Five years ago, when Maria Cartagena Bertram began to dream of opening a coffee shop in the east side Indianapolis neighborhood of Englewood, she was single and working as a pharma project manager at Eli Lilly and Company. By the time Pia Urban Cafe and Market opened in April 2016, Bertram was married with two stepchildren and expecting her first child.
As Bertram explains it, the transformation of her personal life during those years mirrored the evolution of Pia. “The idea has evolved for me. I had four years of building a concept and an idea, and can tell you right now what it is today is not what I started with back when I had the first version of the business model written down,” she said. “I think the same thing of my life. In the years I have been waiting to open, I have matured in my expectations of what I wanted to see here versus the reality of what I was facing. Four years ago this neighborhood was not what it is today.”
The needs of the city
Originally from Puerto Rico, Bertram came to the United States on a transfer with Eli Lilly, first spending two years in Virginia before arriving in Indianapolis is 2005. Though she didn’t live in the Englewood neighborhood, she became familiar with the area through College Park Church, based in Carmel with a large ministry presence in the Brookside neighborhood just north of Englewood.
The idea to start a business in Englewood evolved as “God opened my eyes to the needs of the city,” Bertram said. She began talking about opportunities for job creation with local community and religious leaders who were organizing revitalization efforts in the neighborhood. During those meetings, she also shared her desire to bring a little of her Puerto Rican culture to Indianapolis. And Pia was born out of those conversations.
Start with the coffee
From the beginning, Bertram knew coffee would be central to her business model, and after Pia’s first year, she’s seen that idea play out again and again.
“One thing I have enjoyed the most over the course of our first year is to see the different backgrounds of individuals who have walked into the coffee shop to enjoy a cup of coffee and network with other people from the community.” But getting the coffee just right took a couple of years.
Bertram wanted to support local coffee growers in Puerto Rico, so she began visiting coffee plantations during vacations homes to see her family. She wanted to find a grower who would sell her raw beans, not processed, and who sorted and graded the beans so she could import the highest quality product. Eventually, she landed with the Hacienda San Pedro Plantation in Jayuya, a top seller in Puerto Rico, and just recently, she also began sourcing Heirloom Bourbon beans from Café Chevere, situated in the Ciales Mountains.
So far, Bertram imports around 200 pounds of raw coffee beans a year. She works with Julian Coffee Roasters in Zionsville to create two different blends. The dark roast is used in Pia’s full line of espresso drinks, and the medium roast is used in their drip coffees. Both blends also are sold in one-pound bags at Pia. Getting the blend just right was important to Bertram, who says the coffee beans grown in Puerto Rico have more of an earthy, chocolate aroma, like beans grown in Guatemala or Honduras, rather than the fruity or floral bouquet of Yemeni, Colombian or Kona blends.
“The coffee is the thing we hope will bring people in,” Bertram said, though she admits she knew serving only coffee wouldn’t work. “When someone comes in and asks for a cup of coffee, they might also want something sweet to eat or a bagel.”
So Bertram also developed a breakfast and lunch menu, hoping to attract more customers from the local community as well as the thousands of commuters who pass through the Washington Street corridor, which leads to downtown Indianapolis, each day. Pia partners with other local vendors like Shapiro’s and Circle City Sweets for bagels and pastries. Bertram also worked with Sysco to develop a basic sandwich menu, including Caribbean-inspired items like Cuban and Medianoche sandwiches, which Bertram says you can find on any street corner in Puerto Rico. A classic turkey sandwich, a grilled cheese and a portabella melt round out the lunch menu.
A community anchor
Though Pia is first a cafe, it’s also quickly becoming a community anchor, helping to attract new organizations to Englewood, which is one of five strategic neighborhoods identified by Great Places 2020—a community development project working with local businesses and volunteers alike to transform Marion County neighborhoods.
Along with bringing a taste Caribbean food to Indianapolis, Bertram is also committed to hiring employees from the community. She works with Wheeler Mission, Outreach Inc. and Heart Change Ministries to hire folks who might otherwise struggle to find work. And Pia partners with other local businesses and groups by offering meeting space, catering events and selling their products in their market space. In addition to their own bags of coffee beans, Pia carries Hoosier Popcorn, candles and mugs from Wheeler Mission Restored Creations, pottery from a local artist and other items from nearby vendors.
This kind of community cooperation among local businesses and organizations is a hallmark of the neighborhood.
“We really try to foster an environment of cooperation here in the Englewood neighborhood, instead of one of competition, trying to find ways for businesses, nonprofits and community organizations to support each other and help each other grow,” said Englewood resident Christopher Smith, who also works for the Englewood Community Development Corporation just around the corner from Bertram’s cafe. “Pia’s is an important part of the Englewood neighborhood. Even before it opened, Maria was talking with … neighborhood groups about how the cafe could be integrated into the life of the neighborhood, and help foster more life and grow.”
A force for good
Bertram herself also has become a force for good in the community, just as she hoped when she first dreamt about starting a coffee shop. She serves on the Great Places 2020 steering committee, helping create jobs and other business opportunities in the community. But just as importantly, Bertram and her husband, Jamie, along with their children, now live in the community. Patrons also can find her at Pia most days, often with her 6-month-old son, Antonio, riding along in a baby carrier.
Just as she settles into all the new roles of her personal life, Bertram is looking ahead to Pia’s second year to help the coffee shop settle into its role in the Englewood community.
“In year two, we’re going to continue what we’re doing and make it better,” Bertram said. “I’ve learned a lot from an operational standpoint, and what I want to do is to continue training employees and make sure they understand what we do here every day, continue to offer quality coffee and food and find ways for Pia to continue to serve the community and serve it well.”
Originally published at Edible Indy on May 14, 2017. Photo by Jennifer Rubenstein.