The year 1992 proved quite the moment for modern coffee. A modest company called Starbucks launched its IPO with a mere 140 coffee shops — today, it has 214 times (!) more outlets, not counting the dozens that opened as I wrote this article.
More critically for folks in search of a good cup, 1992 was the year that Salvatore Cisaria’s “brain started to roll and roll and roll, and I decided to do this.” “This” is making some of the most beautiful, completely handcrafted espresso machines in the world, which he’s been doing ever since, from Haley Street to the Santa Ynez Valley.
A quarter century ago, coffee lovers didn’t have many options for home-brewing espresso. “There were just plastic machines that used pods,” said Cisaria. He wanted to bring the art and science of espresso to your kitchen by combining the “four M’s”: miscela (the bean blend), macinadosatore (the grinder), macchina (the machine), and mano (the operator’s hand).
Today, his storefront just off Highway 246 in Buellton handles the first three. That’s where he and his wife, Wendy Stephen, sell primo Arabica bean blends that aren’t oily, so they don’t brew bitter. They’ve also got handmade precision grinders and the espresso machines, which can be customized in amazing ways. There’s a wine barrel one, one atop a surfboard, and another tucked into a mini car frame. Behind the showroom, there’s a spotless machine shop of drills and lathes and welding gear — what’s behind the curtain, it turns out, is even more amazing than the projected Oz.
“In the last 19 years-plus, I have created a little niche for home espresso machines,” explained Cisaria. “Now, there are at least 40 competing machines available.” It’s doubtful that any of those competitors employ Cisaria’s watchful eye and care. Despite high demand, he’s never had more than one employee, besides Stephen.
Originally from Ostuni, Italy, Cisaria became obsessed with coffee machines as a kid while hanging out in a cousin’s café. His first job after mandatory military service was in a Florence machine shop, doing exacting die work for accessories for shoes and handbags — think of those buckles on your Ferragamos and Guccis.
Work brought him to Los Angeles off and on until he decided “to take really serious English classes” and make the big move in 1985. Fast-forward a bit, and Cisaria’s Santa Barbara–based friend and occasional business partner Richard Smith got him a job repairing espresso machines in a garage on Haley Street, where Lab Social is today.
Five years later, he was building his own machines. “I didn’t have any money to pay the rent,” he explained. “But Richard said, ‘The space is empty anyway — when you make money, you can pay me.’”
While now there’s a waiting list for Salvatore machines — they sell 80 to 100 each year — things were much harder in the 1990s. “The internet didn’t exist, but I knew a lot of people around,” Cisaria explained. “We used all our friends and did a little marketing.”
Trips to trade shows like Coffee Fest in Seattle and demos in New York City didn’t hurt, either. For years, you could buy a Salvatore machine from the legendary Zabar’s catalog. “We still get requests to have some of those Zabar machines refurbished,” explained Stephen.
The factory eventually moved from Haley Street to Solvang — yep, cheaper rent — and then in 2009 to Buellton, which makes a perfect home base. “All these beautiful horse ranches — it’s a long way for them to get up in the morning and get to a coffee shop,” he said. “Plus, everything you do at home is better.”
By his estimate, if you spend $10 a day buying coffee, you could buy a Salvatore machine and amortize the cost over a year while controlling your quality. “The baby,” which is a Club lever machine in basic stainless, will set you back $1,950.
But Salvatore promises more than just a great cup. Each is a piece of art, decorated with a trademark swirled “S” punched out on one side, quite a pretty vent for the boiler. The metalwork is so spectacular that people hire Cisaria to do non-espresso machine jobs — like hammered copper signs — and to renovate antique machines, like the 70-year-old one he spent 100 hours refurbishing for Jeff Olson at Industrial Eats.
Most of all, said Cisaria, “Customer service is more important to me than anything else.” Explained Stephen, “We give a six-year warranty on a new machine, so when people have trouble, they just call here and we usually figure it out.”
225 McMurray Rd., Unit G, Buellton; (805) 688-9807; salvatore-espresso.com