Dear LiB: “Why I Left” by Victoria Dilliott former owner of Affogato Coffee Shop

Since I haven’t owned a business anywhere but Bellevue, I can’t compare it to other towns. But I can say that owning and operating Affogato for over five years was quite the adventure.

The thing I loved most about Bellevue was the affection and enthusiasm that new residents have for it. Every person that moved to Bellevue that I talked to was so happy with the proximity to Pittsburgh, the walkability of the grocery store, restaurants, bus stops, churches….Bellevue has it all (except for bars, but that’s another matter). Because of all these positive attributes, people are quite enthusiastic about the potential future of the town. Everybody wants to see it grow and improve.

The first problem is that people can’t agree on what it takes to get a town to grow and improve. The second problem is the apathy that grows once newer residents start seeing the results of said disagreement. It doesn’t help that the town gets overrun by unruly teens, grumpy senior citizens and doped up schizophrenics. Trying to attract and retain customers in such an environment is difficult at best. You try to please everyone as best you can as a business owner, but when you have people wandering the streets talking to themselves, or riding their bikes down the sidewalk and spitting next to business doorsteps, it’s not a very nice environment.

The problem of rude people doesn’t have an easy solution…but the best chance I think Bellevue has is to try to attract more food establishments and higher-end retail shops. The more people with money you can bring into the business district, the less comfortable it is for people who want to do no good. Set a hopeful standard for what you wish your customer base was and if you keep working at it, there’s a chance that you’ll see a gradual improvement in quality of your clientele. Bellevue really does have such great potential. But if the Council and property owners keep catering to the lower class, there is no chance for improvement.

I gave up on trying to do exciting new things in Affogato after a few years. I bought the shop in 2006 just before I turned 23, and I had so many great ideas. I was working with Andy Rubacky and Sam DiBattista to host events and encourage businesses that would attract new people to Bellevue. We tried a lot of different things like gourmet brunches, shared office space, BYOB events, and art shows to draw people in. And we did actually attract a lot of bright young people who were eager to help make Bellevue noticeable. But nobody stuck around after the initial excitement wore off, usually because of the odd and slightly hostile attitude of both older Bellevue residents and the Borough employees/Council members. Our ideas were always being shot down. To be honest, the only real hostility was from Connie Rankin. The Council members at that time seemed to just be unaware of us as business owners and didn’t care about what we thought the town could use.

Essentially, Bellevue as a Borough never completely hindered my efforts, but also never seemed to understand why I should have been supported and encouraged. The only specific hindrances I can think of now are the seemingly never-ending stream of reprimands about my sidewalk sign sticking out too far (it was 18” wide instead of the maximum 14” allowed), the permit fee you have to pay to have sidewalk seating (because apparently the sidewalk is Bellevue’s property except for in the winter, then it’s yours because you have to maintain a snow-free and ice-free surface for pedestrians).  In the end, I didn’t want sidewalk seating anyway because the stream of characters going past made it unpleasant. Bellevue didn’t interfere with my BYOB nights, or anything else I did inside my shop. But trying to work with other business owners or do anything outside my shop was essentially impossible. I know once you start involving public spaces that things like liability and conflicting ordinances make planning events tricky. It just seemed like all we ever heard was “that won’t work”, and never “we can’t do it that way, but maybe if we did……x…..instead, it could.”

The Chamber of Commerce at this time was run by Connie and I don’t know why she didn’t like Sam or Andy or me, but she made it very clear that her vision of Bellevue was different than ours and that she’d been here longer so she was always right. Plus it cost something like $100 to join the Chamber (which is a lot of cups of coffee), and all they planned was the Sidewalk Sale! This was even before Light Up night. The notion of paying a yearly membership fee and then also paying a fee to participate in their one event was a bit galling. I know Connie doesn’t run the Chamber anymore, and she never ran Council, but there were a lot of people with her attitude—that we weren’t born and raised in Bellevue, so we couldn’t possibly know what was good for it. That was so frustrating to deal with that I just gave up and stopped trying to do new things. I just focused on doing what I could to make my business the best it could be. Instead of worrying about Bellevue and trying to help the town, I focused instead on my customers and my business.

I ended up closing Affogato because I moved out of state (due to a family emergency), but to be honest, I had been considering it anyway. Even taking out the frustration factor of dealing with the Borough, it was really hard to run that place seven days a week and have to deal with the same troublemaker citizens day in and day out. I kept doing it as long as I did because there were the other customers who made the effort to come regularly and who believed, as I did, that Bellevue could be something great.

There are days I miss it a lot. I know that I provided an excellent product and excellent service to my customers, and that pleased me enormously. But I felt like I was just wading through my days and never getting anywhere. I don’t think I’ll ever come back and open a business again in Bellevue, unless there is a vision and plan in place that makes it as easy as possible to run a successful business (other than a dollar store).

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5 Responses to “Dear LiB: “Why I Left” by Victoria Dilliott former owner of Affogato Coffee Shop”

  1. So sorry it came to this for you Victoria. Yoiu are spot on with every word! Since most of the council membes are rental owners, they have no interest in improving the community for property owners. We can also add that our enforcement commitee has members that can’t follow code themselves! And as for Connie Rankin, I bet if the majority of Bellevue residents had two ears, a wagging tail and peed on fire hydrants she would do more to “Improve the Vue”. I know you are many others of us have brusies on our head from beating it against the council wall! Godsped to you Victoria in whatever you do!
    Deanna Soost

  2. i personally loved affogato.i looked forward to playing there the customers were extremely supportive of any musical project i brought in.the coffee was great,atmosphere was incredible,just the whole thing i am actually sad it is gone.i truly miss that place and had bellevue had something like this when i loved here i would have never moved.and that is the truth

  3. Being a good friend of Victoria’s, I can actually say that there were probably many dozens of times we talked about what would and would not work for a business in Bellevue. Every single idea always came down to being nixed because of Bellevue Council and their ideas of what a successful Bellevue looks like. One would think that after years and years of declining population and with it, revenues, the council would begin to realize the folly of their ways. I understand that being on the council is a thankless job. I appreciate the good work that they do. Unfortunately one “this sucks” nullifies a thousand “attaboy”s. If and when Bellevue decides to take advantage of the popularity of small town life, they could really be something special. I grew up in Bellevue. It was a movie-type town. Kids playing, tree-lined streets, a vibrant business district, Church communities, etc. My view is that Section-8 housing has destroyed all of that. My sister-in-law was robbed at gun point for less than $5. Purse-snatchings, bank robberies, drug-infested parks and litter everywhere is what we’ve gotten in exchange. Thanks, Bellevue! This is why I now live in Ross. If more people like Victoria don’t try to make a go of it in Bellevue, the death rattle will be heard for miles.

  4. Wow! Talk about attitude. I quit going to the A because Victoria and her employees were quite unfriendly. Now I understand. She must have assumed I was a senior citizen and/or low income. Or even a schizophrenic. In any case, I was spending my money, and tipping the employee who never kept the creamers filled. I don’t get it. Why didn’t Victoria simply open a shop in Sewickly? Shadyside? Squirrel Hill? I believe she and others need to learn that Bellevue may be affordable, but not led by those willing to bring changes which benefit only that establishment. She and others talk, talk, talk, about change and prosperity, yet I never hear any specifics. What changes, what type of prosperity…how much, for who? All I hear is politcal talk. And that’s BAD business. Perhaps people who want change ought to consider change for all people and not simply themselves.

  5. Gayle, your criticisms of others is an easy way out for yourself. Perhaps you need to leave Bellevue sometime and see the amenities that other towns offer. There are reasons that these other areas are growing while Bellevue declines. Why are you OK with that? Do you really want to see the town that you live in go down because of stubbornness and bad agendas imposed upon you and your fellow residents by those in power? Many of which had zero candidates that ran against them in the election? It’s not like the people had a choice in that type of situation. You say that we only talk to those that are on our “side”, meanwhile I’ve left many questions for you within these comments, and have rarely heard back. My attempt to engage with you falls upon deaf ears. What are you doing to better the town? If we’re doing such a terrible job, maybe you can do it better? Also, what risks have you taken within Bellevue to try to help bring it out of the downward spiral of decline that it’s in? Have you opened a business that you’re passionate about? Come up with ideas for what businesses would thrive in town? Think about ways to fill all of the empty store fronts along Lincoln Avenue? Volunteer to give your opinions of bettering the town at council meetings? Request that council stop legislating from the comfort of the borough building? Maybe they need to get out there and shake the hands of the very people that pay into their wage? I’m doing these things, now I ask you…What moves are you making to better your town?

    Riddle me this, Gayle… WHO BENEFITS FROM A DECLINING TOWN?

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