A Cup Of Joe

The Jamestown salesman who sold Standard Brands coffee starting in 1935 had 20-pound sacks of the stuff stashed in the back of his car, which often doubled as booster seats for the kids. I bet our salesman never would have guessed that one day a coffee shop would bear his name at an old house he must have passed by often on Forest Avenue.

Stories like this are the kind of stuff that adds texture to a town, the kind of town where the spirit of a man who was born in 1917 and raised on Hazard Street and worked for the same company for 37 years might live on one day in an idea – an idea, a pot of coffee and a plate of muffalatta.

The thing about Joe Zanetta is that his life had many layers. There was his sales job and his family and his life in Jamestown, but when he was called to serve in World War ll, he became a man who’d witness a compelling piece of history while seeing a bit of the world. As a tank commander stationed in Germany, he helped close the gas chambers in Dachou.

He’d go on to serve in the Korean War, too, but he eventually returned to his family and his work, only to lose his job years later when Standard Brands sold out to Nabisco.

But that’s not where the coffee leaves the story.

Meanwhile, somewhere in this timeline, a kid named Tom Franco from Allen Street was playing with the Johnson boys from Forest Avenue, not knowing one day he’d open up a coffee shop with his wife – who is Joe Zanetta’s daughter – in the downstairs of the beautiful Johnson home near where he’d whiled away the best days his childhood.

Funny how life works sometimes.

In a town where six degrees of separation is probably only two, stories like this aren’t that unusual. What makes it special is that it’s people like the Franco’s who don’t just talk about the Jamestown renaissance; they become a part of it. They’re committed to something more than just the coffee.

Tom and Patty Franco talk about the Forest Heights they remember and the Forest Heights they’d like to see as if it’s all just a matter of a little Windex and a paper towel before they look through the window and see the neighborhood they live and work in spring back to life. That’s because the best transformations are based on a bit of nostalgia and a whole lot of faith, and the truth is, they see what a little elbow grease can do. Their cooperative efforts with the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation have already brought some spit and shine to the area.

The Joe Z Coffee House is a great little place where people walk in and become part of the conversation in the room, just above the buzz of the coffee grinder. You kind of expect to see Andy Griffith in the corner talking to Lloyd the barber because it’s that kind of place: cozy, nothing fancy, good smells in the air, neighbors talking. It’s the sort of cafe Hemingway referred to as “a clean well-lighted place” – one that draws you in because it looks warm and cheerful from the sidewalk.

Although it opened in April, community groups are already holding meetings there after hours, drawn to the comfortable surroundings and the nice folks who own the place. What that tells you is that people are looking for authentic places to spend their time, tired of the sterile, cookie-cutter places corporate America keeps spitting out.

If you build something real, the people will come.

Both the Francos are baking in the repurposed kitchen, sending out trays of muffins, egg pies, cookies and other good things, made with authentic, non-GMO healthy ingredients. They’re thinking locally, too, with their eggs and other ingredients coming from local farms and their coffee beans delivered from Stedman’s.

And on Saturday mornings, there’s music coming from the corner of the cafe from a local high school student playing her acoustic guitar. You can’t get any more authentic than that.

Tom reminisces about all the coffee shops he remembers back in the day and says it feels good to bring some of that nostalgia back to the town he grew up in.

“We’re trying to turn stranger-hoods back into neighborhoods,” he says.

I bet Joe Z would like that.