Fifteen years ago, Rob Bennett stood with his mother in the wind tunnel of "The Cage," CSU's old classroom building. He was looking out at the neighborhood that would play home to the second location of his business, Cafe Ah-Roma. Outside the campus buildings, the neighborhood looked pretty desolate. "I think a tumbleweed blew by," Bennett jokes. His mother looked over and asked, "Are you sure about this?"
She needn't have worried. The empty storefronts that they saw wouldn't be empty forever. And Cleveland State, often thought of then, Bennett says, as "a dog of a university," would significantly raise its academic standing and substantially renovate its buildings — including the one they stood in.
Since the downtown Ah-Roma's opening, it's formed a mutually beneficial relationship with Cleveland State. Cleveland State has provided a reliable customer base, as well as a reliable stream of employees from its undergraduate population. Ah-Roma, in turn, has provided not just coffee and bagels, but a place for an on-the-rise university to form a community.
"It's a nice place for professors to go off campus," says Bennett. Ah-Roma provides a space, he says, where students and faculty can interact in a less formal setting. And as CSU reaches a point where its dining options are becoming increasingly corporatized, it's a stronghold of the rougher, independent days of the area now known as "Campus Village."
"It was just us, Becky's, and Rascal House," says Bennett of the downtown cafe's early days. Bennett had been running his first cafe, in Berea, on the site of a defunct Manhattan Bagel. All the equipment was in that shop already. "It only cost $25,000 to get it up and running," he says.
The venue was successful enough that it caught the attention of some customers — including Bennett's stepdad — who were on a committee at Trinity Cathedral hoping to fill church property with a coffee and sandwich shop. "I felt it was a great opportunity," says Bennett.
This time, though, Bennett was filling a space left totally vacant. "We made a half-million-dollar investment in this space," he said. "But it's paid for itself time and time again."
Back in the early 2000s, a shop selling more than diner-quality coffee was still something of a novelty. Bennett recalls customers ordering a French vanilla latte and being disappointed when it didn't taste like the "powdered mix" coming out of gas station hot chocolate machines. Surprisingly, he is grateful to Starbucks for educating consumers: When more Seattle chains started opening in Northeast Ohio, Ah-Roma sales increased by 20 percent.
Still. Bennett values Ah-Roma's independence. It allows them to play around with menu items, he says, in a way that publicly held entities simply don't have the freedom to do. And Ah-Roma has some offerings hard to find in most area shops of its kind. Case in point: the spicy feta spread adorning the shop's flagship "Fiesty Ah-Roma Bagel" sandwich.