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Tree Spirit Coffee rolls onto Ohio State campus

Courtesy of Tree Spirit Coffee

With three kids to care for and law schools to apply to, it might seem like an unconventional time for someone to start up a business. But that’s just what Alison Ortega did. 

Ortega opened up Tree Spirit Coffee, a coffee trailer located at the intersection of Woodruff Avenue and Tuller Street, about two weeks ago. The trailer was located near the intersection of Woodruff Avenue and High Street until Monday.

Two parts of Ortega’s life inspired Tree Spirit’s creation: her time as an undergraduate student at Ohio State and her time as a single mom.

“As a student, I just wanted good coffee,” Ortega said. “As a single mom, I couldn’t really study in my house as readily so I needed a place, it pushed the emphasis more on finding a place where I could conveniently study and get quality coffee. It was very simple for me, and I couldn’t find it.”

Ortega said that in order to find the quality of coffee she desired, she had to commute outside of campus – generally gravitating toward coffee shops downtown. 

“To me, it was kind of absurd. To be the largest college campus arguably in the country and to not feel like there was one place that really specializes in coffee,” Ortega said.

Her pursuit of building a business involving the beverage can be attributed to her three years of experience in the coffee business, as well as the desire to secure an environment for her kids while in graduate school.

“In order to make a secure environment for them while I’m going through grad school, it motivated me to step forward a little bit more in terms of actually putting together a business,” Ortega said.

Tree Spirit stems from Ortega’s past experience working high-end dining jobs in Philadelphia. Her work in fine cuisine allowed her to mix coffee flavors rather easily, she said. An integral aspect of higher cuisine is the ability to appeal “to the senses in a way that uses the real product.”

This philosophy is observed in Tree Spirit’s made-from-scratch flavoring syrups. The flavor of real vanilla extract is sufficient enough to not need much additional sugar to create a vanilla flavoring, Ortega said. The same can be said for the “really dark cocoa” used in a syrup to make a mocha.

“Whenever possible we’ll either make it from scratch or try to make it local,” Ortega said. Tree Spirit brews espresso from Cafe Brioso, a specialty coffee shop located downtown on East Gay Street. Additionally, all of the shop’s dairy products come from the Ohio-based Snowville Creamery.

Tree Spirit places an emphasis on producing its beverages with a traditional approach, something that is often lost with larger corporate coffee shops and producers, Ortega said. 

“We’re aiming at a traditional style here. The commentary is that in our culture the name ‘cappuccino’ and what it correlates to is almost arbitrary, so you could go in to a gas station and push a button that says ‘cappuccino,'” Ortega said. “(The cappuccino) signifies something that’s a part of a very respected tradition and craft. So if you say ‘cappuccino,’ you know you’re supposed to put out a certain kind of product, and that has been almost lost in our culture. We really wanted to pull that back.”

Six baristas work at Tree Spirit, all of whom had to undergo about three months of training at Ortega’s home before the shop opened. Each barista came in at least twice a week, working four- to six-hour shifts to exercise their skills in pulling espresso shots and texturing milk, Ortega said. Even with six workers to help Ortega, there are plenty of baristas on a waiting list to help out Tree Spirit.

“I needed to train people in a specialized way,” Ortega said. “We can spend 45 minutes talking (about) just what goes into pulling a shot and how that affects the tastes.”

More than half of the baristas Ortega hired were already trained to some degree prior to being hired at Tree Spirit. 

One of the baristas who had no previous training is Chad Coakley. Before working at Tree Spirit, Coakley hardly drank coffee. But while training with Ortega, Coakley became more interested in the product. 

“I was interested in the craft behind (coffee),” Coakley said. 

Coakley said he received especially thorough training as a barista from Ortega, as compared to workers at other coffee shops. 

“I feel like most people who get trained don’t get trained the right way. They kind of get scattered down whole menus of things,” Coakley said. “We got trained just on doing coffee, just doing milk. Just concentrating on that.”

The work of a barista is one that should be held to the esteem of a craft, Ortega said. It takes precision and a special sense of craftsmanship in pulling espresso shots. 

Espresso, espresso-oriented beverages and cold-brewed coffee are the core of Tree Spirit as it stands now. Beverages range from $2 to $4.
 When the business shifts to a fixed location in the future, Ortega has plans to produce coffee in a variety of brewing methods, she said. 

Alongside an expanded drink menu, Ortega said she wants the building location to become a major place to study on campus. 

“My passion is to be what I couldn’t find. I want to be a really good OSU coffee study house,” Ortega said. “I’m trying to get into a fixed location and even sooner than I had first anticipated. At that point I will be (open) 24 hours a day … I want to be a place where you can go and study and have really good coffee and rely on it.”

Ortega said she hopes Tree Spirit will have a building location by the end of summer. 

The momentum behind Tree Spirit has come on strong. Already, Ortega observes a regular customer base, she said. 

A new regular to Tree Spirit is Adam Houston, a third-year in dance. After hearing about Tree Spirit from some of his friends, he said he plans to make it part of his commute to class. 

“It’s on my walk to class every morning,” Houston said. “I like to support small businesses other than Starbucks and whatnot.” 

Ortega’s ultimate goal, in whatever format, is to serve good coffee, she said. 

“Coffee is something you do every day,” Ortega said. “Anything that you do with that kind of regularity, (whether) you’re a provider or if you’re a participant, it’s really an honor to be a part of that because that means that it’s really sort of central to your day-to-day life. I think that that’s not mundane at all.” 

Tree Spirit offers grilled sandwiches and quesadillas as well as some pastries, such as biscotti and scones. Non-coffee drinkers can purchase a homemade soda or lemonade. 

Tree Spirit is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Ortega said the hours are extended later based on the day’s business, and customers can expect late hours during Finals Week. She added that the best way to find out Tree Spirit’s hours are to connect with the company on Facebook. 

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