No to Starbucks, yes to Calabria

Calabria expands in leisurely Italian style

Caffé Calabria, coming soon to the San Diego skyline.
  • Caffé Calabria, coming soon to the San Diego skyline.

Caffe Calabria Coffee Roasters

3933 30th Street, North Park

Later this summer, longtime North Park coffee roaster Caffé Calabria will launch its first offsite expansion in 15 years, opening a satellite coffee bar in a ground-floor storefront at the 1 Columbia Place high-rise in downtown’s Columbia neighborhood. A second expansion will be quick to follow, this one south of the border, with a kiosk in the Plaza Rio shopping center in Tijuana.

 Calabria owner Arne Holt started with a coffee cart at Grossmont Hospital in 1991. By 1995 he had partnered with his sister to operate four carts and a wholesale roasting operation. “Honestly, the coffee wasn’t very good when we started roasting,” Holt says, “and then we got it dialed in and the phone started ringing off the hook.”

Those calls resulted in a thriving wholesale business, which today serves more than 150 commercial clients and sends out between six and seven thousand pounds of roasted coffee beans each week to customers around San Diego and throughout the Southwest United States.

Holt moved roasting operations to North Park in 2000, and a year later opened the Caffé — it’s name spelled to reflect Holt’s affection for Italian coffee-bar culture. As for American coffee culture, Calabria has retained medium-to-dark City and Full City roast profiles over the years, despite the recent proliferation of third-wave roasters promoting lighter-roasted beans intended to showcase characteristics between beans of differing origins.

“I want the coffee to be balanced and the sugars to be caramelized” Holt says, insisting, “I still want to get the varietal characteristics out of the coffee, but there’s a way to do it with without losing the roundness and sweetness.”

He also says the surge in coffee competition isn’t behind the new expansion — at least not directly. “I wasn’t really wanting to expand,” he says; rather real estate agents came to him.

In the case of Columbia Place, building-management firm Emmes Realty Services was looking for a coffee business to set up off the building’s lobby, and tapped Calabria. “We wanted a local, premier coffeehouse,” explains a representative of Emmes. “We didn’t want a national chain like Starbucks.”

Currently, 1 Columbia Place is serviced by the Mud Bar Coffee Cart, which has been operating on the building’s third-floor terrace since construction pushed it out of its original location across the street, at 2 Columbia Place. Once Caffé Calabria moves in, it will take over the cart on the third-floor terrace, and Mud Bar will return to a newly built cart at its original location.

That date is tentatively set for the end of August, as Holt anticipates installation of the custom-built coffee bar he imported from Italy to commence by mid-July. The Tijuana shop won’t come until later, as Holt says a shipping delay should push the opening to late summer, at best.

“The best thing about the bars are that they’re Italian,” he jokes. “The worst thing is that they’re Italian. Italy just works on their own schedule.”

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