Back pedaling? Trager brothers opt for carts

You might find it hard to believe that Higher Grounds, with its four kiosks and always-buzzing flagship café in York Place, began a decade ago as a tiny coffee cart on the Downtown Mall. As the recently relocated (to prime York Place from a window on Second Street) Marco and Luca dumpling shop has proven more recently, lots of great ideas start small.

Like life itself, businesses go through cycles, evolve, mature, and even return to their origins. Now that the Downtown Mall has grown out of its skinny, awkward adolescence into a more self-assured, well-outfitted young adult, trend-setting Higher Grounds is turning back the clock and returning to its simple roots– with a business-savvy twist.

Seattle and San Francisco-raised brothers and business partners William and Joe Trager sold their York Place restaurant last month in order to focus on what they do best– coffee, hand-crafted and locally roasted (by Escalera Roasters).

"Restaurants are all-consuming, and food really isn't our thing," William told Dish. "Selling will allow me to get out from behind the counter and pursue the growth of our kiosk business."

Kind of like pruning a tree (William's apt analogy), the Tragers realized the need to contract in order to expand, to clip in order to grow. At first, the team will work on improving– and extending– service at the existing four kiosks (Martha Jefferson Hospital, Plan 9 on the Corner, and two carts in the UVA Medical Center).The next phase will involve further perfecting the kiosk model– the science of storing, making, and serving great coffee to the maximum number of people in the smallest possible space– and adding more kiosk locations.


"This might sound strange, but we're only interested in medical centers," William says. Talk about finding your niche. Once they've effectively served the latte-loving medical market in Charlottesville, plans are to take Higher Grounds to Richmond– and beyond.

Higher Grounds café regulars shouldn't fret over the change, mostly because the new owner, Antonio (Tony) Jorge, in addition to being an experienced "food guy" (a trained chef and restaurant GM) is a Higher Grounds regular himself.

Originally from Cuba, Jorge relocated to Charlottesville four years ago from Northern Virginia, where he was a managing partner of Ecco Café in Alexandria. He met the Tragers through his work with Morrison Management at the UVA hospital and, after years of resisting, he finally decided to give in to their tempting offer and take on ownership and operation of the HG café.

Though he's changing the name to Kaffe Bistro, Jorge tells Dish he plans to keep the general feel as well as the coffees, basic breakfast/lunch menu, and the staff of the original Higher Grounds. He'll introduce beer and wine and a few specials in May (the sale finalizes May 14) and, over time, he hopes to propose other changes like evening hours, furniture upgrades, and specialty desserts.

"I love the environment, the ambience and the culture of Higher Grounds," he says. "Will and Joe were ahead of the curve, and I want to keep the basic feeling of what they've created."

Jorge begins working at Kaffe Bistro with William on May 15, and the transition period should last about a month. After that, don't expect William Trager to disappear. "I really enjoyed Higher Grounds– we took a risk, and it became successful. I don't plan to go away," he says.

William and Joe will also maintain a percentage of the bistro business– another perk of the Higher Grounds' evolution.

Higher Grounds loom for the brothers Trager.