All Characters Welcome
Restaurant Highlight: Character Coffee
By CHRISTOPHER SURPRENANT
Downtown Utica these days is part of our city in which we can find anything our hearts desire, and that includes a good cup of coffee served by friendly faces. Character Coffee arrived in Downtown Utica in 2017 and has been one of many new establishments in the area to be a part of Utica’s revival.
At the shop, “all characters welcome” is how Character Coffee operates. Located at 171 Genesee St., the cafe occupies the space formerly home to the old Catholic Bookstore. These days, owners Katie Aiello and Jon Matwijec-Walda occupy the space with an array of customers who walk through their lobby. At the center of the shop is a large butcher-block bar where patrons can gather around and watch whichever coffee they ordered be made right in front of them. The espresso machine, milk steamers, tea pots, and every other beverage gadget are in full view. Aiello and Matwiject-Walda want you to see what they’re doing, and they want you to ask questions.
That familiarity with baristas and customers is what drew Aiello to the coffee business in the first place. Previously living in Charleston, South Carolina, Aiello moved back to the Utica area, but missed the coffee culture she grew to love down south. She missed having an atmosphere in which friends could meet at a shop and catch up, and where she could chat with the baristas behind the bar.
Aiello decided that she would try to recreate that sense of familiarity with Character Coffee, and began her business as a mobile coffee cart for weddings and other special events. The cart was part of a wedding at Events 171, a venue on the upper floors above Character Coffee, and it was an instant hit with landlord Christine Martin who suggested opening up a shop in the building’s lobby.
With a newly-polished business proposal, and a few trips to the bank, Aiello was on her way to making her dream of owning her own business a reality. She started small with just the basics, and has slowly grown the shop over time. As a successful small business owner, Aiello is interested in helping others achieve this same dream.
“I’m very interested in helping other small business owners get started. I know what I went through. I know how cool it is to have a business in Utica. Anyone can have a piece of the pie. I had no business at 27 years old opening a coffee shop at the main intersection in Utica. In any other city, that would not be available to me. It’s a risk, but it’s just like any business. This is the place that you want to be. I’m very optimistic,” she said.
Aiello’s success speaks to the unique position Utica finds itself in these days. As one of the many businesses benefiting from renewed pride in the Handshake City, Aiello attributes part of her success to the people of the city. This was never more apparent than in the midst of the Coivd-19 crisis. Being ahead of the curve, Character Coffee was equipped to offer convenient curbside pickup with the Odeko app, allowing their customers to continue to support the business safely.
“A ton of Uticans, especially in April, came out every day with curbside. Uticans show up for their small businesses,” Aiello said.
Matwijec-Walda has seen many younger people moving back to the area because of the pandemic, and he hopes that they can appreciate all that this city has to offer.
“We have to have something to anchor them back here. If it’s on their minds to come back to this area and stay, they have to see the trajectory of the city,” he said.
Coffee shops can play a crucial role in how folks view their city. They are social hubs, places to work, and places to relax. For Matwijec-Walda, coffee is just one of the many things the shop offers the community.
“That’s such a small part of what we do. You have a product that people keep wanting to come back to, but you’re selling a lot more than that. It’s not just coffee,” he said.
While Matwijec-Walda and Aiello are both coffee aficionados, neither could pick just one favorite item from their menu. Instead, Matwijec-Walda said that “I really love the fact that there’s something for everybody. It’s going to make you happy, and it’s going to make your grandma happy. It’s the diversity of the offerings” he said.
Aiello noted that the shop has a wide variety of teas available, along with a rotating assortment of baked goods from local bakers, and all of the ingredients used in the shop are first-rate.
“We don’t skimp on quality, and I think that people can taste the difference,” Aiello said.
When Aiello and Matwijec-Walda aren’t busy creating Instagram-worthy lattes, they’re out supporting other local restaurants.
“We always eat Willie’s Bagels on Sundays, and Mello’s on Mondays. We’re also at Golden’s, or we get sandwiches from Roso’s” Aiello said. “I have a whole list.”
At the end of the day, Aiello and Matwijec-Walda want customers new and old to feel comfortable visiting the shop because the community aspect of it all is what really matters to them.
While making a latte, Matwijec-Walda said, “Find a shop and make it your own. Don’t be afraid to ask the barista stupid questions, because they’re not stupid questions. Wherever you decide to get your coffee, make that your shop and just enjoy it.”
ICED BLUEBERRY LATTE