Familiar grounds: New Café Terra owner makes it his own

Jake Pluta and Lily Ames

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 11/4/10]

In August, when Café Terra’s original owner, Jen Hogan, closed the popular coffee shop to focus her energy on her Hands On Minds On Children’s Art Studio next door, a legion of regular customers was left to roam the wilderness in search of a new home.

Fortunately, the diaspora didn’t last long.

Rutland native Jake Pluta bought and reopened Café Terra with girlfriend Lily Ames in early September.

Since then, Pluta, a Rutland High School alum who graduated from McGill University earlier this year, has worked to sustain the comfortable atmosphere Hogan established while adding his own twist.

Coffee shops are an essential part of any culturally vibrant community. They are spaces where people from diverse backgrounds gather to sit, read, converse and exchange ideas.

For many in Rutland, Café Terra is that space.

Each day, regulars trickle in and out for a cup to go, stopping briefly to greet a familiar face. Others settle at a table to meet a friend or read the newspaper.

Parents congregate to chat over lattes and pastries while waiting to pick up their children from Hand On Minds On.

Elsewhere, tables are pulled together as members of organizations like RAFFL and the Actor’s Rep hold planning meetings.

In the back of the room, freelancers tap away at their MacBooks, writing, blogging or, more likely, Facebooking.

For Pluta, returning to Rutland after college was-n’t initially part of his plan.

“I didn’t really see any opportunity here for me,” he said, echoing a common sentiment among young Rutland natives. Pluta did, however, say that he has begun to notice a trend of sorts among his peers who have also returned to the area.

After graduating from McGill, Pluta landed in Burlington, but struggled to find any real work.

Meanwhile, he learned that his cousin was interested in buying a coffee shop in Rutland. With his curiosity piqued, Pluta accompanied him to the meeting. The deal wasn’t right for his cousin, but Pluta jumped on it.

Two days later, he bought Café Terra.

Since opening on Sept. 7, Pluta has noticed a steady increase in business.

“My number one goal was to recover the previous clientele,” said Pluta, who has succeeded in bringing many of the Terra regulars back into the fold.

“Next, I want to make sure we sustain that clientele while attracting some new, young people,” he continued, adding that he has also seen a steady flow of travelers and wants to build on that as well.

While the new Café Terra feels much like it did before, Pluta and Ames have added their own touches to the space.

On the menu side, they have begun serving homemade soups prepared daily by Pluta and simple sandwiches like grilled ham and cheese. Pluta says local, fresh quality products are essential – a commitment extended to the local pastries, bagels and coffee they serve.

A new coat of pain brightens up the room with gold and orange, and a number of photographs and artifacts adorn the space giving it what Pluta calls a “museum feel.”

“I want people to be intrigued by what they see,” said Pluta, who also displays work by area artists on the walls.

In addition, live music is slowly becoming common occurrence on Friday and Saturday evenings.

On a recent Friday evening, the café opened its doors for a “bring your own bottle” wine night and featured an acoustic duo.

Pluta is hoping to offer such events more frequently. He has an open-mic night planned for later this month.

“I want to build a reputation for having top-notch music,” he said.

He’s also hoping to expand his hours into the evening and Sunday, but he is being cautious, noting the need for more foot traffic downtown in order to make such a move beneficial .

He looks to institutions like the Paramount Theatre as generators of that traffic. Then, it’s just a matter of capitalizing on it.

“It’s important to have a business that is open,” he said. “It sends a positive signal to the customers.”

Expanded hours also mean more staff. Currently, the café is a two-person operation. Pluta and Ames trade shifts and share responsibilities.

The experience of running a business is a new one for Ames, a Connecticut native, who met Pluta at McGill.

“It’s been really fun,” she said, “You meet a lot of characters in the shop.”

Ames has enjoyed getting to know their clientele, slowly learning more and more about them.

When not behind the counter, Pluta and Ames like to spend their time outdoors. Both are snowboarders. Pluta has already been riding three times this fall, hiking up Killington to take advantage last month’s early snowfall.

Occasionally, you can even find Jen Hogan picking up a spare shift between her classes next door, happy to play a supporting role to Pluta as he builds on what she started.

Looking ahead, Pluta wants to keep growing his clientele while offering them more in terms of menu and entertainment options, further reinforcing Café Terra as gathering place for the community.

“We’ve got a place here where people can be comfortable and relaxed,” said Pluta. “I want to build on that.”


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