Tazza Mia Finds its Coffee Niche

To understand why the Tazza Mia chain of coffeehouse/restaurants got its start in the Cincinnati area, it helps to know "the Brazil story." Company president Bob Bonder explained that before diving into the coffee business, he had his eyes on something very different.

"It's an amazing place with an amazing culture, and I fell in love with it," he said of Buzios, a peninsula northeast of Rio de Janeiro. "I saw a huge opportunity for foreign investment."

The entrepreneur-turned-business-strategist found for sale the one house on the peninsula that had a private beach, and formulated a plan to create an ultra-luxe bed-and-breakfast. As the deal neared its close, however, things took an unexpected turn when he got a call from the property owner.

"I was expecting the call to be 'we've accepted your offer,'" he said, "but it was 'I'm sorry.'" A wealthy couple had offered the seller more than $1 million in cash, an offer that was too sudden and complete for Bonder's financing plan to beat.

And with that, Bonder was off searching for a new business venture. After moving to San Francisco, he regrouped with some of his bed-and-breakfast investors and began researching the specialty coffee market.

"I used some research techniques I used when I was consulting," he explained. Demographic characteristics such as income level, urban development and business migration patterns helped rank a long list of U.S. cities. And along with cities like Raleigh, North Carolina, and Tampa, Florida, Cincinnati became a finalist for the proposed company's launch point.

"Cincinnati was on an equal playing field in terms of demographics," he said. "What really stood out and won it is that the competition here is pretty much Starbucks and a few mom-and-pop stores. And in addition, there's some really good real estate available."

Tazza Mia's business model calls not for the industry-wide domination of many ambitious start-ups, but for filling a niche. There's a big gap between the tens of thousands of Starbucks locations in the U.S. and the mere hundreds of stores for Caribou Coffee, the nation's number-two chain. Tazza Mia is aiming for a midpoint, somewhere between the two that will establish it as being big enough to count, but small enough to maintain higher quality standards than its bigger competitor.

The chain's third location is scheduled to open Wednesday, Nov. 18, in Covington, and two express locations are in the works for December and January. At that point, Tazza Mia will have become Cincinnati's second-largest chain of coffee shop/restaurants.

Each of the local Tazza Mias serves as a test bed for different ideas. The West Chester location offers a drive-through window, while the Covington store will offer a made-to-order salad bar, a concept popular in New York City. And the first express location, in a kiosk near the Mac Store in Kenwood Towne Center, will spearhead the chain's research into what works best for smaller, more compact locations.

"It's a heck of a lot cheaper to use a place like this as a sandbox as compared to New York," said Bonder.

But although Bonder has an ambitious plan - five new stores a year for the next five years - he's also got his eyes on a more local goal: becoming the source for area retailers and restaurants seeking local coffee.

"In a way we're trying to establish ourselves as a local vendor," he explained. The company roasts its own beans and intends to eventually package coffee for sale in groceries, restaurants and even smaller coffee shops.

"I want to be everywhere the customer's going," said Bonder. That way, if you find our coffee, then (restaurants) have a reason to say on the menu 'we use Tazza Mia coffee.'

"We become that local guy."

In its first year-and-a-half of operation, Tazza Mia has both met some of Bonder's expectations and surprised the entrepreneur.

"Since we opened last year, it's been hard to tell what's due to what factors," he said. "We had a handful of very good months, and then the world exploded."

The economic crunch hit especially hard for small luxuries such as specialty coffee, as consumers scaled back on extra costs and hesitated before trying new things. But surprisingly enough, Bonder said the chain's West Chester location felt the pinch tighter than its sister store in the heart of downtown.

"You wouldn't know the economy's stagnating," he said. "We're really cranking."

He credited the store's success not to business planning, nor to any one internal factor, but to the location itself.

"Most of the world would say 'ok; I bet the West Chester one does really well. But once you get there and look around, downtown is a really great place."


Photography by Scott Beseler

Bob Bonder, company president

Tazza Mia to open in Covington


Tazza Mia on Vine St.

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