Michelle Warren steams milk for a traditional macchiato, a shot of espresso with just a little foam at her coffee shop Tantalize Your Taste Buds Oct. 5.
Photo by JULIANA A. TORRES
Tantalize Your Taste Buds owner Michelle Warren reaches for one of her gourmet chocolate cupcakes at the request of a customer Oct. 5.
PINELLAS PARK – Tantalize Your Taste Buds, a new coffee shop at 8260 66th St. in Pinellas Park, is the resulting blend of international travel, ardent study and a carefully crafted business plan, brewed over the last 12 years.
The passion behind the shop, Michelle Warren, sees herself as not only the owner of a business she hopes to franchise one day, but an educator. Her goal is to help customers appreciate the flavor subtleties of different coffee beans, which will vary based on the region where they’re grown.
“I’m not just a coffee shop. I’m a regional coffee shop. I want to teach you about the coffee you drink,” she said.
Forget about drowning the coffee with 10 shots of sugar and chocolate, as is offered by the industry standard, Starbucks. The coffee giant’s sugary drinks bypass the importance of the espresso itself, which should be the focal point, Warren explains.
“You don’t know if it’s bitter. You don’t know if it’s mild. You don’t even know if it’s decaf … We’re all taught today how to drink our coffees based on what Starbucks says,” she said. “I want to teach you that you can brew that same cup of coffee or you can drink that espresso and feel ten times better without having the sugar high that goes with it.”
Each regional coffee is best paired with a food or pastry to complement it. To enhance the mild blends of Costa Rican coffee, Warren suggests a Cuban sandwich or a fruit. With a brisk and bold Kenyan blend, one of her dark chocolate gourmet cupcake will even the palette. A hazelnut or praline cookie enhances the natural Brazilian nut tones at the end of a Nicaraguan brew.
The full-bodied, flavor experience Warren hopes to offer is an expression of her general enthusiasm.
“I’m an overachiever. If I learned to scuba dive, I had to become a scuba instructor. If I was an accountant, I had to be a CPA. If I’m a business owner, now I want (to be a) chef and pastier,” she said. “So I’m going back to school for both of those.”
Twelve years ago, Warren became a business consultant for a company whose clients were Fortune 500 companies. She found herself traveling internationally and experiencing not only the cuisine of different countries, but the varying characteristics and traditions of their coffees. Some cultures frowned upon ordering a cappuccino in the afternoon, while others insisted a latte is the only thing one could enjoy during those afternoon hours. In Italy, espresso must be drunk standing up and all at once.
“Coffee was kind of a passion of mine,” she said. “I started studying coffee.”
As an expert in reshaping the operations and finances of businesses, Warren said she already knew how to build a business from the ground up. She analyzed the strengths and failings of fast-growing businesses in the food industry: Starbucks, Panera Bread and Tijuana Flats.
She decided to map out her own business plan for a coffee shop.
“It was all on paper. And I thought, ‘It will never make it.’ Because it’s expensive to start a business,” she said.
But the pursuit of coffee continued. About six years ago, she bought coffee plant seeds to grow in her own backyard in Dunedin. She bought special dirt and fashioned a system made of PVC pipes with screening at adjustable heights so she could create the humidity, sunlight or temperature needed to keep the coffee plants happy in the Florida climate.
Along with the coffee plants, she started to grow hazelnut trees, dwarf bananas, pomegranates, blackberries, blueberries and strawberries so she could experiment in grafting the flavors with the coffee plants.
Two years ago, she began roasting her own coffee beans. She joined a blogging community that shared roasting and cupping experiences to help perfect her personal roasting recipes.
Meanwhile, as a business consultant, Warren steered herself toward the agricultural industry so she could network with coffee growers and roasters, like Boca Java in Deerfield and the coffee roasters at the international company Melitta.
She also connected with companies that would become suppliers for her shop as well as her personal mentors, including Tampa-based Joffrey’s Coffee and Monin Gourmet Beverage, the international coffee syrup company with its U.S. operations based in Clearwater. When she told them of her business dreams, leaders in both companies advised Warren that a coffee shop wouldn’t make it on its own.
“You need to think the coffee shop is in the box and be on the outside of the box,” Warren said, remembering their advice. “So that’s where I live today.”
Supporting the coffee shop itself are the catering services she offers, as well as the sale of her gourmet cupcakes and pasteries.
“I like to cook for people. I like to make people fat and happy,” Warren said.
Tantalize Your Taste Buds also has become the U.S. East Coast distributor for Barbera Coffee, a fifth-generation Italian coffee roasting company.
“This is the first time the Barbera company is coming to the United States. We’re going to be the branding agent for Barbera Coffee,” Warren said. “That’s going to be the dollars holding the coffee shop up.”
Members of the Barbera family flew in from Italy for the grand opening of Tantalize Your Taste Buds on Sept. 19. Warren said she will carry the coffee brand with the future expansion of her own shop.
“What I want to do is eventually get to the point where I can franchise it: cookie-cutter it and put it into the St. Pete College, move it into New York City,” she said. “I want Tantalize Your Taste Buds to be recognized for something really special.”
Part of that is creating a family environment for everyone that works at the shop, currently seven part-time employees. That meant reaching out to the community for help to replace an employee’s bike when it got stolen from in front of the store. Tantalize Your Taste Buds also held a raffle to raise funds so the shop can help provide Thanksgiving and Christmas meals for families.
“I want the community to recognize that we go above and beyond,” Warren said.
The journey to open the shop began more than a year ago as Warren and her then-fiancée Perry began to search out a location for the dream to take root. Her daughter Ashley discovered an empty storefront that was originally designed to be a Starbucks after taking an exam in the office plaza on 66th Street that would become the Tantalize Your Taste Buds’ home. Warren entered a lease for the space in October last year; construction began in December.
By the beginning of April, Warren had enough equipment to offer free coffee to passersby for a few days until the soft opening on April 13. Building business since then has been slow.
“I thought that it would be a lot busier … because people wanted it. People like coffee,” Warren said. “It’s kind of discouraging.”
Because of the low sales, Warren launched the distribution side of the business sooner than she had planned. She implemented changes at the suggestion of her mentors, including Monin CEO Bill Lombardo. She added tables and umbrellas outside the shop to enhance its look. She made her pastry showcase look more “yummy” and worked to build a fresh-baked smell in the brand new space. She offered pastry, mini cupcake and coffee samples to entice customers. She launched a Thursday “mic night” featuring local musicians.
Sales have gone up, but it’s still hard. Warren is hopeful. Her objective is still to transform people’s coffee experience.
“I educate lots of people here in coffees. I like my job,” she said. “It’s always been a dream.”
Tantalize Your Taste Buds is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., with live music starting at 7 p.m., and Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Call 202-6989 or, for a full menu of drinks, sandwiches, wraps, salads, soups and bakery items, visit www.tytb.com.