How Larry Bourgeois became the patron saint of espresso


His friends and grandkids call him “Bobo.” Others have called him a madman, a genius and their very own “spiritual sherpa.”

He’s a cultural entrepreneur, a community strategist, a theologian and a master of hospitality and good conversation. He is also Cincinnati’s very own patron saint of espresso, and you might not even know his name.
 
Larry Bourgeois was almost a commercial pilot just like his father, but now he flies only for fun. He could have stuck it out in the book business or opened another coffeehouse, but he admits, “I’ve never been very good at making money,” as if he reconciled the fact long ago.

At one point, he even considered becoming a minister, but he didn’t fit neatly in the Church's structure. Instead, his career path has brought him around the world, across the country and eventually to Cincinnati, where Bourgeois holds a relatively quiet position of both local and national influence in the specialty coffee industry and the culture of “third places.”

 
Espresso makes its way to the U.S.
 
In the early 1980s, the American coffee industry began popularizing drinks made with espresso, the pressure-brewed, highly concentrated coffee native to Italy.

The popular mythology of the American latte might center around a Seattle coffee-roaster called Starbucks, but there were multiple pioneers in handcrafted coffee around the country at the same time. Larry Bourgeois was in Palo Alto, Calif. at the time and was one of them.
 
Bourgeois had seen traditional Italian cafes while traveling as a child with his father. As a young adult, much of that old-world culture now appealed to him: the science of espresso machines; the subtle skill in roasting, grinding and brewing; the seriousness with which a barista took his or her craft. Before the espresso industry was strong enough to be broadly marketable, he and some friends began spreading its culture around the West Coast.
 
Kent Bakke has known Bourgeois for over 30 years and is now CEO of La Marzocco International LLC, maker of fine Italian espresso machines. He can testify to his friend’s early work in the industry.

“Larry was part of a visionary group that was ahead of its time in the specialty coffee world,” Bakke says. “The business model was focused around creating coffee bar opportunities and then providing all the products and support for those coffee bars, including design, equipment, coffee and related supplies. Larry brought an intelligent and entrepreneurial spirit to the then-growing market and interest in handmade coffee.”
 
Bourgeois was importing and distributing espresso machines from Italy before companies like Marzocco and Starbucks had skin in the game. He soon became research director for the newly-founded Espresso Society and helped launch a Professionals Group for those in the industry.

For the first time, espresso — complete with its art, science, technology and tools — was being handed over from Italian masters to independent entrepreneurs.

In the early ’80s Bourgeois and his cohorts were a beat ahead of the rest of the growing industry, asking, “What would espresso culture look like in this generation and beyond?” The answer: the third place.
 

The great good place
 
The concept of “third place” originated with urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who defines it as a place “which lends a public balance to the increased privatization of home life. Third places are nothing more than informal public gathering places. The phrase ‘third places’ derives from considering our homes to be the ‘first’ places in our lives and our work places the ‘second.'”

Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place has been a foundational influence on Bourgeois, and Phoenix bookstore was his first big success at creating a “great good place.”

Before his head-first dive into the espresso industry, Bourgeois had worked as a book-buyer and a bookstore manager. His new obsession with espresso and his love for books merged into a new business: Phoenix Books and Espresso Cafe in San Jose, Calif. The 8,000-sq.-ft. bookstore was a cultural hub of the San Jose region and served expertly made espresso drinks alongside music, art, poetry, community dialogue and Bourgeois' first love, books.
 
Phoenix Books wasn’t just a leader in the artisan science of espresso-making.

“I created a traditional coffee house culture,” Bourgeois says, “bringing back the ancient practice of providing art and live music and new ways to come together into a ‘third place’ so people are not isolated silos in their own little worlds.”
 
Is there an inherent connection between coffee and the third place? Historically speaking, yes.

“Part of the traditional coffee experience,” Bourgeois says, “was that you’d ‘take time out’ and meet with a friend. The last thing you’d do is drive through. So it’s the idea of a place where time stands still and you can connect with people in a spontaneous way … a social exchange point.”

In this way, a cafe provides not just the hospitality (the drink) but also a stage for social engagement (the third place). The barista, in the third place paradigm, is both the artisan and the facilitator of community.
 
Bourgeois believes that the experience you have in a coffeehouse should be like witnessing an artisan’s craft, from the quality of the cup served to the relationship between the barista and the customer. So for the past 40 years, his life’s work could be summed-up in two parts: providing the space and time for third places to flourish and gathering the best artisans to furnish these third places with their craftmanship.
 

Coffee, the secular sacrament
 
Bourgeois moved to Cincinnati in 1992 when he says his hometown of Palo Alto “silicon-gentrified” and it was time for his family to move on.

“We wanted to raise our son in a more traditional town,” he says, “that was less amped about the negative side of entrepreneurism where, if you can’t make a million dollars, you’re trash.”
 
Most people in Cincinnati who know Bourgeois’ name associate him with “Old St George,” the historic church building on the southern edge of the University of Cincinnati campus.

From about 1994 to 2004, Old St. George was owned by a nonprofit called the Christian Ministries Center, an ecumenical campus ministry. Bourgeois was its director in the few years before the building was sold to the Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (CHCURC) and the church became functionally abandoned. In recent news, local mega-church Crossroads has begun work on renovating the building for use as a new congregation space.
 
In those years under Bourgeois’s leadership, Old St. George was a vibrant hub of community life, a third place and a cultural incubator. The building was essentially an office complex for nonprofits and an ad-hoc event venue for concerts and weddings. It housed a variety of Christian ministries as well as community organizations and arts groups like Leo Coffeehouse, AMOS Project, Riley School of Irish Music and UC’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).
 
Part of Bourgeois’ contribution to Old St. George was his new bookstore, Pilgrim Place, which housed 14,000 books and, as far as he knows, the only espresso bar sacristy in the world. The sacristy was the very spot where, years prior, the Catholic priests had made preparations for Holy Communion. Now, Bourgeois says, “we’d converted it to serve ‘the people’s sacrament.’”
 
Old St. George was such a fascinating place that Oldenburg of The Great Good Place visited and discussed it in a later book, Celebrating the Third Place. He wrote that the building reminded him of his very own Town Hall and that it “seemed to be used by almost everyone for just about every kind of meeting, formal and informal.”
 
The concept was sustainable for about 12 years but eventually lost its footing when the ministry became financially unviable. In 2005, Bourgeois sold the building to CHCURC, which promised to preserve it for community use. Bourgeois moved his espresso operation elsewhere.

 
Building Cincinnati’s coffee culture one cup at a time
 
As Bourgeois tells it, Cincinnati has had a rich coffee scene for as long as he’s been around. In the ’90s there were a handful of strong coffee-roasters and coffeeshops — Coffee Emporium, Highland Coffee House and (now defunct) Kaldi’s among them. In the past five years or so, the industry has continued to flourish with new local roasters and cafes scattered across the region.
 
So why is Cincinnati, a modest Midwestern city, a prime location for a bourgeoning specialty coffee industry?

“When businesses in Cincinnati like Procter & Gamble and GE became more international, when they had connections abroad and people traveled and then came back, the gourmet foods world changed,” Bourgeois says. “People had been to Europe and experienced gourmet foods differently. … It’s because they probably experienced it someplace else. Now they’re willing to pay for it, and it’s a social expectation.”
 
With the expectation now set in Cincinnati and with his own bookstore and coffeeshop closed, Bourgeois moved on to training other industry professionals in the art and science of espresso. There is evidence of his mentorship behind many of the espresso machines that serve up an excellent drink in every pocket of the city. He is, in many ways, a hidden rudder on the ship of some of Cincinnati’s most successful coffee endeavors — the patron saint of espresso.
 
These days, inside an inconspicuous building on an ordinary corner in Norwood, Bourgeois cultivates a nonprofit called the Espresso Guild. It functions much like artisan guilds of the past, providing training for baristas and mentorship for third place entrepreneurs. It also houses an impressive collection of both vintage and new espresso machines — many of which are frequently loaned out or bought and sold among Cincinnati’s many coffee companies — as well as a bit of Bourgeois’ personal library.
 
Les Stoneham of Oakley’s Deeper Roots Coffee has worked with him as a part of the Espresso Guild for five years.

“He took me under his wing, so to speak, while I was running Rohs Street Cafe,” Stoneham says of Bourgeois’ personal and profession influence on him. “He put words and context to what had originally drawn me to become involved in coffee in the first place. Larry was a mentor of mine in the coffee industry, introducing me to experts around the country and teaching me everything he knew about espresso machines, the history and culture of espresso bars.
 
“When the decision came for me to start Deeper Roots Coffee, it was with all of that mentorship and experience that myself and the other founders were able to start on such a strong foot. There are so many great places around Cincinnati that Larry has had his influence on. Though you would usually never know it, he is always behind the scenes influencing the minds and visions of those creating the great spaces.”

 
Divestment vs investment
 
People have traveled great distances to sit under the mentorship of Bourgeois and the Espresso Guild’s other award-winning baristas. This kind of mentorship comes by Bourgeois honestly.

A primary motivation in all of his personal and professional endeavors seems to come from a child-like wonder in the “great good” things of the world, things like coffee and books and good conversation. And his ultimate goal seems to be more about building community and creating a vibrant culture than it is about creating a successful business plan.
 
While many of his peers are padding their savings in preparation for the golden years of retirement, Bourgeois’ work is characterized much more by personal divestment. He has poured years’ worth of work and resources into the social and spiritual endeavors of others, expecting little in return.

“I maybe would rather die without retirement,” he says without much concern.
 
The pay-off for Bourgeois will be a bit harder to quantify but is still significant.

“To go alongside people and ask them about their dreams, to make places where people can enjoy hospitality in a creative environment, places where people talk about their fulfillment in life and become change agents for community and spiritual renewal, that is more of what I’m about,” Bourgeois says. “So the past 40 years I’ve been bringing people together and sharing dreams and sharing what is possible.”
 
Often these days, important conversations about dreams, community and renewal happen in a neutral public place with a drink in hand. In Cincinnati, if Bourgeois has anything to do with it, it’s going to be in a “great good” third place and it will certainly be a damn good cup of coffee.
 

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
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