Jungle Java, Lestat's thrive in a Starbucks era

"They want to get away from the corporate monster"

— The Ocean Beach Starbucks on Newport Avenue, just west of Bacon Street, opened on September 11. Not September 11, 2007, but the September 11, in 2001. Doubtless, many in Ocean Beach don't consider that fact a coincidence but rather a cosmic commentary on the Seattle-based coffee giant's practice of opening stores near successful independent coffeehouses. In Ocean Beach's case, the successful café was Jungle Java. Its 51-year-old owner, Beth Turner, remembers that day. "They opened up, then they closed two hours later when the corporate edict came down that all Starbucks would close that day."

Jungle Java occupies a small lot 100 yards from the beach on the south side of Newport Avenue. There's no indoor seating. Patrons sit under a white shade tent such as you might see at a wedding. Turner has decorated the area under the tent with potted tropical plants, ferns, and cacti, most of which are for sale. Fourteen years ago, Turner was a computer programmer when she got the idea to take the undeveloped street-front lot and make a combination coffeehouse/nursery out of it. "I don't want to tell you this part," she says chuckling. "I was drinking across the street at the Sunshine Company up on their upper deck looking down over this lot. It wasn't being used for anything, and there was a bunch of junk thrown in here. I thought, 'Somebody should do something with that' and then kind of forgot about it for a while. Then I thought, 'I wish we had an outdoor coffee shop.' And then I kind of forgot about that for a while. Then it was 'I wish there was a place that I could go buy some plants and fix up my patio.' Then all the ideas kind of came together, and I thought, 'I could maybe do something like that in the empty space.' "

Turner contacted the owner of the lot about using it as an outdoor coffeehouse-cum-nursery. He agreed, she opened Jungle Java, and a few years later she bought the land, a key to Jungle Java's survival because "it has kept my rent fixed."

Turner continues, "When I opened, there were only two other coffee shops in town, and they were both independent and locally owned. I was the only one down here on this end of Newport."

Before the Starbucks opened up six years ago, word spread through Ocean Beach of the company's plans. A grassroots opposition movement popped up. "No Starbucks in O.B." yard signs and bumper stickers abounded. Rallies against Starbucks drew hundreds. The town planning board sent a letter of opposition to the Starbucks corporation. All to no avail. Turner remembers those days. "It was really tough for me to figure out how to play that," she recalls, "because I didn't want to sound like sour grapes and I didn't want to sound like I was afraid. At that time there were a bunch of vacant storefronts, and the storefront that Starbucks occupied had been closed for a couple of years, and it was attracting a lot of vagrants. So I was glad to see something going in there. I kind of took the position that as a citizen of this community -- because I grew up here, and I have a house here, and this is my town -- I don't really want the feel of the community to change. But as a business owner, I appreciate the fact that a full Newport Avenue is good for everybody."

Before Starbucks came to town, Turner says Jungle Java always had a 5 percent surge in business during summer. "But since Starbucks opened, I haven't gotten that increase in the tourist season."

But Turner says the hubbub over Starbucks coming to Ocean Beach in the first place has brought her a "slight increase in local business through the rest of the year," which has offset the loss of summer tourist business. "It made people a little more aware, and a lot of people are making more conscious choices."

It's not lower prices they're choosing. A 16-ounce latte costs $3.25 at Starbucks and Jungle Java. Turner believes the two stores attract "different clientele. I think that people that go to Starbucks are kind of going along with the crowd, and the people that come here appreciate, I think, a little bit more the uniqueness."

John Husler, co-owner of Lestat's coffeehouse, one shop from the corner of Adams Avenue and Felton in Normal Heights, echoes Turner's comment about drawing a clientele different from Starbucks. "We're really not competing for the same customer," he says. "Starbucks customers are people who like brand recognition. They like that standardized, sort of corporate atmosphere. They know what they're going to get when they walk into Starbucks, and that's comforting to them. Our customers are just the opposite. They're alternative-thinking, freedom-based people who are looking for something interesting and noncorporate. They come here for what used to be called that coffeehouse atmosphere created by freethinking people."

Husler, 44, and his business partner, James Gerkowski, opened Lestat's -- named after a character in Anne Rice's vampire novels -- ten and a half years ago. It's a small café with eclectic, comfy furniture. At one end of the room is a stage not much bigger than the top of a Ping-Pong table. Acts perform on that stage nightly. A 16-ounce latte costs $3.25, same as at Starbucks. Asked how he's survived the Starbucks era, Husler laughs. "Well, I don't know if I can say we've survived the Starbucks era, because they only just opened up in June."

The new Starbucks sits kitty-corner from Lestat's. Asked if he thinks Starbucks opened across the street to try to siphon business from Lestat's, Husler answers, "Oh, I know they did. And I understand that it's business. They see a spot where there's a successful coffee shop, and they know that there are people buying coffee at that corner. So they don't need to do any research. It saves them time and money. That's business, and I understand that. But I get a little resentful when I think of the amount of time and effort I've put into this community -- I mean, I've nearly gotten into fights on the street outside my shop because I was trying to keep guys from selling drugs in front of my store. The neighborhood has improved partly because of our efforts, and now Starbucks is swooping in to capitalize on that."

The nightly entertainment at Lestat's "has ended up being great for us," Husler says. "It doesn't make us a lot of money directly, but it's great for word-of-mouth advertising. A lot of musicians' friends come in to see the show, and they tell their friends and we get exposed to a lot of people who otherwise would not know about us."

Lestat's hours of operation, Husler believes, give it another advantage over the Starbucks across the street. "We haven't closed in five years," he says. "We're open all night. It's been great for us. Starbucks has tried to compete by staying open to midnight, but they're pretty empty after nine."

In those overnight hours, "We get a lot of young people, a lot of gamers with laptops. After two, we get the closing-bar crowd. And we actually get a lot of cops and firemen overnight, and they're very welcome here."

Free Internet access is another survival tool for indie coffeehouses. At Starbucks, Internet access costs from $6 an hour to $39.99 for a monthly pass. "We started offering Wi-Fi seven years ago," Husler says. "It's funny, it used to be people brought books to read at the coffee shop, books to read or a notebook to write in. Now people bring laptops."

Since the Starbucks opened across the street, Husler says, "They've taken some of our morning business. But overall, business has actually lifted. We've found that we're getting a sort of sympathy vote. People are coming here in defiance of them being across the street. So overall, we're thriving. I'd say we've had a 5 percent increase."

Farther east on Adams, where it intersects Marlborough, stands what was known as the Kensington Coffee Company until it was bought by San Diego Coffee, Tea and Spice, a local coffee-roasting company owned by 39-year-old Steve May. Now it's officially called San Diego Coffee, Tea and Spice at Kensington, though locally it's still usually called Kensington Coffee. It's a low-slung, two-room café with a mix of tables and armchairs. A fenced-off patio out front offers a view of passersby walking dogs, kids playing at the park across the street, and Starbucks doing business kitty-corner. Mays says he bought Kensington Coffee three years ago, despite the Starbucks across the street, because "it was just an opportunity to get into one that was established, and at the same time, we are kind of purists, and we wanted to go back to that down-home, community coffee place."

And it's that community feel he points to when asked how his shop survives in the Starbucks era. "That really is the key," he says. "A lot of people say to us, 'You are right across from Starbucks. How do you stay in business?' Well, if we didn't have that community loyalty, that following, it wouldn't work. And I think a lot of our neighborhoods -- like Kensington, O.B., and places like that -- they don't like going to a Starbucks, the corporate monster, as some people call it. They want to get away from that. So I think we actually do better than the Starbucks does in Kensington. I don't know their numbers, but judging from the sheer people that are in the seats, I think we do a better business."

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Check out http://www.cafehunt.com for a list of independent coffee shops. Don't forget to contribute independent coffee shops around you there.

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