Sarah Walsh’s Caffe d’Amore is a haven in the Pittsburgh community of Upper Lawrenceville — a sunny shop where regulars sidle up to its coffee bar to share a laugh or a story, while sipping one of her well-loved espressos.
But creating a welcoming, happy vibe and keeping it that way hasn’t always been easy. After all, wherever people gather, unwelcome behavior is sure to follow. And Walsh, 41, has had to manage her fair share.
Stalker-types have harassed a regular customer and a female employee, causing disruption, discomfort and even fear. And Walsh herself was menaced by a milk vendor who, in front of customers and employees, crudely suggested she pay for a refrigerator with a sexual act. When she returned his fridge, which didn’t work, he forced his way into the cafe and refused to leave until she summoned the cops. Then he harassed her online, she says.
Though these #MeToo incidents were both challenging and dispiriting, Walsh has used them to make Caffe d’Amore stronger. She began asking herself a vital question, she says: “What does it mean to be a thriving business first, and a place that is simultaneously safe for other people?”
Her answers helped her become a better business owner, employee manager and neighborhood host. They also show the way for other women entrepreneurs who want to create a post-#MeToo workplace where harassment has no home.
A Thriving Small Business
Walsh started her company in June 2010 as a solo coffee catering business. By May 2012, she had secured a full-time space in a public market, hired her first employee and soon started visiting farmers markets. A few years later, aiming to generate more sustainable income and become “a little more rooted,” she opened her Upper Lawrenceville storefront. For about 6 months, she juggled the cafe and the market location, until the market closed down.
Today, Caffe d’Amore has three employees, a contract event coordinator and part-time staff who serve coffee at events like receptions, parties, baby showers and fundraising dinners. Walsh is also making growth moves into wholesale tapped cold-brew coffee, which she first developed a year ago for cafe regulars who own a local beer brewery. She now distributes it to the brewery and a restaurant and is working on more deals. Between the shop, catering and wholesale, annual revenue is about $120,000 to $150,000, she says, “and every year it’s more.”
But with the cafe accounting for some 80 percent of her small business’ revenue, it remains Walsh’s top priority — and maintaining its special atmosphere is all-important. “Our customers really make it in a lot of ways,” Walsh says. An L-shaped bar encourages people to come in solo and yammer with baristas and strangers.
Every day, a regular customer named “Ed comes in with a joke, and it’s a dad joke… He has Star Wars jokes on him at all times,” she says. “Ed also likes to make big batches of soup and brings in soup. How lucky are we?!”
Saying ‘No’ to Harassment in the Workplace
But there’s a darker side to that openness, she says. When last summer the ex-girlfriend of a regular kept appearing to look for him, Walsh had to tell the woman she would not be served anymore. That customer ”came in a couple times every single day,” Walsh says. “It was like: You can’t stalk somebody here.”
And when that spring the female employee became distracted trying to avoid her male harasser, who insisted on having personal conversations while she worked, Walsh got concerned. “He has undermined her feeling of safety,” she recalls thinking. “I need my employees to be comfortable everywhere” in the shop. So Walsh, with her self-defense coach there as a “neutral party,” attempted to reason with the man. “He started making a scene,” she says. So she banned him.
“I don’t want everybody’s money,” she says.
Walsh also stood up to her own bully. Thanks to multiple witnesses to the milk vendor’s behavior in September 2016, prosecutors believed they had a case they could win in court. Indeed, they won a first bench trial; her alleged harasser was found guilty, and Walsh received an order of protection. However, he was later found not guilty of all charges in a third trial neither Walsh nor the district attorney was informed of, and Walsh is now contemplating a civil rights suit.
“When I became a crime victim, it changed me. It’s still changing me,” she says. “It really affected my unwillingness to accept unacceptable behavior in the business setting.”
It also pushed her to partner with women-owned vendors, who she believes are more professional. To make her affrigatos, Walsh pours espresso over high-end vanilla ice cream she buys from Leona’s Ice Cream, Pittsburgh’s only female-owned ice cream maker. “I consider them my soul sisters in business. We’re just trying to take no sh** in these male-dominated industries.”
To Be Both Safe and ‘Deeply Hospitable’
Walsh spent 9 years working for a campus ministry and has long found meaning and purpose in being a compassionate host. And she’s determined to hold on to that, despite the difficult experiences.
In a world that now feels more unsafe, “what does it mean to be deeply hospitable to all people?” she asks. The answer has been to assert boundaries. She has learned to “put steel rods in,” she says, adding, “I’m still learning to walk with these things.”
The unfolding #MeToo movement, which began in late 2017, has helped. “I felt less alone,” she says. In affronts ranging from coercion to harassment to assault, she identified a “constant thread,” she says: “people’s inability to hear the word ‘no.’”
These days, Walsh’s “no” is firmer. In the past, she might have watched and waited when someone became problematic for staff or customers. Now when there’s a harassment complaint or she witnesses unwelcome conduct she thinks: “I’m going to need to make a decision.”
She also established an anti-harassment policy for her shop. To protect the place she has worked so hard to create, Walsh has hung a sign. It reads: “House Policy: We’re committed to providing a hospitable and safe coffee shop environment for all. Unruly or disrespectful guests will be asked to leave. Respect one another. We got this.”
Read about the six other status-quo busting women on The Story Exchange’s 2018 Resist List