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For two partners, a trip from ink to coffee

The Baltimore Sun

After 28 years of having ink running through their veins, the new owners of a Woodstock cafe have switched to coffee.

Phyllis Greenbaum and Pete Cook, previous owners of The View newspapers, are now operating the Classic Cup cafe in the Waverly Woods Shopping Center, off Mariottsville Road in Woodstock.

"People say we must be brave to take on something so different from what we know," Greenbaum said with a broad smile. "I say, 'Nah! Crazy is more like it.'"

"Operating a coffee shop is not unlike running a newspaper," said Cook. "The work is so demanding. If you get one word or phrase wrong, people are going to show up in your office. Our customers expect perfection, and we still want to deliver that."

So intent are the entrepreneurs on building an even better mousetrap, they took a summer trip to Italy, "the birthplace of espresso," together, of course, and with their spouses. They visited centuries-old coffee bars in Venice, where making coffee is an art form, Cook said.

They also visited a coffee shop in southern Howard County and discovered the owner was putting in 100-hour weeks to build her business from the grounds up, so to speak, since she was starting with zero customers, something both Greenbaum and Cook said they couldn't do again.

"If we'd known what we were getting into when we founded Zip Publishing," mused Cook, 55, "I'm not sure we even would have done that."

Greenbaum, 63, gently shook her head in disagreement, a rare event for the two partners.

"We were younger then, and that company was our baby," she said. "But we knew it was time to move on after 10 years."

When The Baltimore Examiner began daily publication last year, the growing competition for advertising dollars and salespeople clinched their decision to sell.

The pair met at Patuxent Publishing Co. in 1979 when the Columbia-based company, where Greenbaum worked, acquired newspapers and new employees from Stromberg Publications, Inc., the now-defunct Ellicott City company where Cook worked. In March 1997, they started their newspaper empire with Greenbaum as publisher and Cook as operations manager.

Patuxent, which was bought by The Baltimore Sun Co. in 1997, purchased their four papers and two visitors guides in January and they both chose to retire from print media in April. A third partner, Tom Pierce, stayed on through the acquisition.

So what led them from buying newsprint to purchasing coffee filters? Greenbaum said she had inquired last year about holding The View's book club meetings at the Classic Cup and was told to contact the owner, who had moved to Alabama. He told her he was trying to sell.

Previous owners Mike and Katie DeSocio had operated their Mobile Espresso Bar at youth sports league events and the like before opening the Classic Cup in 2003, Cook said. Last year, a different opportunity knocked, and the couple decided to put the cafe on the market.

"I kept this idea in the back of my mind for a while," said Greenbaum, adding that she and Cook had looked into other opportunities, as well. "But what really sold us on buying this place was the way the community cares about it. That's what I missed and wanted to have again: good customers to support us, as well as a terrific staff."

The employees in place at the cafe highly impressed Greenbaum and Cook with their loyalty and professionalism. "The owner left them in charge during the year he was away, and they rose to the challenge, filling in for each other and keeping customers happy," said Cook. "Don't forget, we're talking mostly about high school and college kids."

The cafe's manager is Christina Heinmueller, 21, and there are eight other employees, including Frank Woodland, a retired police officer who served 35 years with the Baltimore City Police Department.

A local resident and former customer, Woodland is invaluable to the Classic Cup, Cook said, in part because he arrives at the shop at 4:45 a.m. to make the coffee. "There is a special place in heaven reserved for Frank," said Cook, with a hearty laugh. And apparently, Woodland's talent for brewing doesn't go unappreciated either.

"The coffee here is good," testified regular customer Mike Rallo, director of counseling at nearby Chapelgate Presbyterian Church, and a former Patuxent sportswriter. "But what I like the most is when I walk in, it's like Norm on the classic TV show Cheers," he said to the laughter of co-workers Scott Simmons and Steve Dallwig. "Everybody knows my name."

The three friends, who drop in carrying laptop computers three or four times a week, display more than a passing familiarity with all seven varieties of coffee on the menu. "We like the relaxed atmosphere and knowing the people," agreed Dallwig, Chapelgate's director of student and family ministries. "That's not something you come across every day."

"So many locals came in just to meet us and to wish us luck," Greenbaum said of the nearly two weeks since they took over the business. "This is the kind of place where we wanted to be."

While Greenbaum and Cook are in the process of learning by doing and observing, they are also contemplating a few changes One major change in place courtesy of Cook, whom Greenbaum calls the duo's "idea person:" The Classic Cup has switched to using wind power.

Other "green" ideas are in the works, including replacing Styrofoam coffee cups with "ecotainers," which are made from corn instead of petroleum products, and changing over to organic fair-trade coffee, which guarantees coffee growers a minimum rate per pound.

Another quick change was extending the hours of the shop, which serves breakfast and a lunch/dinner menu. Bigger news on the horizon will be the introduction of fresh bagels, "the best we have ever tasted," supplied by a Reisterstown wholesale bakery, they said.

Greenbaum, who dubbed herself "the implementor," said she is excited about the possibilities of the shop, which also showcases local musical talent, and trusts Cook to "think outside the box."

"We just really like each other," she said of their friendship and successful partnerships. "There was no question when we sold our papers that we would be taking on a new venture together."

Neighbors

Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg wants to know about it. E-mail Janene at jholzberg76@msn.com, or call 410-461-4150.

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