Tucked away inside a cozy storefront along the quaint corridor of Temescal Alley is north Oakland's newest coffee shop, The CRO Cafe. Owner Luigi Oldani named his business after his daughter, Camille Rosemary, and officially opened its doors on a First Friday art walk this past November.
Prior to having a permanent brick-and-mortar location, Oldani held pop-ups at the now-defunct Cafe Fanny in Berkeley (currently the home of Bartavelle). While they were remodeling, Oldani rolled in with his coffee cart everyday for three months during the summer.
He'd also host open houses with espresso at his metal fabrication shop, Oldani Art Studio, where he runs his other full-time enterprise creating custom furnishings for local businesses.
"The shop is a spot where we make anything and everything," he says. "Mostly the big jobs have been build-outs for cafes and restaurants. We opened up three La Boulange restaurants right before they sold out to Starbucks. We did a whole bunch of tables, counters, bars, handrails, stairways -- lots of architectural details. Our showpiece space is the work that we did at Sightglass, which was collaborative. We didn't do all of the metalwork over there, but we did some."
Oldani is a former mechanical engineer, so he enjoys the process of coming up with solutions for spaces -- especially for his own tiny cafe.
"It's 170-square-feet, so there's not a lot of electricity or amenities. It was a challenge to figure out how to get in and operate." He and the group of friends he regularly works with at his studio designed everything for the interior just a few weeks before opening. Oldani says there's still lots of items on his to-do list, including adding more shelving for retail products, finishing up planter boxes for vines that will snake up towards the counter, an awning, producing a copper-clad storefront using scraps from his dad's art studio, and most importantly, "get a sign so that people can see that there's a little hole-in-the-wall spot to get coffee."
"I wanted to do a coffee business long before I knew what good coffee was," Oldani chuckles. Disenchanted with his engineering job, he started to look for a different outlet. Oldani got the idea that, "running a coffee shop would get me a better work-life balance where I'd get to interact with people on a more personal level and hand my work product directly over to the person who was going to be consuming it. And to really be able to do that in a much shorter cycle than I was able to do as an engineer."
Oldani's former job did help inform his next career path. "With coffee, there's a bit of an idealization of the machinery. Coffee people tend to take their gear and their preparation really seriously. Coffee in itself is a volatile and tricky product to prepare well. And so the disciplined process and art of production and equipment appealed to me."
His work at Sightglass helped inspire him to transition out of his engineering job and pursue coffee as one of his next ventures. It was through his interactions with its proprietors that Oldani became serious about how he tasted and brewed coffee. He attended their training sessions to supplement his own independent study efforts and practiced brewing coffee at his art studio for two years. Oldani slowly acquired his equipment over time, including a vintage La San Marco espresso coffee machine that was formerly used at Oliveto.
"I have an affinity for the lever mechanism. A lot of the new machines are trying to duplicate what the old machines inherently do with the lever. There's a quick, ramping up of pressure at the beginning of the shot which tapers off to a lower pressure at the end. And the newer machines try to do it by controlling pumps and a lot of electronics, whereas this machine is almost all mechanism. And it does a really beautiful job of the exact same thing mechanically, which also happens to make it a really great machine for doing portable business as it requires less electricity and is more of a workhorse."
In addition to its coffee drinks, CRO Cafe also serves up a delicious hot chocolate. Oldani's fiancee and business partner, Sacha Badme, honed her culinary skills by taking a chocolate class at Tante Marie's cooking school. She uses unsweetened TCHO chocolate as the base and creates her own custom blend that imparts a rich sweetness to their warm confection.
Looking ahead to the future, Oldani is currently converting an antique milk truck into a mobile espresso truck and hopes to roll it out in the East Bay in the near future. He's also building food service tricycles for the Exploratorium and hopes the experience will spur his ability to finish the truck soon. While he has no plans to roast his own coffee -- "although I could totally see a time when that would be really compelling and could see myself becoming obsessed with it" -- Oldani plans to keep a limited menu at CRO Cafe to keep the focus on serving great espresso drinks.
"The thing that is compelling to me is that there's so much mediocre coffee available and maybe it's a better business model. But there's a growing interest in fanatical preparation and sourcing the highest quality ingredients. It feels like we're serving people who are only interested in that, although that's a much smaller segment of the market. The larger roasteries and multiple cafe outlets really control the cost of a cup of coffee and have the advantage of bigger vertical integration in that they source, roast and distribute on a larger scale so their margins are better than ours. But if you spend a lot of time and money trying to make the best coffee, people do appreciate it. I'm hoping that this market will increase, and I'm really excited to see that growth and be a part of that."