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The Finest Espresso Machines of San Francisco
On the edge of San Francisco's Italian neighborhood called North Beach, nestled between large, formidable brick warehouses that hold some of the worlds finest antiques, is a narrow, almost diminutive building owned by Thomas E. Cara.
To the casual browser of this area, it comes as a sudden and curious surprise, as it was for me. I was anticipating yet another window dressed with eighteenth century antiques and found the unexpected pleasure of Mr. Cara's simple and streamlined display of shiny, chrome-plated espresso machines. It seems an anachronism in this oasis of William and Mary writing desks, Chippendale claw and ball-footed chairs and ancient Kurdistan rugs. And yet, it somehow succeeds quite well in drawing the chance shopper inside.
Once you cross the threshold of this store, you are catapulted into a modern interior of clean architectural lines that showcase nothing but espresso machines and a few choicely selected devices such as grinders and demitasse cups. This is no ordinary espresso machine store with the more commonplace equipment seen in department stores and some coffee shops. Here you have the rare pleasure of viewing some of the finest espresso machines from Italy and France. And, if you are an espresso hound as I am, who continually searches for the best method to make the perfect cup, you will know you have just transcended to espresso Nirvana.
The shop, Thomas E. Cara, Ltd., is owned by Thomas Cara himself but is managed by his two sons, Christopher and John. On my first visit to the Caras', I met both brothers, who are a study in contrasts. John seems the shy, quiet brother who appears content occupying his time behind-the-scenes repairing the equipment they sell. As they have offered only the best espresso machines since the business' inception in 1946, this keeps John quite busy. They overhaul equipment almost as old as their store. Christopher, on the other hand, is the more gregarious of the two, and enjoys the interaction with the public as he eagerly talks about his family's' passion for espresso equipment.
For this article, I spoke to Christopher and his inseparable buddy Pecas, the dog. We started out our conversation with a cup of his private label espresso blend. This is a secret recipe that his father secured in Naples while he was stationed in northern Italy during World War II. Boulevard Coffee of Carmichael, California, roast this dark, rich brew. They have been customers of the Caras for twenty years. The espresso comes out black and thick as oil from the machine and tastes rich and strong but surprisingly mellow with no bitter aftertaste. I was an immediate convert.
Pecas, a Dalmatian that thinks she's a human, listens to our every word and gently interjects a woof for a treat. She likes to join in the coffee drinking celebrations around here with a snack of her own. She gets a biscuit while we get a second cup of the delicious brew.
"My family comes from a long history of North Beach residency," says Christopher. His father is a second generation and his mother is a fourth generation North Beach resident. North Beach is made up of mostly close knit Italians that migrated here during or soon after the Gold Rush days in the 1800's, as did Mrs. Cara's family. This makes Christopher and John feel much more connected and committed to their family- run business and to their neighborhood.
The business started as Thomas Cara's idea while he was stationed in Europe during the middle 1940's. Espresso played an important role in both his and Mrs. Caras' lives so, while working in Milan, he purchased a monstrous gas-fired, chrome-plated Pavoni model espresso machine direct from their factory. Upon returning to the States they realized that there was no better way to pursue a culinary passion than to start a store that catered to people just like the two of them. At the prompting of his wife, Thomas took the first espresso machine west of the Mississippi, and started the business on Grant Avenue in the heart of North Beach.
It was a small store that resembled the Williams-Sonoma stores of today, full of unique cookware and related equipment. And, amidst the clutter of gleaming French pots and pans, towered the three foot tall Pavoni espresso machine, attracting customers with its bright, shiny uniqueness. Even as you enter the store today, this machine still dominates the space with its gleaming presence. Espresso machines were always a part of the business: they were present at their second store on Columbus Avenue in 1952 and in the early 1960's when they relocated to their present address at 517 Pacific Avenue.
Until 1994, Thomas E. Cara was a kitchenware store that featured top of the line espresso machines. But, Christopher wanted to change the image of the store. He approached his friend, Jeffrey Weisman, a designer, who devised a dramatic facelift for the cluttered store. The thrust of the business switched from kitchenware to strictly espresso machines. This may seem a radical and somewhat risky approach for a successful family-run business of forty-eight years, especially when this country is in the grips of an economic slump. Not so for Christopher. Borrowing from his mother's spirit and drive and his father's entrepreneurial ideas, Christopher saw a business opportunity. By focusing on the very selective and increasingly popular trend of specialty coffees, he followed his heart and intuition.
As Christopher fondly remembers his mothers favorite saying, "It's better to have one great beehive, then you're always going to get the best honey," he realizes he and his brother have done just that. They have created an exceptional, almost exclusive, market for the purchasing and repair of the best espresso equipment. In return, they are supported by a lasting clientele who appreciate their impeccable quality and personalized service. You won't see an ad for Thomas E. Cara, Ltd. because the business relies solely upon word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied customers and the occasional passerby.
The future looks comfortable for the family Cara. Christopher and John would like to maintain status quo. They are quite content with their newly restructured business ,a jewel in this neighborhood. It's a precious legacy that has been passed down from their mother and father and they plan to continue in their parents' footsteps and serve customers from San Francisco and elsewhere. They even get referrals from east coast espresso machine distributors who recommend Cara's for yearly servicing and repairs.
According to Christopher, "If you treat your machine from Cara's like a fine-tuned car, it should provide delicious espresso for decades." This certainly helps soften the blow of the cost of one of their machines, which can run from $300-$1,695 for a household model. If you are a serious espresso drinker, this wise investment will give you a lifetime of pleasure and cup after cup of delicious espresso.
The Caras sell to both commercial and residential patrons and handle all the west coast warranty repairs for Pavoni. They also service Riviera from Italy and Femoka models from France. Repairs take approximately three-four weeks as parts must be shipped from Europe.
If you are in the market for the ultimate and utterly unique gift for the espresso aficionado, call Christopher or John at Thomas E. Cara, Ltd. at (415) 781-0383. They will gladly take your order for espresso machines or grinding equipment, demitasse cups or a bag of delicious beans.
And, if you are in their neighborhood, stop by the Caras' at 517 Pacific Avenue and get first hand information on the finest espresso machines made (since this article was written an appointment is now nesessary to visit the store). Hours are Monday through Friday, 9:30-5:00 and Saturdays from 12-3. If you are lucky, you may get to sample a cup of their secret espresso blend while you enjoy the conversation. Just remember one thing: don't keep Pecas waiting for her biscuits.