Culture in a Cup
How local coffee shops compete against the megachains
By Chase Maser
Fresh-baked veggie samosas and vegan muffins call to patrons from a glass display case at the counter. An indie rock playlist curated by hipster baristas plays softly as a barefoot writer taps away on a screenplay or term paper. After sundown, there’s often a poetry reading or local musicians in the house.
It’s hard to believe this place used to be kind of a dump.
Café 212 Pier, just off Main Street in Ocean Park, has undergone some major identity changes since Roopinder Bhullar bought it in early 2015.
“This place was known for aggression and fights back in the day,” Bhullar shudders. “The police were coming here almost every night. It takes a lot to change that mindset.”
More than she would have imagined, actually.
The new Café 212 Pier is objectively nicer and more inviting, but that isn’t for everyone. Four-star Yelp reviews praising the new atmosphere and menu are interspersed with ruthless criticism of a tighter restroom key policy, a $5 minimum purchase for Wi-Fi use and higher prices for coffee and snacks.
“The public doesn’t understand what it takes to sustain a place like this,” says Bhullar. “It’s very difficult to operate a community café, especially in Santa Monica. It’s no longer the sleepy village it used to be 25 years ago. Rents here are like Beverly Hills!”
And competition is fierce. There are 21 Starbucks locations in Santa Monica (about 2.5 per square mile), and dozens of other local and chain competitors — more than half a dozen along Main Street.
So what does it take to sustain a local independent coffee shop with profits trickling in one or two cups at a time?
For starters, you have to fill a local niche, say a handful of Westside coffee shop owners who’ve been successful in the biz. Sometimes you find that niche, and sometimes you have to create it.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
About nine miles south of Café 212 Pier on a different Main Street — El Segundo’s — families are the key demographic, says Dale Inghram, who with his wife Toni owns and operates the popular Blue Butterfly Coffee Co.
“I’ve learned that you can’t just say, ‘Hey, here’s who I am.’ You have to say, ‘Hey, who is my community?’ and ‘What can I be within this community?’ If you come in a certain way but the community isn’t that way, then it’s not going to work,” Ingraham says.
Blue Butterfly, therefore, is not just about coffee. There’s a kids menu featuring a French toast rollup, grilled cheese, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with bagel sandwiches, kale salads and blended drinks for mom and dad.
“When I was designing this place, the designer told me that the walkways were big enough so that one person could fit through. I told her, ‘Yeah, but can a double-stroller fit through?’ I designed it for families,” he says.
The Inghrams took over Blue Butterfly about three years ago. Like Café 212 Pier, the shop had been around for more than two decades, and current prices are a little higher than they used to be in order to keep pace with the economy. But they didn’t just raise prices overnight.
“At first I had to leave the prices the same when we took over because the town doesn’t like change. If I were to remodel and then up the prices right away, I would have the community up in arms. But since we established ourselves first within the community,” says Inghram, “the community decided that they liked us.”
Instead of adapting to his surroundings, the owner of the Venice Grind Coffee Company in Mar Vista had to help build the community around him.
Demetrios Mavromichalis, who grew up in the neighborhood, remembers when the red hot intersection of Venice and Grand View boulevards didn’t have all that much to offer.
“It was basically all thrift shops along here,” he recalls. “And they weren’t like shops you’d see on Melrose and Hollywood and other places. They were just sort of secondhand stores, and they were shady. The only attraction back when I was growing up was the old Mar Vista bowling lanes.”
But things were about to change. In 2004, Mavromichalis was checking out a business for sale when he noticed another space next door going for a bargain.
“I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I knew there was an opportunity here,” he says. “At the time, the only new business on the block was a surf shop where Timewarp Records is now. The owner of the surf shop said to me, ‘If we just had a coffee shop in the neighborhood, then things could really turn around here.’ I ran with that.”
When he opened the Venice Grind, Mavromichalis started attending Mar Vista Community Council meetings, and the coffee shop became a hub for gatherings. He teamed with other neighborhood and business leaders to form the nonprofit that launched the Mar Vista Farmers Market in 2006.
“We had over 2,000 people show up on our first day, and from then on out the market started growing. We created a foot-traffic that never existed before, and everything started from the coffee shop,” he says.
“I’ve learned that you can’t just wait there and hope for people to come in. You have to embed yourself and get involved and make it happen. And if things aren’t going as planned, you have to tweak it to what it needs to be.”
‘AN OPEN DOOR’
Half a block east of the Venice Grind at the corner of Venice and Centinela Avenue, Coffee Connection is finding success with an entirely different kind of business model: being a nonprofit.
Coffee Connection is owned and operated by the Westside Vineyard Church, and the café is “nothing more than the church’s open door to the surrounding community,” says Chris Newkirk, the church’s executive
Even though it operates like a business, revenue is only a secondary concern.
“By design, Coffee Connection is not a revenue-generating income stream. All the dollars that come through the café either pay directly for the cost of operating it or go back out into some kind of café-sponsored community program,” says Newkirk. “At the end of the day, our café breaks even, and that’s by design; that’s what we want to do.”
Coffee Connection serves organic, fair trade and even carbon neutral snacks from local vendors, and the nonprofit mission helps keep prices down.
“We take our café business as seriously as we take our church business, and we really want to be a good café,” says Newkirk. “We are not motivated by money, but money is a good metric. If the café is doing well enough to cover its own expenses and provide a surplus of funds to give back to the community, that’s a sign of health.”
A SHARED HISTORY
Whereas Blue Butterfly adapted to a niche and Venice Grind built a niche around itself, Tanner’s Coffee Co. in Playa del Rey offers a third approach: When something is working, change
as little as possible.
Tanner’s has always had a very casual, even homey feel about it, and operator Tatiana Kim plans to keep it that way.
“The community here is very strong,” Kim states proudly. “A lot of people grew up here and the residents are mostly older, so they’ve known about this place for a long time. I’ve met people who say that they used to come here when they were little kids, and now those people are around 25 years old. There’s definitely a history.”
When the 1922 brown brick Dickinson and Gillespie Building on Culver Boulevard that houses Tanner’s changed ownership about seven years ago, the neighborhood rallied to protect the structure from possible demolition — and save Tanner’s — by filing a successful petition to grant it historic land-mark status.
While many locals are aware that there’s also a Tanner’s Coffee Co. on Sepulveda Boulevard just across the 405 Freeway, Kim explains that there used to be a third location in Santa Monica and that all three were owned by the same person more than 20 years ago.
The two remaining Tanner’s locations have different ownership, but Kim says the two try to offer a lot of the same products and menu items in order to honor their shared history.
“A lot of customers come here and go to the one over there. We keep in touch and try to make them similar,” she says.
Before taking over the Tanner’s in Playa del Rey, Kim was studying law in Brazil. That is until her uncle bought the place in 2007 and asked her to run it.
“The first time I came into the shop it was love at first sight. The vibe, the beach, the air, the people — it’s all amazing,” she says. “And it’s still almost exactly the same as it was when I started.”
Which is good news, because that’s the business plan.
“A lot of people have a routine here: getting a coffee, taking long walks on the beach, going to work in Manhattan Beach. It’s convenient for them,” says Kim. “We want to keep Tanner’s consistent with everyone’s needs.”