By Becca Taurisano
Photos by Steven J. Pallone
Maria Metthe is all about relationships.
“Coffee is a gateway to have conversations, and that builds relationships,” said Maria.
She and her husband, Aaron, opened Salt City Coffee two years ago in its Near West Side location. Maria deals with wholesale and community connections and describes Aaron as the roaster and coffee genius. When scouting the location, Maria knew they wanted to be on the outskirts and be a part of the city’s revitalization. The building where they are located on West Onondaga Street was first a dentist office, then the old McMahon-Ryan location, and now belongs to a coffee shop with a unique mission — to make a difference.
“There are two parts to [Salt City Coffee]: getting really good coffee in Syracuse and using it for good,” Maria said. “This is a
hard business to be in and days get long. I need to know we are making an impact.”
Maria and Aaron both came from the non-profit world, so when Aaron went from roasting beans for fun to realizing they had a business opportunity, the couple left their jobs in non-profit to start a new adventure in coffee. Maria did community outreach and fundraising for both a pregnancy center and a food pantry and Aaron worked as a social worker at Hillside Children’s Agency. Their passion for helping others spilled over into Salt City Coffee as they provide free meeting space upstairs to non-profits, give away coffee for fundraisers and galas, and offer free coffee and bagels through their Pay It Forward board.
The Pay It Forward board is now well-known in the neighborhood and at the local shelters. Customers pre-buy tokens that are the value of a small coffee or bagel and the tokens are posted on a board near the register. If someone can’t pay for coffee or a bagel, they are encouraged by the staff to take a token. The token is an important part of the process.
“There is still that level of transaction,” said Maria. The baristas are taught to look for signs if people can’t pay for coffee or food through mannerisms or behavior. “We hire baristas based on whether they fit with who we are and what we’re trying to do.”
The Pay It Forward board was part of the vision from the beginning. The goal is “giving everybody the dignity to have a good cup of coffee, a good bagel, but also to sit in a chair and relax…to use the bathroom. We get panhandlers in the parking lot
and we go out there and say you are not allowed to pandhandle here but you know we will give you free food. If you are hungry and that’s why you’re asking for money, come on in and we will give you free food every day.”
Salt City Coffee currently has a staff of five, but they are actively looking for baristas and they want employees to grow with them.
“We look at their gifts,” said Maria, “If they are gifted in social media, sure, we’ll let you go that way. We run things completely different. There is a long-term place for you here.”
Salt City Coffee sources natural, organic and fair trade coffee beans. One of the farms they buy from is women-owned. Salt City is becoming well-known for their cold brew, which is smooth and chocolatey. They serve breakfast all day. For lunch they offer salads, sandwiches, quinoa and acai bowls. Salt City also offers tea, fresh squeezed lemonade and pastries. A lot of the food they serve is tested in the Metthes’ home kitchen first, then they bring it to the staff and hone the recipe.
The Metthes have three children: Miles, age 6, Eve, age 3, and Juliet, age 2.
“Our family really comes first,” Maria said.
Salt City Coffee has a nursery upstairs and plans to turn a storage closet into an art nook for kids. Their youngest, Juliet, came one month after they opened the café and they had to figure out how to balance a growing family with a new business.
Maria suffered from postpartum depression when Juliet was born and had to take a step back from their new business at a time when she felt she was needed at the café the most.
“You can’t open up a business and hit pause,” she said. “I literally checked out. It was hard for me not being a part of the café. I would say to [Aaron], this is our dream. His strong points are my weak and my strong points are his weak. I trust him more than anyone else. This is my dreaming partner about what life could be like.”
Maria recently spoke at Crouse Hospital about postpartum depression to tell others about their experience.
“It’s a quiet battle,” Maria said.
The West Onondaga location is the first, but Salt City Coffee is opening their second location in the Salt City Market. The Metthes would like to open a third location on the Northside at some point in the future, but always off the beaten path.
“We want to go where no other coffee shop wants to go,” Maria said. “We don’t want to get too big. We need to grow, but I still want to know every wholesale partner. I want to know all the baristas. I want it to feel like home. We dream of growth, we dream of impact, while still maintaining who we are. It’s personal to us.”