Walking into Nicholas Coffee Company, located in the Market Square neighborhood of downtown Pittsburgh, feels like entering another era.
Founded in 1919, the company has been run by family ever since, passed down from generation to generation. It all started when a Greek immigrant — Nicholas Constantine Nicholas — settled in Pittsburgh, searching for the American dream. He brought a Mediterranean love for coffee to the table, and opened up Nicholas Coffee Co., in what is now the PPG Plaza. The business thrived, even during times of hardship; throughout the Great Depression, “people still drank their coffee,” Jordan Nicholas, a fourth-generation Nicholas recounts. “People would come in and beg for the stale beans from the display cases.” Jordan is now co-owner of the roastery and coffee shop, alongside his father. A devastating fire didn’t deter their success, and in the '50s they moved to their current Market Square location.
Fast-forward to 2006, when Bob Doyle entered the Nicholas Coffee story. For nearly 20 years, he had spent long hours perfecting color for the commercial printing business. So how did Doyle, now 50, find himself roasting coffee? “My position was wiped out by the computer,” Doyle says, which led him to an unemployment site, where he found Nicholas Coffee Company in need of a new roaster.
Doyle took on the job of roaster, as well as that of building manager, repairman (repairing their commercial brewers dispatched around the city), inventory keeper, and all-around one-man-show. He is in charge of more than 50 roasts and 75 flavors. For the most part, he works alone, except for a few who help him add flavor. “Don’t want to have too many hands in the kitchen,” he says. Though he’s a skilled roaster, he’s not one for blending, since he can’t really taste what he’s creating.
“I had some sinus issues a few years ago,” he explains, so he relies on his keen eye for color, which he developed in the printing business, and roasts by sight. “I don’t see shades, I see color — less red, more brown,” he explains.
Doyle has moved and roasted tons of coffee, literally. Since Nov. 21, 2011, he has received 242 bags of coffee, weighing in at around 17 tons. Four weeks later, only 140 bags remained. Doyle sometimes deals with up to 30 tons of coffee in one month, practically solo.
When I arrived at the roastery (located in the back of the store), Doyle had already fired up the roaster and was ready to go. He took me downstairs to the basement, where hundreds of bags of unroasted coffee were stored, and explained the complex system of pulleys and levers that handle the coffee. He opened a bag of Central American beans, to roast as espresso, and poured them into a hopper. By way of vacuum, the coffee beans would be transported through pipes and into the roaster upstairs.