Uptown Coffee changes hands

Nicole Simonian, left, is the new owner of Uptown Coffee, taking over from founder and previous owner Elizabeth Boyd, right. Simonian worked at Uptown from 2007 to 2014. Uptown is where her then-boyfriend, now-husband, proposed to her. /Photo: John Schisler

The brownies are staying. So are the cheesecake and the cookies. In fact, not a lot is changing as Nicole Simonian steps into her role as owner of Mt. Lebanon landmark Uptown Coffee, at 723 Washington Road. Simonian, who worked at Uptown from 2007 to 2014, bought the shop from its founder and owner, Elizabeth Boyd, late last year.

“Owning my own coffee shop was something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Simonian said.

Boyd felt the same way, back in the early ’90s. She fell in love with the concept when she worked at a coffee house (and baked their scones) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. When she returned to her hometown, she searched for a spot to open her own place and settled on Washington Road.

When Boyd opened Uptown in February 1995, Mellon Middle School was closed. The old library still stood; construction on the new one began later that year.

As for local coffee houses, “there was the Beehive on the South Side,” Boyd remembered, “and the café at Borders Books had just opened.” Starbucks didn’t hit town until around 2000.

But things were quiet at 723 Washington Road, at least at first.

“It was very, very slow,” Boyd said. “I would stand and paint my nails between customers.

“People didn’t really understand it at first,” she added. “They thought it was a beatnik hangout.”

Business picked up gradually. Commuters got there early. Parents came in before or after dropoff at Washington Elementary. High school, and eventually middle school (Mellon reopened in 1998) kids hung out after classes. People would stop by for coffee and a snack after a movie at the Denis Theater or an evening out.

“I liked the rhythm of it,” Boyd said.

Soon enough, Uptown was a part of the community. Boyd added a kitchen in 1999, after her baked goods vendor went out of business, and she started baking the treats that Lebo has come to love.

By 2007, when Simonian was hired, the shop was well established. At the time, Simonian was a student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, needing a part-time job. “My ambition was to open an art gallery,” she recalled. The job was supposed to be short term, but she and Boyd clicked.

“We had so much fun working together,” Simonian recalled. The temporary part-time job jump-started a career. After graduating from the Art Institute, Simonian became a full-time baker at Uptown, along with assisting with scheduling, ordering and interviewing job applicants. She became such a part of the business that when her boyfriend, Nick, wanted to propose in 2014, he knew where to find Simonian: in the Uptown kitchen.

Not long after Simonian left Uptown, she and Nick moved to Brooklyn, where their son, Adi, was born. She stayed in touch with Boyd. About four years ago, Simonian and Nick returned to Pittsburgh and bought a house in Bloomfield.

In the meantime, in 2008, Boyd, her husband, Don, and daughter, Esther, had moved from Castle Shannon to Mt. Lebanon. A few years later, Esther was in high school and Boyd was starting to think about selling Uptown. It had been more than 20 years and she was getting a little tired: “I never sit down when I’m working,” she noted.

“I started putting out some feelers a few years ago,” Boyd recalled. Then came March 2020 and pandemic shutdowns. Uptown continued to offer takeout orders and gradually moved from limited to full seating. Then Boyd’s former employee heard that she was looking for a buyer.

The deal was done and the transition announced on Uptown’s Facebook page in late December. Commenters all offered congratulations, though some were a little concerned about the change.

(“I really hope Nicole makes key lime pie,” wrote one.)

The key lime pie remains, along with the aforementioned cheesecakes, cookies and brownies. (“I put a lot of Belgian chocolate in those brownies,” Boyd confided.) Experience has taught her that her customers “are not super adventurous. If I tried something different, I was reminded to go back to what I had been doing.”

But it’s clearly a winning formula. The most popular coffees, Americano (espresso and water) and the house brew, along with the rest of the drink menu, are the same as well.

One of the things that has changed over the years is the popularity of plant-based milk. Though all but unheard of in the 1990s, Simonian estimated that about 40 percent of their customers now request almond milk, oat milk or another nondairy alternative.

Simonian does have a couple of new ideas, such as offering vegan baked goods made in-house. Adi, now 6 years old, has been assisting with painting and cleaning.

“I just love being back behind the bar,” Simonian said. “I really enjoy baking things, and I like talking to the customers.”

Though Boyd is looking forward to some sit-down activities, such as knitting and needlepoint, as well as spending more time with her family, “I’m going to continue to help Nicole as she needs me.”

She’s a little apprehensive about living life without a daily schedule, but Boyd is clear on what she’ll miss most, after 28 years at Uptown: The people.

“The regular customers, definitely. These are my friends.”