It takes 7.6 grams of coffee beans to create a perfect one-ounce shot of espresso. And after 30 years of making espresso, Richard Tabor knows how to measure an ounce by feel, like a baker who knows intuitively when his dough is done rising.
Tabor, known to his friends as Dick, is a perfectionist with a passion for crema caffé, or creamy coffee. (Coffee, in Tabor-speak, means espresso, and the crema is the silky froth that comes with a well-made shot.) For decades, he has helped improve coffee at some of the area's best-known restaurants. The espresso machines at Magnolia Grill and Crook's Corner came from Tabor, who has been selling a sophisticated line of machines called La Cimbali since 1982.
He's more recently placed machines at Mez and Mad Hatter. And as the Cimbali rep for the Carolinas, he logs thousands of miles a year servicing the Olive Gardens in his territory. They all use the same type of Cimbali machine.
The home base of this Chapel Hill resident is Tabor Espresso, located in a warehouse-type space in Hillsborough. The front of his office is a showroom where espresso machines, some worth as much as $17,000, sit sparkling like new cars. Tabor has taken each for a test drive, making sure it is properly calibrated, cleaned and functioning before he installs it.
Long before he became an espresso machine expert, and an expert espresso maker, Tabor opened a place called The Aurora Be Mine in 1974, a café on West Franklin Street that was open from 10 p.m. to 2 p.m. serving omelets, homemade pastries and quality coffee drinks. The café lasted a few months and led to Aurora, a higher-end eatery also on Franklin Street, which thrived through the early 1980s. Some believe these ventures played a role in establishing this area as a foodie haven.
Bill Smith, owner of Crook's Corner, waited tables at Aurora. "It was very special," Smith recalls. "It was the only sort of nice, affordable restaurant around."
Ben Barker, owner of Magnolia Grill, has known Tabor since his days as head chef at Le Residence, the French restaurant founded by local food legend Bill Neal in the 1970s. Tabor, who at the time worked for Broad Street, a Carrboro-based coffee roaster, helped create a house blend for Barker first at La Residence, then at Magnolia Grill—a blend that still sells quite well via Counter Culture Coffee. He did the same for Smith when Crook's opened.
This was perhaps the beginning of a coffee scene in the Triangle.
"I think what's neat is that we had an extremely serious and extraordinarily dedicated core of a few people, Dick foremost among them, who took coffee way seriously at a time when it was not so commonplace to do so," Barker says. "He is an intense cat."
The words "serious" and "intense" are frequently used in describing Tabor when it comes to coffee. And yet, when he's making someone else an espresso or talking about coffee—the art, the pleasure found in taking a single moment to share something simple and pure—a man more contented than most stands before you.
This is his love, and he considers himself quite lucky to have stumbled into a profession he finds so fulfilling.
Born and raised in New York City, Tabor was in his early 20s and working at St. Vincent's Hospital as a psychology student when the coffee culture of Greenwich Village left an impression on him.
So did the abundance of niche cuisine. To make it in New York, there has to be quality to what you sell, and that was not lost on Tabor. He found his way to North Carolina by following an unlikely passion: glass blowing, something he was introduced to in New York through an old girlfriend. But the life of a poor student led him to the café scene in the hopes of making some money, and so began his journey to the world of espresso.
Turns out he loves espresso.
"I know that there was little evidence of a coffee craft, but I surely treated it that way," Tabor says.
Brett Smith, president of Counter Culture Coffee, has known Tabor since before people thought to ask which local dairy the milk in their cappuccinos came from. Tabor played a role in introducing Smith and Fred Houk, with whom he partnered to form the Counter Culture of today. "He is a man who is committed to his craft," Smith says, someone who always pushes for quality.
If the world were run by Tabor's standards, there would be no milked-down lattes, carafes of coffee left to burn on a hot plate, or cappuccinos made with anything other than low-fat—not fat-free—milk, preferably from a local creamery.
As Tabor sees it, espresso is best enjoyed at the bar. In a perfect moment, one can pop into a familiar setting, catch up with a fellow patron or the barista, and then go on with the day, all the better for having taken that moment to enjoy a small piece of perfection.
Because if Tabor is making an espresso, you're guaranteed just that: perfection.