If at First You Don’t Succeed, Tri Tri Again
One man’s journey from Australian musician to Bostonian coffee connoisseur
Every weekday, financial district dwellers and concrete jungle explorers alike line up at the food trucks in Dewey Square. Here, customers choose from menus that run the gamut of mobile cuisine: soba noodle bowls, gourmet ice cream sandwiches, Japanese fried chicken and even Nutella-covered bacon.
Amidst the humming trucks and lines of hungry, suit-clad lunch breakers is Alessandro “San” Bellino. Similarly to his food truck neighbors, he offers a tasty menu to empty stomachs and presents his product with a smile. But unlike the rest of the food truck posse, four wheels really isn’t his thing.
The Coffee Trike — a 600-pound, completely self-contained gourmet coffee bar — wields a 130-pound espresso machine, nine gallons of water and milk, a 50-pound grinder and a full metal-and-mahogany countertop. The trike is the brainchild of Bellino, who came from Brisbane, Australia to attend Berklee College of Music. Bellino holds two degrees in music, but to this self-titled “coffee professional,” real music is the grinding of beans and the whistle of the silver espresso machine. Bellino’s full-service coffee bar runs on pedal power, delivering espressos, cappuccinos and more from what he calls his “fine coffee tricycle.”
On the three days per week he is scheduled to set up shop in Dewey Square, Bellino rides from the trike’s storage unit in the Seaport district and he prepares to grind, brew and steam through the day. He zips past pedestrians’ double takes and makes his way to the designated spot in the Square: right between the big blue Cookie Monstah truck and ever-popular vegan spot Clover Food Labs. His trike looks miniscule next to his gas-guzzling neighbors, but customers line up for big flavor and good conversation. These are two things he didn’t get from the music scene, Bellino said.
The Coffee Trike’s sleek mahogany exterior is decked out with a fully equipped two-head espresso machine, a cooler for cold beverages and a well-resourced amenity bar for customers to dress the coffee just how they like it. Bellino has a German-made grinder, a stainless-steel rinsing station and a car battery to power it all. To concoct each drink, Bellino uses an accuracy grinder, electronic scales and a spectrometer to gauge the dissolved grounds in the espresso. Bellino’s high-quality menu features coffee from Gracenote Coffee Roasters (Berlin, MA) and milk from Mapleline Farms (Hadley, MA).
“The trike keeps evolving. I’ve changed espresso machines three times. I’ve switched out grinders once. Now it’s pretty much set, but it definitely has been a work in progress,” Bellino said. “It’s evolved a lot since I first started. A lot of different pieces.”
When Bellino started the trike, it was not his first venture into the world of coffee. While Bellino was training at Berklee, he was simultaneously playing music gigs and working at locally-owned coffee shops including Flat Black Coffee in Dorchester and Ride Studio Café in Lexington. When he realized that the coffee sphere brought him both joy and a stable income, he jumped on the opportunity. “The espresso and the coffee is the main purpose. It’s all about people,” Bellino said.
“[Coffee is] tangible. You work with a product that people expect to pay for, which is a big deal. I really enjoy what I do,” Bellino said, sipping a shot of espresso from a glass demitasse cup. “It’s not a step down or a step aside; it’s just a different thing.”
In preparation for a good espresso brew, Bellino buries his nose in the tiny cup and breathes in deeply. He tests a sip and if the result is not to his liking, he repeats the process, getting eye level to the espresso as it drips and making modifications to the grind.
Bellino’s menu appears trendy — a small, hand-painted chalkboard reads off drinks that stray from the traditional latte or cappuccino. In addition to what one might find at chain coffee shop, Bellino’s menu offers an Australian Flat White, a Spanish Cortado and even a cold brew blend, which takes soaking the coffee grounds in cold water for an extended period of time. Bellino, however, wouldn’t go so far to label himself to be as trendy as his offerings.
“I don’t keep up with the trends, I keep up with what’s really good. If what’s really good is a trend, then I will do it. I will always have the best grinder that I can possibly purchase; that has the best particle distribution,” Bellino said. “I’m really into the science and taste of coffee more so than anything else.”
The science of Bellino’s techniques shows through his preparation procedures — he is meticulous in his tasks.
“The preparation is as interesting as every sort of avenue in coffee. I basically want a lot of sweetness, but also acidity,” Bellino said. “It’s actually less art and more science, I would say. You can sort of track that.”
He smooths grounds over the filters with delicate fingers and rinses his silvery equipment with care between every drink. While Bellino takes care of the coffee preparation, he simultaneously chats up his customers. Bellino’s coffee banter includes an energetic description of where his boutique brew came from, who grew it and how it was handled. Customers line up to not just receive a product, but to hear an enchanting narrative. The coffee terminology and the charming Australian accent keep customers coming back day in and day out.
“I’ve been doing this for three years,” Bellino said, pulling the lever on the milk steamer and releasing a puff of steamy white air into the chilly seaside wind. “I’ve been here long enough to sort of cultivate a bunch of people that are like friends.”
The people that congregate around the trike range from hipster startup employees, to highbrow business executives, to bustling lawyers who rush to and from the nearby John Joseph Moakley Federal Courthouse. The sense of community surrounding the chatting customers brings them to a common ground — a characteristic which Bellino defines as representative of the food truck culture.
“There is a nice community with mobile food in Boston,” Bellino said. “Most people are regulars. At this point, everyone in line I’ve seen a number of times.”
Bellino chats with customers about everything from the weather, to weekend plans, to his down-under origin. “You’re not from Boston,” one customer jokes. “No, not even close,” Bellino replies, chuckling.
But it’s not just Bellino who recognizes the returning customers.
“They all know each other and speak to each other in line. I really like that about coffee shops. It’s a meeting place,” Bellino said, handing an iced latte over the counter to a smiling customer.
Bellino’s community outreach stretches past the trike in Dewey Square. His presence on Twitter is admirable — he has over 2,300 followers who receive his daily updates on the whereabouts of the trike. On Facebook, The Coffee Trike has almost 2,000 likes — customers can check in when they visit or interact with posts about the trike’s menu options for the day.
By merging upscale and low scale foods, food trucks haven’t just emerged as one of Boston’s most popular dining trends — “they’ve helped bridge socioeconomic gaps,” reported the Boston Globe. The Globe reported that cities with fewer chain restaurants and a diverse, cultured population often have the most food trucks. Trucks offer a cheaper alternative to opening a restaurant, which makes the idea attractive in comparison to the high rental cost that comes with a big-city location. Boston, now a hopping food-truck locale, began with only 15 trucks in 2011. That number has climbed to 68 with several more expected to open this fall, Edith Murnane, director of the city’s Office of Food Initiatives, told the Boston Globe.
The food truck appeal is not only attractive in financial terms. The outdoor atmosphere offers workers a breath of fresh air — a coffee break at The Coffee Trike is also break from florescent lights and an opportunity to step outside the cubicle.
“It’s great to have an outdoor coffee shop like we do here. People are in buildings all the time, so they can just come out to the trike to get out of the office,” Bellino said. “They can come and chill and drink espresso drinks.”
The outdoor experience is good for customers and Bellino plans to continue to spend part of his week in the Square. However, his brainchild trike has expanded into a new idea. Recently, Bellino hired his first employee, Ryder Naymik, and plans on opening a brick-and-mortar shop downtown in the summer of 2015.
“That may be a reality sooner than later, but I’m going to keep the trike forever. My children and my children’s children will have this trike,” Bellino joked. “I’m just kidding. They better not.”