One less perk for city coffee lovers

By Kathleen Pierce, kpierce@lowellsun.com

LOWELL -- Bleary-eyed customers looking for their morning fix at Cafe Aiello had a rude awakening yesterday.

Instead of the whir of the cappuccino maker, they were met with a locked door and a hand-written sign that said: "I have had to close the store. I'm very sorry, Aaron."

Chris Natale of Mill City Properties, owner of the building at 30 Gorham St., at the convergence of Church and Appleton streets, said the cafe's owner, Aaron Dettori, was behind on his rent and had a constable serve him a 14-day notice to quit a week ago.

"I had been giving him a break," said Natale, who received a phone call from a tenant who lives above the cafe yesterday alerting him to the closure.

"He worked hard," Natale added. "It's sad to see someone fail when they put their heart and soul into something."

Dettori, who lives in Beverly, did not notify Natale or anyone in City Hall that he was shutting down. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"I'm surprised by the abruptness of the closure," said Theresa Park, Lowell's director of economic development. "I had been talking to him about the growth potential of the business and about personal growth down the road."

Park said Dettori received a small-business loan for $15,000 from the city's Community Development Block Grant Fund. If he remained open for five years, he wouldn't have had to pay it back.

"We felt we wanted new business in the JAM area," Park said, referring to the Jackson-Appleton-Middlesex area. "With the new garage, some of the project developers thought that having a successful cafe with that type of service to appeal to workers in the courts and so on would anchor the area."

The space, which formerly housed a gas station, was abandoned for 30 years before Dettori moved in with partner Rose Muirhead in the spring of 2006. The pair met at Starbucks and were excited to bring Zoka Coffee, a Seattle boutique roaster, to Lowell. A few months after they opened, Muirhead left and Dettori became the sole proprietor.

Regular customers included state Sen. Steve Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat who met at Aiello on Saturday mornings to talk shop with fellow pols.

"I was there on Saturday and he seemed to be doing well, but small businesses all over the country are being squeezed in this economy," Panagiotakos said. "It's a sign of the times."

Known for intricate latte art, cushy furniture, a fireplace and coffee beans starting at $10.95 a pound, Cafe Aiello could have been too upscale for the region.

"It's hard to say," Park said. "The times that I was there, I saw a good crowd."

Customers who made the WiFi cafe part of their daily routine were thrown for a loop.

"I walked by the door this morning and I was just heartbroken," said Frank Thoms, a Lowell resident who visits the cafe most mornings. "Not only was it good coffee, it was a wonderful place."

This story appeared in the Lowell Sun on Tuesday, July 22, 2008