves not much after that. Netflix worked this promotion in 200 coffee houses and cafes around the country. I’m not sure it cost them much more than $100 – $150000 nationally. We had radio, television, and newspapers before, during, and after the event. It was a total happening! I looked on-line, and USA Today had a story about a similar line and Luke himself showing up at a joint in Los Angeles.

Wild. My son, Chaco, the Fair Grinds assistant manager, who showed up luckily to restock and help out, posted on Facebook that he was going to have to check this show out now and see what was up.

You think you know something about organizing and moving a crowd, but there’s always something to learn!

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Please enjoy Hiss Golden Messenger’s Biloxi. Thanks to KABF.

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