In the movie “Hoosiers,” before taking the floor in the championship game against its big-city rival, actor Gene Hackman told his small-town basketball team from Hickory, “I love you guys.”
We all love an underdog. This lesson came home to me at the Heights Ashbury Coffee Shop on 19th Street in the Heights. It was 1 p.m. on a Saturday.
I ordered a decaf latte and asked the barista how business was going. “Well, I’m not sure,” Matt Toomey replied with a grin. “I just bought the place this morning.”
Sitting outside under his hand-painted, psychedelic sign, I counted only a few customers over the next hour.
The Internet confirmed why: four Starbucks within two miles.
I bought another decaf and asked the new owner for a word.
Thirty-two-year-old Toomey had an easy smile. With a baseball hat and tee shirt, he looked more like a coach than a restaurateur.
He learned the coffee business at local bistros while working his way through high school and college.
“After nine months in a cubicle at an oil company, I knew I had to do more with my life,” he said, shaking his head.
So he quit to become a high school teacher at a charter school in the African-American community of Sunnyside. A leap of faith for a white kid less than a year out of college.
“I started the library and the basketball team,” Toomey laughed. Then wistfully, “Most of our kids had no father at home, so I took on that role as well. Playing against the big public schools meant we were always underdogs.”
Three years later, by then a family man, Toomey decided to pursue his passion for coffee. With a loan from his grandmother, who raised him, he made a down payment on a small coffee roaster.
Now he’s bet his family’s future on an eclectic hole-in-the wall coffee shop in the Heights.
It dawned on me what distinguishes Matt Toomey from the rest of us. It’s not whether the Heights Ashbury is successful. It’s that he put it all on the line to give it a try.
Starbucks has 16,850 stores in 40 countries. Matt Toomey has a coffee roaster, a homemade sign and a lease on a tiny shop on 19th Street.
I don’t know whether Matt Toomey will make a go of his new business, but, I do know this: He’s not just the barista at Heights Ashbury. He’s your neighbor shipping computers out of his garage on weekends. He’s the guy on the corner building bicycles at midnight, and the barber with a hand-painted pole cutting hair before daybreak.
There’s a little Matt Toomey in each of us. We can’t all confront our Goliaths, but we can pull for those who do. Like the boys from Hickory, Matt and his kind are out there every day, giving it a shot against long odds.
Hackman in “Hoosiers” put it best: “I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re going to be winners.”
I agree. Matt, that’s why we love you guys.
Malcolm D. Gibson
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