Sarah Walsh got into coffee as a hobby, but soon realized there was potential for creating an environmentally sustainable business that prioritizes the safety of its employees and its customers. Walsh’s Caffè d’Amore Coffee Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is just that – a business that is free from sexual harassment, where employees can feel safe and grow to their fullest potential. With a storefront and an espresso bar catering branch of her business as well, Walsh is figuring out how to maintain high standards of customer service, quality product and employee growth.
Walsh’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
I began in coffee as a hobby. It brought so much joy to me! I took vacation from my office job to pursue barista training and then became a barista at someone else’s shop. The peer training there was profoundly good. I wanted to see how far I could go with this idea, of an environmentally sustainable business. It’s still growing. It’s a joy to invite people to be a part of what we’re doing. I started doing espresso bar catering and kept getting hired for more gigs. I needed a physical presence to develop that part of the business and opened up in a public market in town. I developed regular coffee customers “on accident” in my pursuit of catering clients. The customer base and business continued to grow, sometimes too fast. We scaled back after opening the storefront and have focused on making the storefront sustainable, financially and otherwise. The storefront has become the foundational to all business growth at this point.
I empower women (and men) to speak up for themselves and to have a safe working environment. We have had customers who have lost the privilege of doing business with us because of harassment or sexual harassment. In my case, the Pittsburgh DA’s office filed charges against a former vendor who sexually harassed and trespassed. A former milk vendor suggested I give him a blow job in exchange for a piece of equipment in front of an employee and a customer. He didn’t even remember saying it, it was so par for the course with him. It gutted me. I was traumatized by the entire experience. Learning how to get up in the morning and keep going was near impossible some days. We now have policies around what kind of behavior that is allowed in the shop. We enforce the policy and address behavior at earlier stages of harassment than before.
My staff has witnessed this process from beginning to end. They know, that I stand with them if there is a problematic customer or an issue that needs to be addressed, in order to keep our workplace safe for them. We have had to ask a handful of customers to leave and never come back. It doesn’t matter how much money they have spent with us. Unacceptable behavior is unacceptable. In addition, we look for ways to host women who are running for office, fundraise for planned parenthood, employ trans and queer women, and create a hospitable environment for all customers, but we prioritize women.
For me success is being able to find joy, meaning and make a living doing what I love, without making compromises and making the world a better place at the same time. I look for ways to resist the paradigm that, “cheaper is better.” That’s only a win for my pocket book. That’s not a fully-informed perspective. How does it affect the environment? How does this decision serve the community? How does this affect employees? How does this serve my clients and customers? I am constantly scanning the horizon for win-win-win solutions and discovering them! Every day that the shop is open or we are catering events are successes. We’re doing it. We are living into our success. The financial bounty is still to come, but the company has a great accountant who helps us stay focused on how to strive towards these goals in a way that is financially sound, without overextending ourselves.
It’s a great joy to support women and provide opportunities for them to grow in their personal and professional development. I provide a business that is free from sexual harassment, and my employees can breathe, feel safe and grow into their fullest potential. They develop confidence as they acquire a skill set and provide leadership for others. Watching my staff grow in competence is so awesome! It benefits the business to have competent staff, but also contributes to their growth as a human. Our leadership and management program is still developing, but is a priority for me. My trauma experience, as a result of being a crime victim, slowed down some of this growth to a near halt, but we’re looking into this again and making plans.
“It’s been the greatest joy of my professional life to create this kind of space for others to enjoy.”
– Sarah Walsh, CEO Caffè d’Amore Coffee Company
At the moment, scaling up is a challenge. We have never had capital, but have been conservative in our growth, out of necessity. There are clients who want more of what we offer, but we can’t provide it all at this point. We’ve started kegging coldbrew coffee for bars and we could grow, significantly in this way. We provide excellent customer service and support, but I am feeling limited by the current lack of capital to do some of the things I would like to do more of.
I spend time working as bar staff and a barista, at my own shop. It keeps me focused on our goals: serving others with excellence in coffee and customer service. Our customers are absolutely delightful! They recognize that something is “different” about the shop. They recognize that it’s a safe place, restful, cozy and that we like to laugh a lot. It’s been the greatest joy of my professional life to create this kind of space for others to enjoy. The worst thing that’s happened to me was being a crime victim, but it’s informed how I go about my business. It’s changed me, mostly for the better. I cannot believe that we get to play with coffee and have conversations with customers all day. It’s pretty special. It’s the only thing I want to do with my life. Being able to employ others and invite them into model hospitality by loving coffee and people is profound. We take incredible pains to ensure the products and goods we purchase are not only excellent in terms of quality, but we prioritize purchasing from other women-owned small businesses in the community and keeping the money circulating in the neighborhood. Our processes are the most environmentally sustainable over every single coffee company in town, and have been since the beginning. My feminism is intersectional and that comes out in how I run my business. I still have so much to learn and we make adjustments and change when needed.
When it comes to my role models, I can’t limit it to one, because I have a number of role models I learn from, in a variety of fields and occupations. I can describe the characteristics I find valuable though: teachability, flexibility, passion, vision, intelligence, humility, boldness and risk-taking.