Nicole Simonian is an Uptown (Coffee) Girl.
Since 2007, the Erie transplant has worked off and on at Uptown Coffee in Mt. Lebanon. It’s where Simonian worked her way through a degree in fashion design and retail management at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where she’s spent years pulling espresso behind the bar, baking chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen, and establishing lifelong friendships with Uptown Coffee employees and regulars.
Now, soft-spoken Simonian is taking the reigns as owner of the approachable yet upscale coffee shop and bakery, replacing founder-owner Elizabeth Boyd, who stepped down in January after nearly three decades.
“I think people were surprised that she was selling, and we’re always kind of surprised that they’re surprised because she’s been doing the same thing for so long,” said Simonian, sitting straight in a shimmery diner chair near the back of Uptown Coffee on a recent weekday. “Twenty-eight years just in that kitchen. It’s a long time.”
For nearly 30 years, Uptown Coffee has been a tradition for the greater Mt. Lebanon community. To customers, “Uptown” means three decades of freshly-baked apple walnut cake at a corner seat overlooking Washington Road, biscotti and drip coffee on a weekday morning, all the beloved baked good recipes developed by Boyd herself.
When folks learned Boyd was selling, many worried the tradition might fade with the change in ownership.
“The menu, I wanted to keep exactly the same,” Simonian said thoughtfully, sipping lemon water, a break from her morning espresso and oat milk over ice. “There are a few people that come in every day just for muffins. Chocolate chip cookies are always huge, and chocolate cake. A lot of big things are favorites of customers, and it’s an everyday thing.”
Along with keeping the menu, Simonian has maintained many vendor relationships, but she’s also prioritized forging new relationships with area women-owned businesses and coffee roasters.
“When I first took over, it was La Prima and then a couple of other places that weren’t local. That was a thing I right away wanted to change. Pittsburgh, and just this area, it’s dense with these really great roasters. Places like Redhawk, they do so much good work and visit the farmers and make sure everything is fair. It was really important for me to support that, support local roasters as much as I could,” Simonian said, noting she also purchases beans from Common Place Coffee.
Drip coffee is king at Uptown, but lattes – hot and iced – are many guests’ go-to year-round, and Simonian has begun handcrafting syrups. She hopes to offer a line of in-house syrups and plans to develop more vegan items.
Aside from a recent overhaul of the tea menu – she and staff tasted herbal teas from various vendors and are changing brand offerings – and minor adjustments, Uptown Coffee remains the same laid-back space it’s always been.
“It’s just a great spot. There are so many great things around: the music store and the schools, doctors’ offices. It becomes a lot of people’s routine, either going to work or dropping their kids off,” said Simonian. “I also think it’s a really great spot that people can pause for a minute in. It’s not a quick drive-thru. You come in, and a lot of times, we know your name or your order. There’s people meeting here. You’re kind of like, I was pregnant here, and now I’m bringing my kid in, they’re getting something to eat. It’s a really special place that you just keep coming back to.”
Uptown Coffee is undoubtedly a place Simonian has returned to time and time again. It’s where she got engaged (yes, her husband, Nick, actually popped the question during one of her shifts when Simonian was baking in the kitchen). After graduating from the Art Institute, she became a full-time baker at the coffee shop, where she spent four years perfecting that apple walnut cake and sometimes crafting drinks behind the coffee bar.
When Simonian moved south to pursue a yoga teaching certification, she proved you can take the girl out of the kitchen, but you can’t take the kitchen out of the girl.
“I actually did wedding cakes for a while,” she said. “I just really like making things with my hands. If it’s fabric dying or baking or making coffee, it kind of scratches the same itch.”
From North Carolina back to Uptown Coffee and then further north, Simonian ventured. She and her husband welcomed their son, Adi, now six, while living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Though they enjoyed the Big Apple, the family stole away to visit friends in Mt. Lebo when they could.
“Elizabeth and I had stayed friends. We went more from a boss-employee relationship to friend. She was at my wedding. Any time we were in town, we would visit her. I remember bringing my son when he was like three months here, and he was hanging out in the kitchen. We were just close,” Simonian smiled. “I knew that she would eventually want to sell. We just weren’t exactly sure when.”
The “when” was perfect timing. The Simonians moved to Bloomfield about four years ago. Adi started school, and Simonian, who thought perhaps full-time work was a thing of her past, realized she missed slinging coffee and baking en masse.
“I just did it for so long, and I just really love it. When I was here, in my twenties, I would think, oh wouldn’t that be great, just sort of daydreaming,” Simonian said. “I didn’t want to just have a coffee shop, not just anything, I wanted to take over here. I remember my interview with Elizabeth. I was actually working at another coffee shop downtown; I’d only been there maybe a few months. I remember trying to explain I like working at a coffee shop just because it’s fun and thinking what a dumb answer. That’s not a very official answer, but I mean, it is true, and I still think the same. It’s just really fun. My first shift, I remember everybody being very friendly, asking your name, wanting to know about school, about your family. It’s been just always a very, very special place.”
Simonian said her staff is fantastic, and regulars have supported the change of ownership. Boyd still shows up some days to say hello to regulars or bake, and people of all ages keep coming for the coffee, staying for the cookies and camaraderie.
Simonian is proud to facilitate what is, to many, a sacred ritual.
“We don’t maybe have something the same every single day, but coffee, we do. Coffee is kind of always the same. There are endless things to learn about it and endless ways to try it. It’s kind of nice when people have a moment where they pause. In the morning, you’re doing your routine, and you’re taking a minute to make it the way you want. It’s reliable, it’s exactly what you want, and it’s delicious. It’s a good thing that you can do with somebody, you can go get a cup of coffee, and then you just talk. It’s kind of a cool shared thing that everyone wakes up and has some coffee, for the most part,” she said.
When she isn’t serving the community alongside her staff at Uptown Coffee or thinking about the business, Simonian enjoys spending time with her husband and son.
“I do a lot of yoga. I like hiking and being outside as much as I can. I like gardening. I do read a lot – not as much as I wish. I’m with my son as much as I can be,” she said.
On a recent weekday, Uptown Coffee was busy, filled with professionals sipping coffee while working on their laptops. High school girls chatted at a big table; a young couple enjoyed conversation over baked goods and coffee drinks near the window.
Simonian waved hello to a customer and goodbye to an employee. She’s totally at home in the space, a gentle leader ready to take Uptown Coffee into another decade of service and, perhaps, beyond.
“This sounds like such a weird thing to say, but I’m sometimes just surprised at how good it all is,” she said, surveying the coffee shop. “I just love it. I love coming to work. I love how my family’s involved. I love how it’s so many friends that I’m around all the time, friends who come in to visit. It’s nice to have problems, and then you solve the problems. I don’t know. It feels good.”
Stop into Uptown for good coffee and treats Monday through Saturday between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.; the shop’s open Sundays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Enjoy virtual coffee on Uptown Coffee’s lovely Instagram at instagram.com/uptowncoffeeandbakery, or visit the website online at uptowncoffeepgh.com.
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