When John Guttridge, a native Ithacan, purchased a 25,000-square foot building formerly owned by the Ithaca Journal along Green and Geneva streets a few years ago, he had a “lot of big dreams about the cool stuff that we can do.” The “first brick in the wall” would be Life’s So Sweet, a chocolate shop.
Since then, unique shops such as Boxy Bikes, Amuse: Modern Cottage Industry gift shop, and Bramble, a herbal hub, have followed suit to create a fully blossomed micro-strip mall dubbed “Press Bay Alley.” When I talked to Guttridge this time last year, Guttridge noted that filling the open store space that directly faces West Green Street was his top priority. Throughout this whole process, his team has envisioned the space becoming a café. He explained that a good cup of coffee “creates great foot traffic,” and will also offer the opportunity to set up an outdoor sitting space for residents to enjoy.
“We don’t want a crappy cup of coffee,” he said. “We’re looking for someone to bring a high quality coffee experience that has some of the attitude of some of the higher-end coffee places in town, but also creates a setting where customers can be comfortable and relax, and not need to know how to speak Italian to place an order.”
In May, Ian Armiger and Christopher Cowan answered Guttridge’s call by opening Press Café.
“Over a year ago,” Armiger recalled, “we started a conversation about starting a roasting business. We both had busy lives, things didn’t materialize, and we didn’t jump on top of it. Then my friend John asked me if I knew anyone who wanted to open a café in the area. I’ve been part of several café openings—I’m an electrician in the area. Christopher use to roast, and we became good friends years ago. So I mentioned the idea of opening up a café to him, and we ultimately decided to go for it.”
When I walked into Press Café for the first time, I was struck by how simple it was. There are two tables, each with two chairs; a counter for cream, sugar, straws and lids; a main counter where you place an order; a menu with the basics: coffee, espresso, cold brew, tea; a showcase with a few different pastry options. And, well, that is pretty much it. There are no bells and whistles.
That, explained Armiger, was the vision.
“We get the question of ‘What are you trying to do that’s different?’ a lot,” he said. “It always throws me for a loop a bit, because that was never really a thing in the forefront of my mind for this vision. We shared a vision for a minimalist place. We don’t want to be busy; we don’t want to have knickknacks and gizmos on the counter, for instance. We want to be very clean, very aesthetically pleasing and have a focus on excellence. We have a few pastries, and they’re really good. All of the coffee drinks have attention to detail. So I never had a vision for being notably different as much as just doing what we do really well.”
Added Cowan: “To start with, this space—Press Bay Alley—was just a beautiful space. It’s modern; it’s bright. So as far as the build-out and stuff, we went with something that would fit what was already here. We’re excited about the minimal look and feel.”
Cowan’s roasting education came from his time at Gimme! Coffee, where he worked for three years seven years ago, and apprenticed under master roaster John Gant. Cowan said he wants Press Café to bring different, unique coffee experiences to its customers.
“As far as the business itself, and coffee,” he said, “we want to be a place where the community can experience coffee from different places. Our goal is to be a multi-roast café. Currently we carry Wood Burl Coffee from Dayton, Ohio, which is roasted by Brett Barker. He lived in Ithaca at one point, and had mutual friends. He pointed me in this direction. Right now, we’re looking at other roasters, looking for other coffees to showcase in our café.”
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“As far as what we’re looking for in the coffees we serve,” he continued, “what I like to see is a coffee to paint a picture. I want people to walk away with an experience of luxury. Our baristas are trained to take the coffee and extract flavor profiles that are unique. That’s the thing you’re looking for with specialty coffee. You’re not looking for everything to taste the same. You’re looking for unique characteristics of the coffee’s origin.”
In addition to offering a state-of-the-art coffee experience, Press Café also wants to give its customers the option to get something to complement their beverage of choice by way of a baked good.
“Our food items are sourced locally, we have a local baker,” Cowan explained. “Currently we’re carrying things baked by this woman named Audra. I’m very pleased with the pastries we have in our pastry case right now. She uses local ingredients. We have scones with locally harvested raspberries, and a lot of other local produce goes into most of what we have. Everything we have is really good. We’re excited about our selection.”
If coffee was step one, and pastries were step two, the last component to the Press Café vision would be art. With some art already on display, Armiger hopes Press Café becomes a hot spot for local artists to showcase their work, and for people to go see their work.
“I have an idea for our website,” Armiger said, “that will have profiles for every artist that has put their art in our café. Then I want an ‘up and coming’ section that will show the artists that will soon be displayed in the café. I like the idea of having the space be recognized as a real venue for local arts.”
Armiger and Cowan hope that combination of great coffee, tasty treats, and must-see art make Press Café a true downtown Ithaca destination.
“Our goal is to be a multi-roast café and add variety to the coffee scene in Ithaca,” Cowan said. “Gimme! Coffee did a great job of laying the groundwork for the coffee community here. We’re excited to be part of that. They’ve set the bar pretty high.”