Wednesday, February 16, 2000

Coffee cart is an oasis along Plank Road

By Jay Woodard
Staff writer

Not all oases are in a desert.

There's one on Plank Road, and instead of water and shade, its main attractions are warmth, friendly greetings and the psychic nourishment coffee gives. Cappuccino and espresso and a battery of flavorings tempt the customers.

Staff photo by Steve Aldridge

Lisa Wilson hands Jerrel Johnson his coffee order at Liza's Caffe Buono.


The caravan that sweeps by this oasis is not made up of camels, but of pint-sized pickups and sultan-like SUVs barreling toward Fort Bragg.

This is Liza's Caffe Buono, a three-week- old venture on the site of the old Roland's Barbecue restaurant.

Pete Simchuk and his wife and business partner, Lisa Wilson, preside at a kiosk-like cart, dispensing jolts of caffeine.

The only source of heat in the pre-dawn darkness is the espresso maker. Escaping steam turns into ghostly swirls when back-lighted by the cart's only light, a drop-cord fixture attached under the protective umbrella.

Simchuk oversees the cart while Wilson hands out of the coffee to customers in this drive-in service.

Three big thermoses nestled in a bin on the front of the cart hold plain coffee, French vanilla and Irish cream. To the right are bottles of caramel, hazelnut and vanilla flavorings.

They roll the cart into a nearby storage building at night to protect the equipment and to keep it from freezing.

Simchuk and Wilson did well not to suffer hypothermia the first few days they were open.

"It was 8 degrees two or three days,'' Wilson said. "We now think anything over 20 degrees is warm.''

They opened Jan. 25, the day 6 inches of snow paid them a visit. "It was real pretty,'' Simchuk said. "It was so quiet out here.''

But the silence left with the snow.

Plank Road at 5:30 a.m. is a river of motor and tires-on-asphalt noise as the military community heads for work.

Some people have already become regulars.

"Here's Richard,'' Wilson said, as a Dodge Ram crunches over the gravel. Out steps Richard Lakely.

"I stop here twice a day,'' he said, "on the way to PT and going to work. Before they opened, I had to wait until after First Formation to get some coffee. This is much more convenient.''

He doesn't pay much attention to the cold and seems quite comfortable in gray sweats.


Name of company: Liza's Caffe Buono

Site: 1871 Plank Road

Number of employees: 2

Product: Coffees and hot chocolate


Wilson isn't that hardy. When she is not waiting on customers, she puts on a North Face parka and snuggles down into its voluminous folds. Simchuk wards off the cold with just a flannel shirt over a crew-neck red sweater.

In a few moments Elan Gonzalez brakes her Blazer to a stop and asks for hot chocolate.

She's on the way to meet the base's new recruits.

"I work at 19th Replacement,'' she said. "The first thing they do when they arrive is to get together for a briefing by the commanding general.''

Wilson asks if she wants extra chocolate. "It doesn't matter,'' she said. "I drink it so fast I don't even notice. I inhale it. I need it for the warmth.''

One customer thinks the coffee stand may be the only one of its kind. "I don't know of any other place like it,'' said Bill Bates, an instructor at Jumpmaster School.

Simchuk is counting on that and the choice location to make their venture go. In a few years, he said, he'll be coming up on the time when he has to decide if he'll stay in the Army. "We want to expand,'' he said. "We're looking at new locations.''

If they do expand, the most popular drink at the present site will likely also be a good seller at any new locations.

"It's one a lot of people go for,'' Simchuk said. "It's the Red Eye. It's just regular coffee with a shot of espresso in it. We try to get them to take some syrup or whipped cream with it. I think it may have a bite to it, without those.''

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