Photos by Gary Anderson
Article by Kathleen Federspiel

Espresso Milano celebrated its 17th anniversary in May. Seventeen years with the same ownership, same location, and the same desire to deliver quality beverages in a smooth character. It's not a silent place by any means, but the noise is more like the lulling buzz of a fan. Solitude, congregations, reading, writing, simply sitting and sipping — all acceptable for a place like Milano. It's inviting, to everyone.

Espresso Milano owners Bret Cousineau and Keith Taylor were more trendsetters than followers. Seventeen years ago, the coffee shop concept was fresh. It was popular in habitats where everyone is on the move and familiar with "what's hot," specifically on the West Coast. Owner Bret Cousineau happened to be living in California right around the time when coffee shops were becoming popular. He brought this idea back with him to Michigan, and he and Taylor were nearly the first to open a cafe in the Tri-Cities, but they were beat by a couple of months. Red Eye Café was their first project and Milano's predecessor. It opened three months prior to Milano, and they kept both establishments for the next two years before selling the Red Eye.

Cousineau and Taylor had known each other for years before a discussion of coffee shops emerged. They grew up in Reese, MI, both working in the local food industry. Their partnership, obviously complimentary, has been around longer than any other coffee shop currently existing in the region. Now what is their secret? How do they do it?

They say two things are key to their success: picking and training the right people and delivering a high-quality product consistently. Sure, other things like their convenient, downtown location and their caramel-colored walls splashed with local artwork are nice, but those things become important only after learning how to make and serve a five-star mocha with skim milk and an extra shot of espresso.

They have 10 to 12 hand-picked, mostly part-time employees. Their selection determines the health and fluidity of the business. Cousineau and Taylor say the resumé has little to do with fitting in the Milano staff. They're looking for people with personality, and you can't know if they'll fit until meeting and simply having a conversation. "There's no way to know whether a person can handle a line out of the door until you sit down and talk to them," they say, adding, "It takes a certain kind of person."  Their own freedom depends on hiring the right people. Since they've managed to do so over the past seventeen years, they have more freedom to come and go as they please. This freedom extends to the employees as well; they are empowered and, some, even inspired. A few former employees have gone on to open their own coffee shops.

Successful and friendly delivery — check. Coffee beans created specifically for Espresso Milano — check. Their coffee beans aren't the only thing they have going for them. Milano's owners are interested in finding the best ingredients they can. It's about more than just quality; they say consistency is just as important. Changing the brand of milk or chocolate could alter the flavor of the final product and ultimately make it fall short of a regular customer's expectations. Not to mention that "coffee shops," Milano included, have grown beyond coffee only: baked goods, tea, Jones soda, Mudslide (a frozen, chocolate coffee ice cream with your choice of topping — delicious), and much more can all be found. Discover your own addiction (mine happens to be an altered favorite titled The Tan Rabbit, a white chocolate mocha with hints of caramel and vanilla).

O.K., so they have conquered the internal stuff, but how does anyone actually hear about a place like Milano? Word of mouth. Viral advertising has kept Milano alive. People talk. There's no doubt about it. The good, bad, and the ugly. Milano must have been on the good side of things and people's good sides too, seeing as how far the business has come. No other form of advertising would do because there isn't a defined demographic market. All ages, genders, and types of people find their way to Milano, and it welcomes them with open arms, a delicious beverage, internet access, and even live music on the first and third Wednesday of every month.

Virtually visit Espresso Milano 24/7: Actually visit at 137 Ashman, Midland, MI 48640, Monday-Thursdays 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., Fridays 6 a.m. to midnight, Saturdays 7 a.m. to midnight, and Sundays 9 a.m. until 11 p.m.

© Kathleen Federspiel, 2010