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Activator Update: Kirsten Zook and Robert Gatesi of Luminary By La Terza

Kirsten Zook and Robert Gatesi, David and Michael Gaines Co-Owners, Luminary By La Terza - A story of love, coffee, and community


A story of love and coffee that began in Africa is now brewing in College Hill.

Kirsten Zook was working in infant and maternal health in Robert Gatesi’s native Uganda when they first met. Gatesi? He was working in the coffee industry and he met Kirsten in a coffee shop. After falling in love, they lived in Uganda for six years before returning to Kirsten’s hometown of Cincinnati. 

This is where her parents eventually introduced the couple to David Gaines, who owns La Terza Coffee, a roasting company that has been at the forefront of specialty coffee in Cincinnati for nearly twenty years.


Detailing his previous coffee experience in Uganda, Gatesi became La Terza’s Master Roaster and a co-owner in September 2013. Seeking to empower other coffee shops with a great product, the team at La Terza was content selling wholesale coffee around the region and beyond. Opening their own coffee shop was always a dream for the future. However, that changed when they unexpectedly got the opportunity to take over the College Hill Coffee Company, which had been a cornerstone of the neighborhood for generations. 

“We weren't necessarily ready to do this, but it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to carry the torch forward in a well-established location, with an amazing neighborhood and customers who love coffee and were craving a community space like this,” the couple says. 

Gaines and his brother, Michael, who also works at La Terza, joined their new venture as co-owners. Noting that College Hill is undergoing a period of revitalization and wanted a neighborhood coffee shop to remain on the corner, Zook says that led to the birth of Luminary by La Terza in 2023. “Our goal was to create a space that reflects the diversity of the community, serves great coffee and builds connections through art, music and other events,” Gatesi says. 


A $10,000 Main Street Ventures grant enabled the owners to purchase a Slayer Steam LP espresso machine, hailed by its manufacturer as “the barista’s dream machine.”

“The espresso machine is the most important piece of equipment that is needed in a coffee shop. It also tends to be one of the most expensive, so the grant was essential in our ability to serve the highest quality coffee possible,” Gatesi says. “Our Slayer is a machine that can last a lifetime if it is well-maintained, so it's not going anywhere anytime soon. Our customers return day after day, largely for the quality of the coffee. Without this specific machine, it would be a different story.”


That story would also be different without the wisdom they gained via the Main Street Ventures grant process.

“Main Street Ventures’ support is one of the things that made us realize that this was the right moment to pursue this dream,” Gatesi says. “Their focus on minority-owned businesses is very crucial because there are so many roadblocks and we need more of these services because there's a lot of talent left untapped when women and people of color are not given a chance to share our ideas with the rest of the world.” 

Kirsten recommends that any small-business owner, or anyone with an exciting idea learn more about Main Street Venture’s offerings. 

“Even if an applicant doesn’t end up receiving funding, they're going to learn so much from the process. It will strengthen their ability to talk about their business and to know their vision, mission and goals,” Zook says. “If they do receive funding, they will gain so much more than just money. We've swapped business ideas with other entrepreneurs, formed mutually beneficial relationships with vendors and it’s been a wonderful resource for learning best business practices. We feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of the MSV community.”

Gatesi agrees. 

“We’ve been lucky to have inherited a coffee shop in a well-established location with a loyal customer-base, but we are still new faces. We have spent the last few months introducing ourselves to the community and sharing our vision for what we are trying to achieve,” he says. “We are seeing people coming back and appreciating our coffee, the environment we have created and what we bring to the community. That is a testament to what MSV is doing across the city and we truly appreciate that and thank them.”


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