Girls in pink ballet leotards mix with Amherst highway workers, dance moms, and white-haired couples at the coffee counter in Dash’s supermarket in Williamsville. The line ranges from two to 10 people, a lively crowd patiently waiting for their favorite daily dose of coffee or cappuccino. Behind the counter, Michelle Bukowski is heard saying, “The usual for you? A skim milk latte with a shot of vanilla?” Just behind her, Alisha Cedrone, with her multiple tattoos and piercings, prepares the latte, having anticipated the order of one of her daily customers.
It’s a typical day for two of Buffalo’s most memorable baristas —a dynamic duo whose ability to know their customers and work seamlessly together makes getting even a simple cup of coffee seem like an art form. Contrary to popular belief, being a great barista is not an easy job — it requires the insight of a psychologist, the comedy of a late-night TV host and the agility of a gymnast.
Bukowski, who also manages coffee operations, compares her role to that of a bartender. “I hear peoples’ stories; I get to really know my customers; I try to be someone’s strength if they are going through a hard time, like divorce or illness. I see elderly couples, frustrations between husbands and wives, real moments, real lives. I listen,” she explained. “Being a barista is more than just pouring a cup of coffee or making the perfect latte.”
The quintessential “people person,” Bukowski has a remarkable memory for details. On any given day she can be heard saying, “How is your grandmother doing?” “Is your son home from college yet?” “How was your vacation in Phoenix?” It’s a skill to be able to gauge a person’s mood as he or she walks in the door and make them feel comfortable, but Bukowski considers it the best part of her job. “I try to set the pace, always stay positive, while Alisha usually makes the drinks,” said Bukowski.
“Michelle and I work so well together; we anticipate what our customers need,” said Cedrone. “This job suits me; I’m a patient person who never minds explaining the difference between a latte and a cappuccino.”
Also, Cedrone explained, “Making perfect cappuccino foam satisfies the artistic part of me.”
“Alisha is all about art,” said Bukowksi.
“Her tattoos, her style, her decorations on our cupcakes; they’re creative. But what we love
most about this job is that it’s not just about the coffee. We look down at the line of people, and we know most of them. They become like family.
I like to think people leave here with a full heart.”
Brewing in the Southtowns
Further south in East Aurora, Taste is bustling, as sandwiches called “Vidler on the Roof” and “Fish for a Price” share space with freshly ground coffee, espresso drinks, and the E.T. Mocha, the house specialty. It’s a peaceful coexistence.
Just ask D.J. Lovering. He’s the barista behind the counter who can be heard calling out orders —“Frozen Cappuccino,” “Double Americano,” “Seattle Mocha.” With his “Make Coffee, Not War” T-shirt and sparkling blue eyes, Lovering has a personality that combines creative intellect with warmth and excitement, especially when he talks about “latte art” and his signature designs. “I keep it simple,” he said modestly. “I make flowers or tree-like designs. It’s really a mathematical process, adjusting the grind of the beans, making the perfect shot of espresso, steaming the milk to just the right temperature so the crema (top layer) is thick enough to hold the milk on top.”
While latte is composed of just two ingredients — espresso and milk — Lovering creates an intricate, leaf-like pattern on top that looks too pretty to drink. “Sometimes people take pictures and post them on Instagram,” he admitted. “A lot depends on the espresso machine; it’s always necessary to make adjustments to make the perfect shot of espresso, to make it all come together before the customer’s eyes.”
He enjoys teaching people about the drinks he makes, and he likes when it’s busy. “I especially enjoy it when there’s a line out the door; it’s almost like a puzzle to make a great drink in a timely manner; it becomes like a dance. I get an adrenaline rush.”
Lovering dreams of opening a small coffee bar where people can watch how the drinks are made and interact in an intimate setting. “Coffee shops have, throughout history, been the places where great ideas flourish. I’d love to be part of a place where people talk about music, art, and politics, similar to a European café. But even here, at Taste, I want people to see I’m taking care and time with their drink; I don’t ever just want to stand behind the espresso machine!”
Sweet_ness 7 on Grant Street is a place to gather and people-watch on a nice day or to find a cozy corner on a blustery one. An old-world coffee house, its presence is welcoming; it has a cool vibe and a barista who knows his coffee and his customers. Rob Fussell’s goal is to make beverages that “put a smile” on his customers’ faces. A member of the Barista Guild of America, Fussell explains there is a science to making the perfect cup of espresso. “It takes a lot of training to get it right; there are different levels of training. Being part of the Guild is a confirmation that what I do is legitimate. In the Italian tradition, being a barista is both a science and an art — grinding fresh coffee to use, measuring out to the gram, making it a perfect shot. But I’m not just serving coffee; it’s about building community and creating friendships that last.”
The idea of community is crucial to the identity of this funky, eclectic coffee bar, whose mantra is to “add some peace, love, and deliciousness” to peoples’ lives. In some ways, Rob is perfectly suited to the job, having grown up drinking coffee with his mother in New Orleans, even as a young child. “My mom would read the paper and I would read my Mad Magazine,” he laughed.
After working in New Orleans and Chicago, Fussell and his wife, who is originally from Buffalo, decided to move back here to raise a family. “I learned a lot about what is called the third wave of coffee — free trade coffee — and I ended up at a coffee house that respects the product and its customers. Sweet_ness 7 is committed to building a community. It’s a culture and a way of life, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Story topics: Food & Drink