Visitors to the downtown storefront of Ispirare Coffee in Kittanning, Pennsylvania (population 3,800), choose from a wide selection of basic and innovative drinks. Seasonal offerings are a big draw. This summer, a hibiscus berry lemonade, a white mocha with local maple syrup, and a vanilla strawberry brown sugar latte are bringing in curious customers, some who return to try them all.
Many people choose a baked good to accompany their drink. A full selection includes muffins, cookies, granola bars, scones, and croissants. People of all ages meet up here and often remark on the wide array of delicious treats.
Ispirare Coffee is the first high-end coffee shop the county has ever had, and some other specialty items like organic juice can’t be found anywhere else. In recognition that many locals, an older demographic, might not be familiar with espresso culture, a graphic on the wall shows the components of each drink.
Owners Michael and Amber Rizzo have always loved to visit coffee shops on their travels and dreamed of opening one in their hometown. After the birth of their twin girls, they decided to give it a go. They travelled to Italy for a coffee training course (Ispirare means inspire in Italian) and began roasting one day a week in partnership with a Pittsburgh roaster. They served at local festivals and soccer games to introduce their coffee to the community.
Even after building up clientele, opening a brick-and-mortar store felt like a risk. Kittanning, a former railroad town, had its heyday in the early 1900’s and has declined in population for nine straight decades. “It’s hardly a gentrifying neighborhood,” said Michael Rizzo.
Their timing brought its own challenges; Ispirare opened in March of 2020. After being in operation for only four days, they had to close completely for six weeks and wait months to be fully operational. In the succeeding struggles, those four days were crucial.
“It seemed like the vibe was really busy and it proved there was a demand,” said Rizzo. “We thought if we can get through this, it is going to work.”
From this side of the pandemic, it appears he is right. Business has grown every quarter and the shop has quickly become a go-to meeting spot for residents. Part of the recipe for the Rizzo’s success is fostering strong ties to the community.
One of the biggest benefits of strong ties and community interest, according to the this couple, is the way the shop is enticing people to visit downtown more broadly. It is a place in need of revitalization; the main street buildings are about half full, with many falling into decay. Ispirare stands on a main corner, housed in a storefront that previously stood empty for over a decade.
“We have made it much more viable to have a business in downtown Kittanning,” said Rizzo. “Somedays, up to 200 people come downtown to Ispirare that wouldn’t have been here otherwise.”
They are thrilled to be a small part of their community’s incremental rebirth. Since their opening, other entrepreneurs have established a boutique art gallery and a soap shop nearby. A local rail trail and AirBnB’s are drawing visitors, comprising about 20% of Ispirare’s clientele. More young people are moving back to the region, attracted by the proximity to family and the low cost of living. These visitors and younger residents tell Rizzo that Ispirare is as good as the coffee shops they frequent in much bigger cities. Along with attention to detail, Rizzo says the key to being a small-town coffee shop is authenticity and a genuinely welcoming space. “Ispirare is the place to be on Saturday mornings, upbeat and vibrant with a beautiful, eclectic mixture of people from all walks of life,” he said.
How to Make Ispirare’s Lavender Syrup
- 1 cup water
- 3 tablespoons dried lavender flowers
- 1 cup sugar
- Bring the water and lavender to a boil in a saucepan.
- Reduce heat and stir, then simmer for about 15 minutes.
- Remove from heat and cool.
- Strain out the lavender. Lavender syrup can be served with honey in a latte or for a calming addition to lemonade. The Rizzos make a Spring Fog by adding it to Earl Grey tea and warmed milk.