You might have a place like Dottie’s Coffee Lounge in your own community, but here in Berkshire County, the place we call home nestled along the furthermost edge of Western Massachusetts, Dottie’s IS community. Hot drink options abound, and a full pastry case tempts visitors with a range of sweet and savory treats, from cheddar scallion biscuits and croissants, to lemon bars and pumpkin raisin muffins. Sunday brunch features local music acts providing tunes to liven the mood, but the space is lively on its own, any day of the week. Furnished in an eclectic style offering patrons the comfort of cozy armchairs and funky, mismatched chairs and tables at which to enjoy their morning cuppa, the cafe boasts a friendly staff and you’re almost certain to run into someone you know.
These days, Dottie’s - located in Downtown Pittsfield, MA - is a local institution, and anyone who visits the Berkshires has at least made a stop for coffee here. On this busy autumn morning, we hopped in for a maple matcha latte, a comfy seat in their famous storefront window, and a conversation with Jess Rufo - the savvy and bright-eyed owner of Dottie’s. With her signature broad smile and knack for telling it like it is, she shared how it all started, and what keeps her going.
What’s your origin story - how did this all happen?
Rufo: I grew up here, went to Miss Hall’s school, then Emerson college in Boston. After college I moved to NYC where I studied photography but mainly goofed around, while also managing a coffee shop there called JOE. I knew I wanted to do my own thing, but didn’t have any capital. I figured if I moved home I would at least have the support of my family.
In 2007 I moved back to the Berkshires, and didn’t understand why South County was enjoying a reputation for being a cool and awesome place, while North County - and Pittsfield in particular - was struggling. It had been 8 years since I last lived here, and was really still a child when I left. What I did know was that, whatever I ended up doing, it was really important to me that it happened right on North Street (the main street in Downtown Pittsfield). So I would walk up and down North Street hoping something would inspire me. There was an existing cafe on the corner, which as it turns out happened to be for sale, but not publicly - just in an off-the-record way. When I expressed interest, the owner kind of laughed at me, like “Who is this 26-year-old?” - but I came back every day until she knew I was serious. With the support of my family I was finally able to make it happen, and opened Dottie’s (named for my grandmother) within the same year.
You were our very first Fire Cider account! What made you decide to carry a local product that was just getting started? (and thank you, by the way!)
Rufo: From my time in the city, I knew about people drinking apple cider vinegar so was already open to the idea. I’ve also always been interested in The Next Big Thing, and since my aim in opening Dottie’s was to promote exclusively what is great about the Berkshires, and the really cool things made here, it made sense.
We hear there’s also a really cool story about a used Volvo and an amazing potter…?
Rufo: (smiles) When I moved back home from the city I needed a car. I saw an ad for a used Volvo, and when I went to check the car out, mentioned to the owner that I was looking for a local potter to source our mugs and saucers for the cafe. His eyes lit up, and he invited me in to his workshop. “He” was Daniel Bellow, local potter. I opened Dottie’s using his pottery, but the heartbreak I felt whenever one of his dishes broke in the cafe was eventually too much to bear. So we switched to less precious dishware, but still offered his wares for purchase.
From hosting knitting groups to entrepreneurial meet-ups, Dottie’s has become a hub for our community. What are your favorite types of gatherings to host?
Rufo: Things like Burlesque Bingo are fun for me, but I feel most honored when someone is so taken by the space and their experience here that they want to celebrate a momentous occasion here - a big birthday, their book release party - really significant life occasions. What I love most is to cook and bake for people who appreciate what we’re doing here. Oh, and our annual gingerbread house decorating party. I would never have thought we’d continue it after the second or third year, but people loved it so much it’s now in its 12th year. (laughs) We’re getting better and better at it!
You definitely have a knack for responding to the needs of the community. We understand it was some pretty vocal demand for a quality bakery in town that encouraged you to open a second business?
Rufo: Yes, I opened my bakery, Tyler and Pine, on April 5th of this year - it’s been 6 months now! Over there we’re making everything from custom cakes and pies to handmade pop tarts and donuts - as well as the baked goods we sell here at Dottie’s. It also means I’m up at 3:15 a.m. the mornings I’m on donut duty.
So you own 2 business, employ a staff of 14 people, and also have two children under 8 years old yourself. How are you doing it all? Any tips on self-care?
Rufo: (laughing) Yoga six days a week! Though that really wasn’t happening during the summer (her busy season). Yoga, and NOT WORRYING. Knowing the patterns of seasonal business and no longer being fearful. I can now trust and see the patterns play out and I am less worried. And because I’m the best version of myself in public, I use those spaces to harness the strength to keep it together. I also give myself time and permission to scream, cry, at just let it all out at home.
Yoga, check. Now for the important question: what are your comfort foods/drinks this time of year?
Rufo: (indicates the mug in her hands) This is a turmeric latte, but for food I’m really into roasted vegetables. I’ll marinate them first using something sweet - honey, maple syrup, molasses, or brown sugar, then roast them ‘til they’re caramelized and chewy. This time of year I also crave curry flavors, and tom yum soup from Vong’s… and chips! Potato chips, tortilla chips - anything crunchy and salty. I eat snacks all day every day at this point in my life, and I’m ok with it .
Speaking of food and drink, we couldn’t help but notice your menu and drink board:
Fire Cider Shot
Fire Cider Tea
Fire Cinnamon Tea
Fire Cider Slaw
Fire Cider Tuna
… is there anywhere else we’re hiding in your menu?
Rufo: Actually, yes! Right now a very popular drink is our Atomic Apple - that’s hot apple cider with a shot of Fire Cider. (smiles) And I use Fire Cider in our apple pies over at Tyler and Pine.