The following article was published in the 2/17/05 Arizona Daily Star
OLD TRUCK PERKS UP JAVA FANS
1952 Studebaker converted into a mobile espresso shop
By Dan Sorenson, ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Photo: Jim Davis, ARIZONA DAILY STAR
It started out as a junkyard-bound pile of rusty Studebaker bones and ended up as a mobile temple of classic Italian espresso drinks in Oro Valley.
Some come for the coffee, and some come to ogle the truck parked on the front apron of the Oro Valley Fry's Food & Drug Store, 10661 N. Oracle Road. The steam-powered soul of Elixer Coffee Solutions rests on a 1952 Studebaker 2R5 pickup truck frame. There's something for both crowds.
Co-owners Charlie Panipinto and Rene'e Wold did some heavy thinking before they tried to jump into the competitive coffeehouse business nearly four years ago.
Wold was then a barista at Raging Sage, 2458 N. Campbell Ave., a locally owned coffeehouse. Panipinto was her would-be business partner, a former aerospace technician, lover of Italian motorcycles and all-around gear-head. He scribbled designs for a mobile coffee rig on napkins while hanging out on the Raging Sage patio.
Eventually, the daydreaming moved from paper to steel. Panipinto started by restoring a 1952 Studebaker pickup that caught his eye, a stunningly simple distillation of buxom post-World War II U.S. automotive design - just before it was abandoned for the fin and chrome riot of the late 1950s.
He removed the rust, replaced the rotted rubber, rebuilt the worn parts and reupholstered the interior. Finally, he painted the heavy steel a creamy beige.
But not everyone appreciated what came next, Panipinto says.
He removed the former heap's cargo box and replaced it with a chromed plate-steel platform with its own water and electrical system, refrigerated glass cases and a hot-rodded 1968 three-head Futurema espresso machine. After roughly 18 months of building and modifying the design to meet Pima County Health Department requirements, Wold and Panipinto started looking for a place to park the rig.
They decided the Northwest Side was underserved when it came to quality espresso drinks. They negotiated a deal with Fry's, slightly predating the Starbucks-in-the-grocery-store trend.
And just in case there was any doubt about their market hunch, within a few weeks of opening, a Starbucks moved in a couple hundred feet to the north, just across First Avenue.
It's fashionable for longtime caffeine fiends to scorn Starbucks, but Panipinto and Wold temper their criticism.
For one thing, Panipinto says, Starbucks turned a lot of Maxwell House gulpers into espresso sippers.
"We don't slam Starbucks," he says. "They're our strongest supporter."
Pressed for an explanation, Panipinto says it works two ways: The coffee giant not only hipped the masses to espresso drinks, producing future customers, but it occasionally disappoints Euro-style espresso purists with its sometimes sacrilegious variations on the classic espresso drinks, java jargon and sweet, froufrou novelty drinks.
"You have to work with them," Wold says of the customers brought into the coffee fold by Starbucks. "They're used to sweeter drinks - Starbucks' version of classic espresso drinks."
Neil van den Berg, a regular, says stopping by the old truck is a matter of taste and convenience.
"I don't care for the rocket fuel," van den Berg says of the traditional straight shot of espresso loaded down with sugar. He drinks Americanos, two or three espresso shots stretched out with hot water to make a big cup with the added flavor of steam-blasted fine-grind beans, but without the shock of a straight shot.
Panipinto says Wold is a traditional barista who takes her duties very seriously. She can, and will, "pull" a world-class straight shot of espresso, topped by a beautiful "crema" - the tasty, fragrant light-tan coffee bean oil froth - that will jump-start your day.
But she's not above fighting back with other drinks. Her hot chocolate, made with French cocoa, probably will have some customers playing cold in July.
Panipinto, who leaves the barista work to Wold, keeps the ancient rig running and answers questions about the truck, when he's around.
He says retired men, in particular, are drawn to the truck. A few Studebaker aficionados have been outraged by the Studebaker-coffee-maker mutation. But more are amused or intrigued.
And some stay for the coffee.
"I love it when old-timers come in and order Americanos," Panipinto says. Some tell him they "picked it up in World War II," when legend has it that the espresso shots and hot water drink was concocted for GIs disappointed by the lack of drip coffee in Italy.
"One guy came over," Panipinto says, and told him "it was the best coffee he had since he mustered out."
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