Christopher Cara: Espresso Machine Purveyor

15 February, 2011: Christopher Cara: Thomas Cara, Ltd.

San Francisco. I made Christopher’s acquaintance in 2005, when I was restoring an old espresso machine I’d picked up on eBay. As introductions go, it wasn’t the smoothest of beginnings. My phone call from New Mexico apparently caught Christopher at a bad time (which I’d later learn equates to ‘annoying customers in the shop’), so his shortness with my questions left me feeling frustrated, if not stranded from bringing my machine back to life.

“Hi, I tracked you down online. I believe I have an old La Cara of yours and I’m in need of parts,” I said.

“You have a what?” The man’s tone betrayed his annoyance, as if my dilemma was far worse for him than it could possibly be for me.

“A La Cara” I said. “Though there isn’t a name anywhere to be found, a knowledgable friend of mine recognizes it. And since La Pavoni o-rings won’t fit it, it can’t be a Europiccola. Can you help me?”

A pregnant moment.

“If it is one of those machines, there isn’t anything I can do to help you. They are extinct, and can’t be serviced.” He was distracted. Annoyed and distracted. “Look, I’m sorry but I have to go.”

My heart sank. I’d spent nearly $150 on a beautiful chrome machine, thinking it was a rather common La Pavoni model whose vintage simply necessitated some TLC. That TLC had cost me another fifty bucks in the way of an overhaul kit I purchased from on online service outfit. Now I had little baggies of o-rings and gaskets that I couldn’t use, and a burning realization that I had spent considerable time in purchasing the wrong machine and the wrong parts, and now the right man on the line was a dead end. Was I genuinely screwed? My jack-of-all-trades friend, Jerry, seemed to think the machine was an anomaly, rare indeed, and perhaps unserviceable without help from the shop that created it. And that ray of hope just hung up on me.

How could it be that in the world of lever-operated home espresso machines, where the market is dominated by La Pavoni and their fifty-year old line of Europiccolas, I would stumble upon a contraption that looked so similar I wouldn’t know the difference? Granted, the lack of a label might be a flag. But come on–these machines are so specialized that obvious appearances would preclude any confusion between models. Like comparing a Dodge to a Ford to a Chevy, you can usually tell the difference.

I sat down at my kitchen table. The derelict machine was before me, its thick chromed brass a showcase of beguiling curves and planes of a simple design, it’s massive form an expression of a bygone era. I was looking at the likelihood that I would never get to see the beautiful machine operate. I was looking at an artifact.

With a sigh, I fired up the Mister Coffee that I relied on for my daily espressos. It was inherited from an old girlfriend, and served as a replacement for the second DeLonghi Sorrento I’d used up in only a couple of years. Of the pump machine variety, these machines were considered ‘entry level’ espresso machines. As such, they were composed of plastic (for the body), a soft magnesium alloy for the hot parts (tank and portafilter holder), and decanter-carafes made of such delicate glass to necessitate a thrift store vigil for their regular replacement. While I was by no stretch a wealthy coffee drinker, I had felt justified in elevating my experience by buying a used machine of good reputation, and further, a machine in need of some work. With a price point within the boundaries of reason, my latest reality was as bitter as the Mister Coffee’s double shot.

I poured some organic milk, added a dash of cane sugar and vanilla extract, and steamed it to frothy perfection. The resulting latte was far better than the Mister Coffee’s espresso served neat, but herein a dilemma hounded me: how long would I continue to to downgrade my steamed milk with inferior espresso?

The phone rang.

It was Christopher: “Look, I’m sorry I hung up on you. The store was busy, and it’s difficult to have a conversation with people wandering around the shop.”

My spirits rose, if only a little. Would he help?

“The La Caras are dinosaurs,” he continued. “They were few to begin with, and haven’t been sold since the seventies. I don’t have parts and I can’t service the machines anyway. I’m sorry you spent money on one. I hope it wasn’t much.”

My spirits tanked, even lower than before. It was implicit that there was more to this than was being told, and this would likely be my only chance to glean an explanation from Christopher, so I pursued it.

“I only need parts if they’re exotic, and I’d be really grateful just for the parts specifications. I”m willing to do the work on my own.”

“Really?” (A tone of doubt.) “Well, I don’t have the specs. And I’ve never heard of anyone servicing one of those machines.”

“What do you mean you can’t service them?” I asked. “Do you mean you don’t want to service them?”

There was no response. I continued: “Look, I’m really committed to restoring this, if you think it’s worth it. Any help is better than none, even some advice on where to go next.”

A sigh was extruded. Somewhere in San Francisco some considerations were being made.

When Christopher next spoke it was in a hushed tone. This tone carried the weight of discretion, if not implicit danger. Thus began the saga of The La Cara Espresso Machine

Christopher Cara’s father went into business in 1946. He had discovered espresso while spending a year abroad post college, but it wasn’t until later, while stationed in Italy during the war, that he made the acquaintance of the Pavoni family and took on west coast distribution of their machines in the United States. Over time he sold a variety of kitchen equipment, much of which carried the ‘Thomas Cara Ltd’ name, often modified or even fabricated to his specifications. In the early seventies the La Cara was a lever espresso machine that was an example of this vision. There were four generations, each with subtle refinements. They were only a few– maybe 200 or 250–in each production run.

Christopher’s tone got lower, as one would suggest scandal in the king’s court. “Well,” he emphasized, “certain manufacturers didn’t like their American distributor selling a competitive machine. So an “agreement” was made with my father to stop production and support of the line.

“A cease-and-desist order?” I said.

“Essentially. Which is why we haven’t touched those machines since. They’re not on our radar,” he said. ”So I don’t know what to tell you. I suppose if you have power and there’s no corrosion, then you might try scrabbling together the seals at an auto parts store.”

My machine was doomed. Maybe. But … maybe not. It did power up, the tank got hot, and for all intents and purposes it did seem to work. And it was very clean. All I really needed was to stop the jets of errant steam issuing forth from the many seals of the machine, which should be no more complicated than rubber o-rings and gaskets. Oh, and I needed a new sight glass; mine was cracked at the top.

With this odd history to inform my dilemma, I was ready to take up the challenge of restoration with a renewed vigor. Grateful for the sideways encouragement, I thanked Christopher and figured he may have found some entertainment from the diversion. We said our farewells.

* * * *

A year or so later I was in San Francisco with DJ. While out on a jog I stopped by the shop. It was an unannounced recon flyby. Admittedly intimidated as a newbie restorer who might fall short of industry standards, I went literally prepared to run out of there should I prove myself inadequate, or worse yet, one of the irritating class of customers Christopher had conveyed in our prior interaction.

The storefront was located at the edge of North Beach on Pacific Avenue, a narrow, boutique-y lane filled with professional firms and retail design galleries. With minimalist class in mind, it was a manicured if not pleasant side street in a desirable part of town.

Tucked discreetly behind some iron gate work on the shady side of the street, I nearly ran by the shop. Across the gate in gold letters was spelled out Thos. E. Cara, Ltd. Unlike typical store frontage, nothing grabbed my attention or even attempted to pull me in. Forget the seduction of foot traffic; clearly this was a shop for the intentional customer. Just within the gate, a sidewalk mosaic of a large copper espresso machine suggested the destination. It was a message of exclusivity, maybe even exclusion, a clue to a riddle you need to be looking to solve.

Through the window beyond the ironwork, my eye was at last drawn to an array of chrome, brass, and copper sculptures spotted by overhead track lighting. They were espresso machines of various makes and manufacture, esoteric and mysterious––H.G. Wells-ian constructs of industrial extraction.

A trim man in a white oxford shirt and dark smock was chatting with a couple in business attire. Now self conscious of my sweaty presentation, I slipped through the door. A brass entry bell announced my arrival, and a bubbly Dalmation trotted from the back of the shop to greet me. Her brown spots and white coat accessorized the crisp lines and pooled light of the modern, understated showroom.

“Lottie, you get back here.” The honeyed voice Christopher used carried the authority of a lap dog owner.

I wandered about the boutique, ogling at the ornate coffee making machinery, while Christopher wrapped up the business of the young couple. From what I gathered, they were dropping off a La Pavoni for maintenance. Christopher made some notes and filled out a service tag, which he hung on the machine.

After the couple left, I introduced myself. Christopher was congenial but harried, an impeccably scruffy man with good posture, fitted clothing, and too much to do. Emanating a vibe of compelling commitments, he was nonetheless eager to hear how my restoration worked out.

I recounted the trips to various auto parts stores to wrangle the myriad o-rings in varying specifications of inner and outer diameters, made more complicated by the fact that the old o-rings I needed to replace were often too hard, brittle, and impacted to extract in a way that could be measured in the first place. It was an exercise in trial in error, with lots of hand tools and delicate maneuvering to deconstruct and reconstruct the piece. I recounted the process of having a sculptor friend cut and temper a new sight glass tube, the dimensions of which were critical. After two attempts in the kiln, the end result was a perfectly working and super clean La Cara, and most importantly, the best espresso I’d tasted.

“That’s fantastic,” Christopher said. He leaned against the counter and crossed his arms. He was intrigued. Maybe even impressed. “I don’t know of any working La Caras anywhere. You might have the only one in existence. Do you have pictures?”

Me, have pictures? Being that I was out for a run, I did not have them on me. But on my laptop, well, there I had a series which documented the overhaul. I’d bring them by, I told him. Looking like my seal of approval was imminent, we resolved to reconvene in a day or two.

Ultimately, after a pictorial review of my effort and the difficulty of replacing the ‘group’ seal (an obscure chevron-shaped o-ring), I learned that a specialty tool (ie., a homemade one) was needed to make the process foolproof and to avoid damaging the piston. Christopher opened a drawer at his work bench and casually produced said tool––basically a brass tube with opposing notches at one end. He tipped over a Pavoni that was in the process of an overhaul, and inserted the tube up into the sleeve of the cylindrical group. He demonstrated the locking effect of the notches around something up in there, and then gave it a wrench-assisted turn. The piston dropped right out.

“Damn,” I said. “That sure beats pounding the hell out of the top of the piston with a rubber mallet.”

“Trade secret,” he said. “You’ll want one of these sleeve tools for your next overhaul. The dimensions should match, if you want to take some measurements.”

Christopher opened a door and disappeared down an old stairwell. I took the opportunity to take measurements and sketched specs for The Tool. I figured my buddy Jerry should be able to fabricate such a doohickey easy enough. He’d want one for his old Pavoni, anyway.

As I finished up my armchair schematic, Christopher returned from the depths bearing a familiar relic of a bygone era. He set it down on the bench before me. Coated in dust and wearing a decrepit service tag was another misfit La Cara. It was nearly identical to my own, but bore a monikered label on the front of the base.

“No telling how long this has been down there,” he said. Indeed, the ink on the service tag had faded from existence. It was now anonymous, forgotten in time. I rubbed at the dust, and the chrome beneath seemed in decent shape.

“Wow, it’s beautiful.” I was inspired. “Don’t you just want to … Bring it back to life?”

“For what?” he said. “I couldn’t sell it. I can’t sell it.”

“Use it, then.”

“Look around,” he said. “I’m surrounded by Porsches and Lamborghinis–and they work just fine. I’m not sure the effort would be worth it, as I know you can relate.”

Fair enough. It occurred to me that my restoration had become an obsession. I couldn’t blame Christopher for not being as enthused as I, even if the machine did carry his namesake. I mean, if someone someone showed up on my doorstep with a vintage Pfaff sewing machine they’d fixed, would the course of my life be forever altered? Lineage be damned, probably not.

But that hardly quieted my imagination. “So Christopher, what other goodies do you have in the basement?”

He laughed. I might have asked him what skeletons he had in his closet, the way he looked at me.

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

The dusty La Cara went up on a shelf. At least it was liberated from the basement.

As a thanks to Christopher for his time, I bought a snazzy 60th anniversary wooden knock box emblazoned with the Thomas Cara Ltd name. It would complete my barista set up, and serve as a functional souvenir of the occasion. We shared a laugh, and made an intention to stay in touch.

Over the next couple of years I popped in on Christopher to say hello, once to buy some quality cappuccino cups and saucers. I was pleased to report a profound reliability with my machine. I had yet to need (and therefore make) the group tool, as I had required minimal maintenance to keep things humming. I loved my espresso machine, and had grown as faithful to it as it was to me. This was was emphasized by the comparisons I was making with contemporary lever machines in the La Cara’s class, notably late model designs being manufactured with standardized parts. It became clear that, while shiny and new and with a handy warrantee, the machines of recent years were not up to the build standards of the vintage machines.

Coincidentally, during this period of time, my insider buddy Jerry had taken up a hobby of doing his own restorations on the vintage Pavonis previously mentioned. Being that Jerry brought the skill set of mechanic to this endeavor, as well as espresso knowledge gleaned from his entrepreneur period in the pre-Starbucks days of Seattle, I was provided a unique opportunity to experience firsthand the pros and cons of the oeuvre. If there’s a summary of my impressions from the experience, it’s a return to this handy euphemism: They don’t make ’em like they used to. A concise history of the Europiccola line and examples of the vintage best can be appreciated at Jerry’s retail site: http://goyathlaysvintagepavonirestorations.com/.

* * * *

I thought Christopher’s trade a stretch for the Journeyman Project until I experienced the bench-top environment where an artisan’s attention to craft informs his job. On a macro level, the culture of coffee is undeniably elevated by the micro pursuit of extraction. It doesn’t hurt that the exotic machines and specialized individuals who build and maintain them are an intriguing lot. So it came to pass that I asked Christopher for a visit to take his photograph and learn more about the history of the family business. If I was lucky, I figured I might even get a look in the basement.

“We’ve been in North Beach from the start,” Christopher says. “My dad opened the store in 1946 at Grant and Green, for $35 a month. In the early fifties he moved to Broadway and Columbus, where there were tunnels in the basement going back to the Chinatown opium trade. I remember working there as a kid, down in that basement drilling holes for pressure gauges in the old Atomic machines.” Christopher laughs. “I’d thread them crooked, and Dad would sell them in the shop as more artistic.

“In 1960 my parents moved the business here.”

To say that San Francisco real estate is desirable is an understatement. In North Beach it is more so, where the majority of the neighborhood is historic.

“The best thing my parents ever did was buy this building. My father resisted, of course. But my mother, Mary, made him.”

While we’re talking, I notice some professional types use the outside stairwell to the upper floor. “And you lease the upstairs,” I posit.

“Sure,” Christopher says. “It would be a challenge to keep the shop in the neighborhood otherwise.”

Growing up in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, he recalls a respectable but modest lifestyle, not of luxury per se, but with exposure to the elite class. “Rather similar to The Merchant of Venice,” as Christopher puts it. “A life of privileged access.”

Indeed, Christopher has lived a theatrical if not dramatic life. Act One includes his education at the University of San Francisco and the American Conservatory Theatre, followed by a wild decade in 1970’s New York City living the Broadway dream. Act Two finds Christopher the Prodigal Son returning home to begin work at the family business. His older brother John joins the clan a few years later, reuniting the Cara family under one commercial roof. In 2002 Mary dies suddenly of cancer, followed by Roberto, Christopher’s partner of twelve years. Thomas–ironically, Mary’s senior by 13 years–dies in 2004. In a critical time for the shop, Christopher buys out his brother’s share of the business.

Act Three is unfolding daily. Our leading man maintains a conscious existence, navigating the business which bares his namesake while aspiring to the bon vivant.

Christopher is coy. Especially when he says “Things are quiet now, but not stagnant.”

He is one of those guys that is older than he looks, knows it, and is protective of the data. I respect that, especially when this person seems to understand some fundamental concepts of quality of life: Keep it simple; seek authenticity; take nothing for granted; do your best; use it or lose it; keep moving. For instance, today is his weekly Italian lesson. Surely this is a work necessity. Right?

“You need to speak Italian with the Pavoni and Zacconi folks,” I presume.

“Ha! My salary isn’t great, but the perks are worth it. I travel to New York and Italy every year (for manufacturer-distributor meetings). The best coffee in the world is at Café Eustachio, in Roma. And there is only one Broadway. I enjoy the world. This arrangement suits me.”

I believe I can relate. I relish travel, and meeting people in the context of their real life. I’d rather experience a new place through eyes of purpose, with an objective that comes with an assignment.

Christopher methodically prepares the afternoon meal for Carlotta (named, by the way, after Eugene O’Neil’s wife’s stage name). He is interrupted, yet again, by another phone call. As I wait for Christopher’s question-and-answer protocol to play out, I envision myself on the other end of the line. Customers typically know enough about their machine to make their needs known, but when it comes to conceptualizing the work required to stop the leaks or restore power to their daily drinker, they are often quite clueless. Christopher must explain, in plain language, what the fix is (or not, as the case may be, for those particularly difficult customers). For a one man show, this aspect of the business must be a drain. Being his own boss likely gives Christopher vital leeway and, ultimately, relief in dealing with difficult clientele.

I wonder about the fate of the family business. By retail stats alone, Thomas Cara Ltd. has a future–if not a legacy–ahead of it: Deriving 40% of revenue from sales and 60% from machine service, the espresso machine emporium has a 50% return rate of repeat customers, many of which are 3rd generation. The annual revenue growth is 4%, far better than our country’s GDP.

After Carlotta is fed, I implore Christopher to show me the mysterious basement from whence came the old La Cara, as well as all the spare parts he relies on for repairs. Reluctant at first, I assure him I didn’t come all this way to photograph his basement. Thus, he acquiesces.

If the shop is Christopher’s proscenium, then the basement is his backstage. Packed with bins and boxes of parts, espresso machines in states of disrepair, and cobwebs worthy of a horror film, the space (or lack thereof) is spectacular. The place also serves as storage for decades of family memories, many of which are neglected. It doesn’t take long before Christopher’s having some fun, and yes, I’m shooting it all. As evidenced by yellowed scrapbooks of the family business, it’s clear that someone valued the family legacy. Christopher is distracted now, pulled in by artifacts. He vows to clean the place up, get the memorabilia organized.

After the adventure that is the basement, we make our way back upstairs to one of Christopher’s ‘Lamborghinis’ for what I hope will be a lesson in the finer points of espresso making. Christopher first grinds up some beans in his Bunn mega burr grinder, and we head over to the top-of-the-line Vibiemme pump machine that’s hard-lined into the shop’s plumbing.

What transpires is a rather snappy and anticlimactic demonstration, as if really, I should know better: “Make sure your grind is fresh. Not too fine, not too coarse;” after which wise words the grounds go into the portafilter and are tamped, the portafilter goes into the portafilter holder, the portafilter holder into the group head and is tightened, the demitasse set into position below. The sequence culminates in the pushing of an electronic button.

This last bit is the fundamental difference between lever and pump machines. Whereas the pump machine requires no piston and releases its pressurized hot water with the press of a button, the lever machine requires the manual exertion of your arm to control the piston-driven rate of release. In both cases, hot water is subsequently pressed through the group shower head into the portafilter basket packed with your grind, and exits as espresso into the demitasse (small cup) which awaits.

The resulting syrup begins with a trickle, then a delicate stream. A perfect ‘pull’ yields a viscous two ounces of espresso with a silky top layer of crema. The pull should take roughly twenty seconds. The time is a subjective but useful gauge of your grind’s consistency and degree of tamp. To the casual observer, the process is akin to ceremony. I’ve noticed that the moment of espresso release usually results in a peculiar silence, providing a unique opportunity for meditation or productive thinking; your mileage may vary.

“Look, I’m fortunate” he says. “I’ve inherited the silver, and I haven’t had to hock it.” Christopher views the shop as a continuation of his family, and with that comes obligation. The business provides him freedom, yes, but it also represents a necessary grounding. There is a legacy in place here. “This place keeps me focused and honest,” he says.

The espresso we share is pretty perfect. I’ve opted for no sugar to really ‘test the quality.’ Christopher rolls his eyes and adds a teaspoon to his own.

“Is it true,” I ask, “that some people will do two pulls through the same grind?”

“Sure,” Christopher says, in a rather nonchalant way. “For many, one pull is a waste of grind. And time, of course.”

Now, I personally never do two pulls from the same grind. I think the second one takes on a comparative bitterness. Am I a disappointed?

“Oh, get a life!” Christopher says.

* * * *

Thomas Cara Ltd. does not have a web site because, as Christopher proclaims, “it is an old fashioned business.” Christopher can be reached via email, however he will not diagnose or advise on your machine’s ills with such discourse. For that, you’re best using the ol’ telephone.

Email: cvcara@gmail.com; Telephone: 415-781-0383

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9 Responses to Christopher Cara: Espresso Machine Purveyor

  1. KathyZ. says:

    I don’t see Christopher’s trade as a stretch for this project, now that you’ve described it so beautifully. What a fascinating man.

    All of those machines sitting on the shelves wearing their little tags. How long is the wait for a repair?

  2. Nice blog. but make it short its quite lengthy.

  3. Samuel Mooney says:

    Varying the fineness of the grind, the amount of pressure used to tamp the grinds, or the pressure itself can be used to vary the taste of the espresso. Some baristas pull espresso shots directly into a pre-heated demitasse cup or shot glass, to maintain a higher temperature of the espresso.*^

    All the best
    <http://www.caramoantourpackage.com/

  4. Barbara & Jeff Russell says:

    Nice blog Troy! I love the La Cara article.

  5. Loved your photos. I feel like I know the man. I found this blog because I was looking to service my Pavoni. If I lived closer I would visit his shop. Thanks for the great aricle, and virtual visit to meet an interesting person and business.

  6. Scott says:

    Hey there,

    Quite in interesting story, thank you for sharing. Also, I’m proud of you to stay committed to fixing your machine even after Christopher expressed the challenge in doing so.

    Curious, how does the Thomas E Cara porta filter compare to say a La Pavoni. I’m looking to buy one that is missing its filter, so I wonder if another model could be substituted. Thoughts?

    Thanks!

    Scott

    • troypaff says:

      Hi Scott, I use Pavoni portafilters with my La Cara, and they work fine. I suspect that my Pavoni ones are of the older variety, though. I’m not sure about the dimensions of those on the new machines, but if you find yourself in need there are a variety of portafilter options available from outfits like http://www.wholelattelove.com. I encourage you to proceed if you are the resourceful type. Good luck.

  7. John S says:

    Loved the article, a small bit of deja’vu as I also called an spoke to Christopher years ago when my “stepped top” La Cara was bubbling from every joint. It sits in a box with all of the accesories waiting for me to have the courage to start the project. Would love to get any specs and sources you have for parts and tools.

    Thanks again for the blog.

    John S

  8. Mike F says:

    Nice article, I just restored a old La Cara, rebuilt the element, water jetted the drip tray, great little lever!

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