“TIME TO GO HIT LE BUZZ” — one cyclist to another. Heard 18 miles and 4,000 feet above Tucson at Windy Point, last April.
If you aren’t from Tucson—actually, if you haven’t spent time on the east side of Tucson —the cyclist’s remark is unintelligible. But if you have any sense of life as it is lived in the far-flung northeast corner of town, you get it. What one Lycra-clad road warrior was proposing to the other was to head downhill and meet up in Mount Lemmon’s de facto anteroom, Le Buzz Caffé. This happens every day. Many times.
Tucked into a strip mall on East Tanque Verde Road at Catalina Highway, Le Buzz serves as a rendezvous, staging area, and refreshment center for the cyclists, hikers, and climbers recreating daily on the mountain, as well as a gathering place for the inhabitants of the sprawling, horsey, sparsely-restauranted Tanque Verde Valley. Surrounded on its busy corner by businesses supplying the goods and services necessary to suburban life—Safeway, Radio Shack, GNC, a UPS store, a dental office, a pool-supply place, McDonald’s—Le Buzz offers something rare and precious: a place where a low-density community can meet up, relax, and make itself at home. The crowds of regular customers park their bikes out front; they bring their kids, ancient parents, and dogs to hang out on the shady front patio, refuel with Parisian-quality pastries after hard workouts, and, above all, converse.
All morning, nearly every day of the year, Le Buzz buzzes with animated chat.
Tanque Verde and Catalina Highway is a really long way from downtown Tucson, and so is the vibe of Le Buzz. Laptops are the exception. While everything—including the locally famous array of galettes, pies, cakes, scones, cinnamon rolls and cookies—is fresh and expertly homemade, languid hipsters—in fact, languid persons of any description—are rare. The café’s offerings may be sophisticated and urbane down to the last lump of Demerara sugar, but at heart it’s a jumping neighborhood joint with a happy, wide-open atmosphere all its own.
True story: A quilting group to which I belong had a member fall by the wayside a while back. We were talking about what had happened to her when one member, who knew her best, explained that she’d begun spending all her free time at Le Buzz. We haven’t seen her since.
“It’s a living thing,” says owner Margaret Hadley, who grew up in Tucson and who, with her husband, Dennis, opened Le Buzz in 1996 as a pioneering espresso bar with a few baked goods. (Dennis Hadley died in 2012.)
Hadley arrives most mornings at 4 a.m. and is everywhere on the floor and behind the counter, carrying trays of baked goods, clearing tables, and sweeping up. Many longtime patrons have no idea that she’s the owner.
“Of course, it’s evolved over the years, which is good and necessary,” she says. “Dennis was a big appreciator of change, even of chaos. If you don’t make change, things get old.” Hence the quote from Buddhist “crazy wisdom” teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche on the café’s website: “Chaos should be regarded as very good news.”
Over the past 18 years, the menu has expanded to include a dozen regular breakfast items and as many light lunches, plus daily specials, including the much-loved Friday pot pie, available during the cool months.
“Our staff is young, and they’re all foodies. Our pastry chefs, Rebecca Morrow and Felicia Weipert, are always wanting to try something new—and then they work and work to come up with the best possible version. Then we put it out and see what catches on. There’s a back and forth between what our customers ask for and what we want to be giving them,” Hadley says.
“The other day a guy asked me whether we were ever going bring back the strata”—a savory bread pudding. “We haven’t offered it for two years, but now I’m thinking about it. We’ll talk it over, and maybe this winter the strata will return.”
Before moving to Tucson to open the café and be closer to Margaret’s mother, she and Dennis lived in Los Angeles, where they worked in publishing and marketing. On weekends they went to museums and explored the local coffee culture, then in its infancy.
“There were all these little independent espresso places springing up, each one different. We loved the coffee, loved the scene, and wanted to be part of what was happening. Dennis, who was very good at figuring things out, taught himself to roast,” Hadley says.
Neither of them had any experience in the restaurant business, but they thought that running an espresso bar and patisserie would be fun.
“How hard could it be, right? We had no idea. When you start out, you are the staff. At the beginning we were crazy—we opened at 6 a.m. and closed at 8 at night, seven days a week. We had a cot in the back and an SUV in the parking lot out front so we could grab naps during the day: At night we’d close, go to bed, get up and do it again.”
They managed to survive the early days, and Le Buzz took off, becoming the center of a bustling, convivial social scene. Among the early loyalists was KGUN Channel 9 anchorman Guy Atchley, who still hangs out there. Atchley took the atmospheric photos of patrons, staff, and food on the restaurant’s website.
“My husband was very social, wonderful with names and faces—he really enjoyed getting to know each of the customers. I am not that person, but many of our staff are like Dennis. The front of house crew, led by managers Kara Willard and Nick Hoenig, know not only the customers’ names but [also] their kids’ and dogs’ names. Our chef, Tony Berber, is great with people, too. He keeps an eye out and says hello to the regulars and starts their orders before they get up to the register.
“The whole staff, of course, is like family to me.”
She laughs. “And to them I’m the nagging mother, always telling them to go clear tables.”
A recent crop of staff babies, all girls, especially delights Hadley: “We’ve got a whole softball team growing up at Le Buzz. And our newest dad, Chris Fellers, will be the perfect coach—as long as everyone agrees to wear St. Louis Cardinals red.”
Another development that excites her is the ongoing resurrection of downtown and the burgeoning of the Tucson restaurant scene. “It’s what all of us longtime Tucsonans have been hoping would happen—our part of the country is linking up with the national food scene,” she says.
This time of the year, things are still relatively quiet at Le Buzz. From January through May the place becomes, in Hadley’s term, “anarchic.”
“Our customers act like they own the place—which, really, they do. They come in here all full of oxygen and exhilarated from their morning rides and start rearranging tables and chairs, moving things around. Sometimes it feels like it’s out of control, but when things are really hopping and we all get into a sort of zone—honestly, it’s sort of thrilling.”
Hadley complains about being slower than her younger employees, but she still likes to get in the kitchen and get floury. Recently, on a Saturday morning, she decided to make a banana pecan toffee coffee cake.
“I found this banana that was almost liquid—just pure ripe banana-ness, the way you want it for baking. I went through all the steps, toasting the nuts, and so on, thinking the whole time, ‘This is taking forever and it’ll just be a waste. It won’t rise—I’ve loaded the batter with too much stuff.’
“But it rose fine. I cut a few slices, set it out, and then went off to do something in the back.
“And when I came out a couple minutes later, all but three pieces had vanished. Poof! The woman who’d gotten the first piece had told the person behind the register that when the aroma of the warm cake wafted toward her, it was as if it had been made just for her. It was exactly what she wanted.
“That’s what makes it all worthwhile—it’s when you put out that thing that makes someone superbly happy.” ✜
Le Buzz Caffe. 9121 E. Tanque Verde Road. 520.749.3903. LeBuzzCaffe.com.
Renée Downing has been eating and writing in Tucson for nearly 40 years.