The Penny University: Tazza D’Oro Mixes Art and Business
by Andrew Swensen
Tazza D’Oro represents a microcosm of how business and the arts intersect, and reflects how each benefits the other. Yes, this coffee shop in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood offers an object lesson in getting it right.
The Penny University
In eighteenth-century England coffee houses were known as “penny universities.” A patron would pay an admission of one penny to enjoy coffee and conversation. Because the conversation included the sharing of news and information, and was probably a bit more lucid than the chat at the ale house down the street, the coffee house became associated with learning. The atmosphere was more than just transfer of information; it was about creative interchange across class lines and professions. Coffee house culture was so productive that the modern giant of the insurance industry, Lloyd’s of London, actually began as a coffee house. Edward Lloyd owned a coffeehouse frequented by sailors, ship owners and merchants in international trade. Eventually, an insurance company sprang up in the midst of the coffee drinking.
It is interesting to recall a time when we shared our social discourse and good company in this way, and the lively culture of coffee establishments now indicates a circular return. There are the inevitable clichés about hipsters, and I recently read an article that disparaged coffee house culture, as if coffee houses revel in Jack Kerouac wannabes. Yet in my experience, you are more likely to hear a real estate transaction or a discussion on medical equipment than folk songs and beat poetry. Not that the artists and students have left. Rather, it seems that the world of commerce has mixed with the world of creative thought and imagination. The penny university has its economics department and its fine arts program.
A Place for Connection
In a quest to find a narrative that captures the arts-business linkage, I have come to Tazza D’Oro where the cost of a superior macchiato is a fair tuition to this penny university. The setting reflects all that is best when a business embraces the arts, that intangible essence of creativity that comes from a healthy interchange between the two sectors (cf. Americans for the Arts). One thing has certainly changed since the eighteenth century: now we travel into a public space to withdraw paradoxically into the insular world of 21st-century technology. Many, myself included, deliberately go into a place like Tazza D’Oro, only to then flip open our laptop and dissolve into the internet. Yet the subtext of sociability is present. We still seek the company of strangers, and perhaps a serendipitous moment of conversation.
“Part of the magic of espresso bars is this connection, this experience. I think that our culture is starved for that,” says Tazza D’Oro owner Amy Enrico. Indeed I think she is right, and the coffee house exists as if we are sheepishly pushing ourselves out into the world in order encounter one another, if only to read our Facebook feed in the presence of real people. That sort of gathering is the nature of “community” – an overused word but the only one appropriate to this context – and community is part of the essence of the creative experience. Creativity is about encounter and interchange. It is about the Dionysian moment of the stage, which requires an audience, the give and take between musician and listener, between author and reader. The arts represent the voice of our collective unconscious, which by definition needs a collective. Enrico knows it, and she is deliberately trying to construct the space where people can discover, learn, and imagine, the sort of communal energy that fuels any human creation and discovery. These qualities are the hallmarks of both the artistic enterprise and the “learning organization,” as business guru Peter Senge characterizes the best of enterprises. To put it differently: this is the stuff on which both new poetry and new insurance companies depend.
Tazza D’Oro feeds the creative spark with a principle that all business should embrace: Surround yourself with art. The most vibrant coffee houses know that art represents the voice of the best public spaces. “I think that art and coffee go together,” says Enrico, and she regards art as more than just ambience. The act of creating a space for art extends from a larger sense for how art shapes public life: “When I see art around the city, my quality of life improves.” For her, the American coffee shop is a public space akin to the Italian piazza. Her observation is wise, and here I run up against one of the mysteries that I have often asked those in the business world: why do they not support art because it adds to everything that they are trying to do? An artful environment inspires the creative spark of employees and feeds the quality of life for clients and customers.
Vision and Personality
Enrico is a natural entrepreneur. As she talks, new ideas keep popping up, and her energy comes from creating. She comes to the arts-business relationship from a background rooted in business and the natural sciences. She grew up in a family that ran its own bakery, with small business in the family spirit. From there she made the natural choice of every baker’s son or daughter: getting a degree in neuroscience. Neuroscience led to work in public health, and public health led to the pharmaceutical industry. While living on the West Coast, inspiration came where so often it will, on the open road: “I was driving down I-5 one day and then it hit me: Coffee shops!” Later she continues, “My vision was to create a community around an amazingly prepared cup of coffee. That’s why it’s called Tazza d’oro – cup of gold.”
While the coffee shop is associated with a variety of arts – the visual art on the wall, the music – Tazza D’Oro and all good coffee houses feel to me more like a good serial narrative. A great Dickensian novel that never really ends. They create a world, a special setting populated by intriguing personalities. It is this quality that leads people to feel like a coffee house – or a diner or bar – is “their” place. My time at Tazza D’Oro confirms this sense. The cast here includes artist baristas, students, retirees enjoying conversation out front, a Presbyterian minister, and plenty of businesspeople. Enrico introduces me to Eric Mason, a man of many talents – house painter, tai chi instructor, artist, and didgeridoo player. Mason captures the essence of this place as he describes “a business model based on integrity, based on virtue. The way in which something is done is as important as the results.” Speaking about his own polymath life, he says, “It’s not separate, the tai chi or the painting,” and a similar wisdom applies for Tazza D’Oro itself, where the arts and the business really are different articulations of a single essence.
Enrico recognizes that many can make a good cup of coffee, and freely admits that the baristas at Tazza D’Oro do not let her “get in the way.” Yet her role is to capture the spirit, the passion. In her opinion, that entrepreneurial passion creates the identity, the story of an enterprise. She reflects on the success of Apple, and says that it is not just about great products but also about a great spirit of collective identity. “I think that people buy the story of who made the product.” As for Tazza D’Oro, “They bought our story, our vision. It was never really about the coffee.”
Perhaps some in the arts community lament the corporate types, but they really shouldn’t. The birth of an insurance company is not exactly the same thing as a symphony or a sculpture, but let’s take a moment to celebrate the creative ferment at work here. As many have noted, the best business needs great art, and great art frankly benefits from the support of those in business. Tazza D’Oro is a case study in success going in both of those directions.
Not just a place to buy a cup of coffee, the contemporary coffee house thrives on creative interchange that it deliberately cultivates. We still use coffee houses as penny universities, town halls, business forums – and yes, art centers. On the business side, these tables have become our offices and conference rooms, complete with a wireless connection. As for culture and contemporary events, there is plenty of that as well. The result is a healthy mix of commerce, thought, inspiration, and imagination. Consequently, if you want to understand the intersection of arts and business, the coffee house is one the best places to seek answers. The rent, or tuition, has risen since the one-penny days, but “penny university” sounds better than any name adjusted for inflation. Tazza D’Oro is one of the best.
Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue:
“Nonprofit or Not Profiting: A Critical Examination of Nonprofit Finance” by Alexandra Holness
“On Politics and Art” by Andrew Swensen