An Interview with Michael Witherel MBA’09, Owner of Coffee Buddha
If not for the bright red-and-green sign out front, you might think Coffee Buddha was just a private residence along Perry Highway in Ross Township. But the moment you step inside you know you’re in a special place.
From the cozy front room featuring comfy seating, books, artwork, and even a fish tank where a fireplace should be, to the aroma of the café’s premium coffees filling the air, the Coffee Buddha offers an inviting, inspiring, relaxing environment. Upstairs you’ll find four more rooms: two with comfortable seating, one with a table for working/studying, and another with a foosball table. There’s also a meditation room if you’re looking for a little quiet introspection.
Michael Witherel is the owner and founder of Coffee Buddha. He earned a master’s in business administration (M.B.A.), employee relations and leadership from Robert Morris University in 2009.
Recently I sat down with Mike at his coffee house for a little conversation and way too much caffeine.
What sets Coffee Buddha apart from other coffee shops?
The fact that we offer something for everyone. On one end, we take our coffee very seriously and offer premium, more refined cups for the connoisseur. But we also offer pumpkin lattes with the works when the season permits it. The difference is we care about our ingredients and make almost everything from scratch in-house. Instead of holding our nose up to someone that wants a drink to taste like a s’more or something we just do it right and offer it without losing our integrity.
You originally studied journalism. What did you originally plan to do with your degree?
I thought I was going to be Hunter S. Thompson. I worked for a newspaper doing the entertainment section, covering local music, films, and editorials. I enjoyed it and would have liked to have continued in that direction in the field.
Has your RMU degree helped you in running the café?
Prof. Glenn Thiel was an amazing teacher, one of the best I’ve had in my education career. And I’d say my degree has helped on a technical level here at the Buddha. But with most things I’ve found, and especially in starting a business from scratch with no experience, you just have to pretty much [expletive] your pants and dive in.
What jobs did you have before deciding to open Coffee Buddha?
Oh boy. Well I worked in local government for two years, essentially with an ‘Office Space’ job until I was laid off. Then I was a bartender for some serious dive bars in the city. I also worked for a company that handled body removal for funeral homes and the coroner’s office, picking up bodies at the scene. Pretty much the exact opposite of Coffee Buddha.
Why is it important for you to run a community-friendly café that supports local businesses?
Because there’s not enough of it. Too often everything seems selfish and unwelcoming. I never really enjoyed hanging out in other coffee shops because I felt like I was either in a cafeteria or not welcome. The layout of my place makes you feel like you’re walking into your friend’s living room. As far as supporting local businesses, I feel like we’re all in this together, and we can benefit from the synergy if we are vocal and public in our support of each other. Also, people appreciate the little things, such as promoting that I use apple cider from Shenot Farms in Wexford, or local honey, or the neighborhood baker, etc.
What’s your most popular selections?
Difficult to say. Our single-origin coffees and single-cup methods of brewing – Trifecta, pour-over, Chemex, AeroPress – are extremely popular. But the go-to for the average patron would probably be a latte with one of our homemade flavor syrups.
So how long until Coffee Buddha buys out Starbucks?
A lot of Starbucks employees and managers are customers of mine. I’m sure they’re taking notes. Soon they’re going to have to give in as I turn all their customers into my own. I’m slowly but surely infiltrating them. ~
Written by Valentine J. Brkich
964 Perry Highway, Pittsburgh Pa, 15237