Coffee Exchange’s Long Road Back

A June 2018 fire at Molly Malone’s in Pleasant Ridge significantly damaged the Irish pub and destroyed the Coffee Exchange next door. Putting things back the way they were is harder than it looks.

Illustration by Leonardo Santamaria

The Pleasant Ridge business district has seen its fair share of ups and downs over the past two decades, but on the heels of a national resurgence of walkable neighborhoods and urban entertainment districts, a slew of new businesses have moved in. A few standbys have been in the Ridge for decades—Everybody’s Records, Mullaney’s, Pleasant Ridge Chili, and the Gas Light Café—but the neighborhood’s most recent growth spurt can actually be traced back to a wood frame building on Montgomery Road, just east of Ridge. It was there that the Dubliner (later Molly Malone’s) first opened its doors in 1998, helping bolster the nighttime crowd that Gas Light began attracting eight years earlier. And, in 2013, the Coffee Exchange was founded right beside it.

The brainchild of Dilly Deli and The BonBonerie alum Sarah Peters and her husband Joe (a second-generation Nativity School grad and current president of the Pleasant Ridge Business Association), the Coffee Exchange was actually started on something of a whim, when the couple discovered its predecessor, Pleasant Perk, had abruptly gone out of business. “I didn’t know much about coffee, really,” says Sarah, whose perennial good spirits, warm hospitality, and strong Nativity connections instantly earned her a place of endearment in the neighborhood. She was also a quick study; soon, people from all over the city were coming in for her coffee, not to mention her homemade pumpkin muffins, egg salad, and coffee cake—all frequent sellouts.

The shop amassed a crowd of regulars who’d sit at the bar chatting with baristas as they worked. Employees from other businesses began stopping in for their daily caffeine fix. Kids from Pleasant Ridge Montessori and Nativity schools spilled in at 3 o’clock for smoothies or to play board games and hang out; after dark, their parents showed up for a glass of wine, beer, or bourbon. “I hate to say it, but it was like the bakeries and things they show on the Hallmark Hall of Fame shows,” says Father Paul De Luca, pastor at Nativity Church since 2003. “You walked in, you knew everybody. It’s one of those heartbeat places.”

By the summer of 2018, the Coffee Exchange found itself surrounded by a sea of new businesses, from hair salons to eateries and even a brewery; “the neighborhood,” says Sarah, “was booming.” Molly Malone’s, which had undergone major 2016 renovations under new ownership, was the favored neighborhood spot for trivia nights. The Coffee Exchange had just completed its best sales month ever, often overflowing with customers. And on June 6, residents crowded around a landmark property two doors down from both businesses to hear Mayor John Cranley announce his annual city budget and “a major investment into Pleasant Ridge,” says Pleasant Ridge Community Council President Terri Gossard, who’d begun her inaugural term the month before. “We were on a big high.”

Just one day later, though, that high would dissipate in a cloud of thick gray smoke sparked by a mysterious fire. Within 24 hours, the “heartbeat” coffee shop would be razed, Molly Malone’s would be left with a gaping hole in its side wall, and the apartments above both businesses would be destroyed. The community—residents and business owners alike—would be devastated, stunned, and, not surprisingly for anyone who’s spent significant time in Pleasant Ridge, determined to stand strong together.

Photograph courtesy Sarah Peters

Thursday, June 7, 2018, started out just like a lot of other summer days in Pleasant Ridge: sunny, temperatures in the 80s, and pretty average as far as business traffic went. By 1 p.m. the Gas Light Café’s lunch rush was tapering off, Molly Malone’s employees were prepping the bar for its usual 4 p.m. opening, and, next door at the Coffee Exchange, Darcey Murphy, then a junior at Miami University and one of the shop’s first employees, was just finishing up her shift.

Darcey Murphy, barista: Ben [Bellman, the other barista working that day] made a deal with me that if I took out the trash, he would do the dishes—that was a running joke; everybody hated doing the dishes. There were like three bags of trash to take out, so I went out to the alley and took out the first one and I heard a popping noise. I was very confused on what that noise was, but I just went inside, got the other bag, and then I kept hearing it. I thought maybe somebody was back there messing around with some of our stuff [or] lighting firecrackers.

Sarah Peters, co-owner, the Coffee Exchange: I was at home when Darcey called and said, “I think someone might be back in the alley.” And I was like, “Don’t go back there!” I didn’t want her to go by herself.

Darcey Murphy: I was on the phone with Sarah, and I peeked around the corner and the whole back of the building was just up in flames. I’ve never seen a fire like that. It wasn’t like just a little something was on fire. I could tell it was the whole building. I said, “Oh my God, there’s a fire!” And I just hung up the phone and dialed 911.

Sarah Peters: I was actually already on my way back up there [when she called], and I swear I turned off of my street and could see smoke already. Like from Norwood.

Darcey Murphy: As I was running inside, we had one customer who was in the middle of ordering. Ben said that he got her money and was making her drink, but I had no idea what was even going on. I said, “Ben, we gotta go! There’s a fire.” And he said, “Where’s the fire extinguisher?” And I said, “Ben, it’s not that kind of a fire. We gotta get out of here!” So we all ran out onto the sidewalk; all the Molly Malone’s workers were out there, too. You could see the top of the building, like where the apartments were. Smoke was just pouring out of the roof.

Paul Shanley, co-owner, Molly Malone’s (Covington and Pleasant Ridge) and co-landlord for the Coffee Exchange: I was talking to a customer in Covington, and I got a phone call to say that there was a fire [in Pleasant Ridge]. I wasn’t really that concerned…I just figured it was like something burned or whatever. I wasn’t thinking the building was on fire.

Patrick Schlegel, co-owner, Gas Light Café: Usually, we start to slow down a little after 2, after lunch. All of a sudden the fire trucks pulled up, then more came behind them.

Father Paul De Luca, pastor, Nativity Church: I heard sirens. Chris Shisler, the [Nativity] principal, and I were meeting in my office and I had the window open and went, “That’s too close. They’re here. Where are they?” We walked up together.

Joe Peters, Sarah’s husband and president of the Pleasant Ridge Business Association: Friends on the fire department called me. As I was coming from Kenwood, down that hill, I could see a huge plume of smoke. I had a bad feeling right when I saw that.

Photograph courtesy Sarah Peters

Murphy stayed on the phone with the 911 dispatcher until they were sure everyone—employees and apartment tenants alike—was out of the circa 1950 building. The first company to respond to the 911 call came from the Pleasant Ridge firehouse. “They were returning from a run, going east on Langdon Farm,” says District Fire Chief Warren Weems, “and they could see smoke coming from a building in the distance.” Shortly afterward, Weems and firefighters from the Oakley firehouse were called onto the scene as well. Meantime, Murphy and Bellman stood waiting on the sidewalk outside the shop as the scream of sirens pierced the air.

Warren Weems, district fire chief: I was dispatched around 2 p.m. The first thing I saw when I came up was smoke coming from the rear of the building, but I couldn’t tell exactly what was on fire. The building—the way it’s built and situated—there’s no way to quickly get around and see what’s on the other side.

Duane Williams, Oakley firefighter: We pulled in the parking lot of Molly Malone’s and set the aerial up. When we got to the roof, we immediately saw flames shooting out the backside of the apartment building; it was fully engulfed. We immediately radioed to Chief Weems. There was no space between the apartment building and the building behind it, so we stood on the rooftops and extended lines up the aerial and we were spraying the backside that way.

Sarah Peters: There was [still] no fire in our space, so I was like, “It’s just upstairs. It’s just upstairs.”

Warren Weems: After I got truck 31’s report, I went to a second alarm.

Darcey Murphy: And then it started getting more and more hectic. It was like everybody you knew from everywhere just happened to be there at the same time. My uncle showed up, people who lived around started walking up, everybody from all the surrounding businesses were out. I remember Father Paul being there like right the second it happened; he came up to me and made sure I was OK.

Father Paul De Luca: Everybody was worried about somebody that they knew. People wanted to be there and people were afraid: How’s this gonna change our neighborhood? How’s this gonna change our lives?

Paul Shanley: I got off at Ridge Avenue. Traffic was all backed up. I was like, “Wow, I wonder if this has anything to do with the fire?” I remember thinking: I hope the fire department doesn’t go overboard and flood the whole place over a small little fire in the kitchen. I get up there and there’s a crane and a guy up there hosing the whole thing down. And it was like Well, I guess we’re past that part.

Gary Schlegel, co-owner, Gas Light Café: I was at the Reds game; it took quite a while just to get here. By the time I [did], probably 3:30 or 4, people were standing up and down the sidewalk. [The Gas Light] was packed—we had the Peters’ kids in here, giving ’em drinks and some food. I got here and gave Sarah a big old hug.

Terri Gossard, president, Pleasant Ridge Community Council: All the people were coming out and watching the horrific event that was in front of us, and Father Paul looked at me and said, “So Terri, what are we to do next?” At that moment, we looked and one of the displaced residents who had literally just lost everything was sitting there. And I said to Father Paul, “Well, I guess we start here. We make sure he has a place to stay tonight.”

Photograph courtesy Sarah Peters

As soon as Weems was dispatched, he ordered a Metro bus to be stationed on the scene, so firefighters could take turns cooling down in the air conditioning, and put in a call to the local Red Cross chapter. In addition to supplying drinks, meals, and snacks for the nearly 75 firefighters who were on the scene that day, Red Cross Disaster Program Specialist Nathanael Moccabee and three disaster action team volunteers sought out the apartment tenants—two young men who worked at Molly Malone’s, neither of whom could be reached for this story—to offer gift cards to hotels, restaurants, and stores since it was clear almost immediately that their units, and everything inside them, would be destroyed. As the afternoon wore on, the Gas Light continued serving as a haven for many; Sarah spent most of the day on a bench out back, away from the crowds. Meantime, the fire, still contained to the Molly’s/Coffee Exchange building, raged on for hours. It was, says Weems, “the fire that would not die.”

Duane Williams: Most fires, you get to the scene and pretty much take what’s feeding the fire away. In this instance you get there and you have so many barriers, you really can’t see. The fire’s kind of hiding.

Darcey Murphy: A couple hours into the fire, I realized my keys were inside. Of course Sarah had no idea what to worry about, so she worried about my keys. She was grabbing every firefighter she could find and she’s like, “Darcey’s keys! You have to go in and get Darcey’s keys.” That’s just so typical Sarah, to worry about my car keys when her building is on fire.

Nathanael Moccabee, Red Cross disaster program specialist: There’s a different energy with each fire. This one was interesting because it was such a crowded area. It started out with a lot of loud chaos and you’d feel like the firefighters had it under control, and then the whole building would go up again. People would react with a bit of shock and awe.

Warren Weems: We kept on putting out hot spots, and they kept on coming back. Combine that with the fact that you’ve got firefighters in there with 40 pounds of gear strapped to their backs and the environment they’re in is full of toxic gases and smoke, so they’re on a breathing apparatus, and it’s also 80-plus degrees [outside]. Even as we were fighting with the second alarm companies, I could tell I [would] need more manpower, ’cause guys were worn out. So I called for a third alarm.

Patrick Schlegel: I wanna say there was like 13 trucks. I mean there were three of ’em out here, one in Molly’s parking lot, a couple on Ridge shooting over the top of these buildings. And I was told there was more by UDF but I never got that far away.

Terri Gossard: At one point they thought they had things pretty well under control, and then there was this incredible clanging going on—the trucks all clang when they are signaling to their firefighters: Get out! And suddenly you see everybody pulling out of the buildings.

Duane Williams: The interior teams, they were in for maybe 10, 15 minutes before access was deemed unsafe and they started to pull out. We had different teams in there trying to minimize damage and get the fires out quickly, but like Chief said, there were just a lot of hazards in the way that kept us from doing that.

Warren Weems: You still have hopes of saving it, but I think after a while, especially because a lot of that building was wood construction and frame, you load it down with water and then that second floor is ruined and the first floor is ruined. After a while it’s like, well, risk vs. reward.

Joe Peters: Even at 6 or 7 p.m. I kept thinking This is terrible, but we’ll go in in the next week or so and get our equipment out, get whatever we can salvage. And people were saying, “We’ll help you.” Then I remember we were talking to a firefighter, a friend of ours. I said something like, “How’s the building look?” And he goes, “Oh, it’s gonna be alright.” And I was like, “Really?” And he said, “You’re right here on the corner, right,” pointing to the comic book store.

Sarah Peters: And I go, “No, that’s us…”

Joe Peters: “That’s us there, with that sign.” And he goes, “Oh no. That’s all coming down tonight.”

Sarah Peters: “There’s a wrecker on its way.” And I just, then I lost it.

Warren Weems: I could have called for a fourth alarm, but by the time we were with the third alarm companies, I knew inevitably this is gonna be a tear-down job; the last thing we want is for somebody to go in there or start snooping around, a floor gives way or something. So we’ll call a company, and they’ll come and tear the buildings down.

Sarah Peters: My purse was on the front step. The fireman brought it over, and it’s just soaking wet and smells, still to this day, it smells like fire. They grabbed that lamp that was on that little side table, Darcey’s keys, and the flag off the front of the building, covered in soot. And then the outdoor sign, they took that off with the claw and we were able to keep that. Those were the four things we were able to keep.

Gary Schlegel: I give Sarah credit. She sat there the whole time and witnessed it. Other people would’ve got a lot more [emotional] than she did.

Joe Peters: To see the claw just taking bites out of the shop…’cause like Sarah said, the flames were not in that part. It still looked intact. We heard it crunch right through the deli case and the TVs and everything. That was hard.

Sarah Peters: In the big picture, you still keep things in perspective. Nobody was hurt, not even any of the firefighters. It was just so unreal. And so fast.

Joe Peters: Yeah. By 10 that bulldozer was sitting on top of the rubble. Just gone.

Father Paul De Luca: One thing I could articulate to them on that day is You know everybody’s gonna help you. We’re not gonna let you go.

Duane Williams: We’ll remember it forever. We won’t forget that one.

Photograph courtesy Sarah Peters

That night, someone threw a brick through a window at Molly Malone’s, rifled through the cash register and tipped over the ATM, looking for money. For days afterward, excavation machines moved the rubble—likely asbestos-laden—into dump trucks and transported it away, until all that was left was a giant gaping hole in the ground. The Coffee Exchange staff spent much of the next day together at a nearby friend’s house, writing out inventory lists, trying to remember recipes—sometimes laughing, sometimes crying—but mainly just trying to make sense of what had happened. The most jarring part for everyone was seeing the site the next day and trying to figure out what to do next.

Paul Shanley: The top end of the [Molly Malone’s] bar was sticking out of the wall, there was water dripping off the TVs, a terrible smell of smoke. The kitchen section actually didn’t look bad, but everything else…. A lot of the staff were there, and they were confused. Just a lot of people living week-to-week, and all of a sudden their job’s gone. You’re trying to answer questions for people, but you’re not really sure of any of the answers. It’s just a matter of picking up the pieces and seeing what pieces you have.

Sarah Peters: We watched the next morning; they picked things up with the claw and put it in dumpsters. You could see lots of things in there but they wouldn’t let us touch any of it because of the asbestos. We had a safe in the basement; it was still intact. We saw my recipe book get put into the dumpster. I am very much of a live-in-the-moment kind of person, so I don’t really…I don’t dwell on things. But I also have a hard time thinking about the future when it’s so unknown, so I just, I didn’t know what even to think or do.

Joe Peters: When you spend that much time in a place and then it’s instantly gone, I mean…I don’t know. It’s like somebody died or something.

Sarah Peters: I remember the first Sunday after the fire, we went to mass at Nativity. I had not cried until Sunday at mass. At the closing song, “Joyful, Joyful,” I took a picture of the lyrics March we onward, victors in the midst of strife. It was like, “Be happy for what you have and thankful for what you have and do not dwell on what you don’t.” I had to just walk out ’cause I was crying.

Father Paul De Luca: Somehow it says Yeah, we can get through it. Through all the strife and difficulty. We don’t have to be the same as we were. We don’t have to be better than we were. We simply have to be as we are. We’re going to be OK.

Terri Gossard: People wanted to help right away. As a matter of fact, half my job those first few days was just pumping the brakes and saying, “Everybody needs some time, they need to breathe first.” I was fielding calls right and left. The residents wanted to donate a couch or bed, [except] they didn’t have a place to put ’em. But what a good problem to have, right? Too many people trying to help.

The next day Father Paul called. I said the Community Council is starting this GoFundMe, but I’m not really sure how to divide this. Some people are thinking the residents should be the ones [to get the money because] they lost everything. Some people think it should go toward the businesses, but they have insurance.

Father Paul De Luca: I said, “People are very generous with these collections, but you have to remind people that any gift has got to be freely given from the heart. The thing is, we need to stand together.”

Terri Gossard: He also said, “Remember that everybody lost.” I thought that was wonderful counseling. You can’t decide who lost more; just do the best you can and remember that everybody lost. That was our mantra going through. The GoFundMe ultimately raised $23,750. There were 52 donors, with the top donor contributing $2,500 and the smallest donor contributing $15, [a group of kids] from their lemonade stand. We had people donating from the community, from neighboring communities, from different states even. Long story short, the best way we could come up with [splitting] it is four ways and evenly, because in that situation everybody lost.

Gary Schlegel: [Later], I was talking to a lot of the other business owners in Pleasant Ridge. They were already talking about what they were gonna do to get the Coffee Exchange and Molly’s back going, whatever it took.

Terri Gossard: Father Paul offered to have a communal “we-can-all-get-together-and-have-ice-cream-and-popsicles”; he was out leading the charge of that. [But] the Pleasant Ridge Business Association wanted to hold a benefit, Rebuild the Ridge. When Gary and the Gas Light and the business association got involved, Father Paul just smiled.

Father Paul De Luca: Nobody has the complete idea, but we all have a little piece of the idea.

Gary Schlegel: One of the guys that worked here, he’s a drummer in a band and he set up five different bands to play for free. We had a lot of donations and a big bid-and-buy and got all kinds of vendors, right up at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center Annex. It had a fabulous turnout—just blew everybody’s mind how well it went. Rebuild the Ridge raised just shy of $25,000 to go into helping the businesses.

Terri Gossard: Best estimates put the attendance at Rebuild the Ridge between 2,500 and 3,000 people. The business association dedicated those funds to be shared between the two businesses, should they choose to rebuild. And then, should either business choose not to come back to the Ridge, that money would be held by the Pleasant Ridge Development Corporation to help attract and stimulate new businesses growth for our business district.

Gary Schlegel: When we had Rebuild the Ridge, [Sarah] was amazing; she sat up there and talked to all the news people. She just co-mingled with everybody, thanked everybody for the patronage they’ve given her. I think Rebuild the Ridge helped them a whole lot, giving them the confidence that, yeah, the community wants you. [Joe and Sarah] were as much if not more the reason I don’t know how many thousands of people showed up.

Terri Gossard: People needed to come together, beyond the anonymity of a GoFundMe. The Rebuild the Ridge event definitely made you feel good about humanity. The fire took both the literal and figurative heart of our business district, and I don’t say that lightly. If you know Sarah, you know what she means to the community and what that meeting space and coffee space was to the community. And Molly’s and the Dubliner before it—that pub was really a catalyst for a lot of the business development in Pleasant Ridge many years ago. Molly’s and Coffee Exchange weren’t just businesses that were in Pleasant Ridge, they were Pleasant Ridge businesses.

Investigators would later determine the source of the fire was a faulty air conditioning unit behind the building (that, says Murphy, is most likely what she heard “popping” when she took out the trash); it would take seven months, says Sarah, for the first insurance reimbursement check to arrive. In the meantime, the GoFundMe helped the apartment residents get back on their feet and helped Sarah and Shanley pay employees and creditors.

Sarah’s employees either already had second jobs or found new ones right away; ditto for the Molly’s employees. Shanley and his partners were quickly consumed with overseeing mold remediation, building stabilization, and gathering bids for reconstruction, while Sarah and Joe tried to figure out what to do next. The only thing both businesses knew was that, in spite of so much loss, they had the community’s full support no matter what they decided to do moving forward.

Paul Shanley: In an ideal world we would have opened the doors and everybody would be sitting there singing songs and drinking beer. [But] at this point we’re two years into a mortgage with a bank; they have to get their money. And we put a lot of money into redoing that building, so there are loans from that. I don’t think there were any villains in the piece; it was an air conditioner outside, is what they said. It’s kind of amazing how it just starts from there.

Sarah Peters: We knew we had to make a decision, whether it was gonna be wait [for Molly’s rebuilding], find another place, or just not go forward. Or the Steve Miller option, which was just take the money and run [laughs]; it was the lowest one on my list, but I kept it on there for a long time. What I realized pretty quickly was that I couldn’t reopen just because people wanted or expected me to. When we were going through that whole [decision making] process, I was like Well, maybe our job is done. Like we were here for the beginning, and maybe we just let someone else do something from here.

Paul Shanley: Everything’s basically still up in the air. We might end up keeping it all. We may end up selling the whole lot. We might end up selling half of it.

Sarah Peters: We kinda took our time and kept in communication with the guys from Molly’s; we really wanted to stay there. That was my first choice, because we had a great relationship with those guys. But we had some really honest conversations with them, and they were like, “You gotta do it.” Over the summer we started looking around at other spaces. I wanted it to be in the neighborhood where we all live. When we signed that lease [for a former chiropractor’s office two blocks southwest of Molly’s], I was like I guess the Steve Miller option’s off the table now.

Joe Peters: Sometimes it takes an event like this to see what people feel about the business or us personally. It’s humbling.

Sarah Peters: Yes. I’ve used that word a million times, because I just never knew that many people cared.

Joe Peters: That the place meant that much.

Terri Gossard: Joe and Sarah and all of her team—it’s their personalities, it’s their commitment, the willingness to go the extra mile for anybody that really truly represents all that’s good about small businesses.

Sarah Peters: Like I said, I think that’s just our personalities to not dwell on things and not be Woe is me. I couldn’t even pretend to be that way, not for a minute.

Joe Peters: Material things can be replaced and maybe made better. What you’re grateful for is community like this. That’s what I take away.

At press time, the Peterses are awaiting building permits from the city of Cincinnati for their new location at 6041 Montgomery Road and hoping to open later this year. [Editor’s Note: The city issued a building permit on May 24, 2019.] Baudry French Pastries will share the shop’s bakery space, and Ridge Radio, an independent internet talk radio station, will stream content daily from a new audio studio inside the shop as well. Joe and Sarah have set up a GoFundMe to help cover construction costs.

Molly Malone’s has been fully restored and is listed for sale. Shanley also signed off on architectural plans for a new building to replace the original Coffee Exchange.

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