In the Living Room Coffeehouse production facility, several antique chairs , some broken, some newly repaired , sit between sacks of coffee and a walk-in refrigerator.
It annually costs $10,000 to maintain the furniture, said partner Beat Wick.
“People tend to trash them,” he said.
Yet, those chairs are as important an ingredient to the business as what goes into the drinks, pastries, pastas and other entrees, he said. It’s ambiance, and it pays off, Wick said.
The company’s four caf & #233;s, the first launched in 1991, and its budding catering business had total sales of $2.6 million last year, said Ralfe Konig, one of Wick’s business partners. Konig said the Living Rooms’ sales this year could reach $3 million.
The Living Rooms’ baked products and entrees are made from scratch at the College Area production facility, Wick said. The building is also the base for the company’s catering service, not to mention a hub for the well-used furniture.
The Living Rooms are likely doing a higher volume than most independently owned coffeehouses in town, said John Rippo, publisher of the Espresso, a monthly newspaper focused on the local coffeehouse culture.
“It’s not just due to the number of locations,” he said. “They have a particularly good fit with what the caf & #233; society in San Diego wants, and they’re very good at providing it.”
The coffeehouses’ product quality is consistent and moderately priced, and the partners “settle on things that work,” Rippo said.
Local coffee habitu & #233;s want a place where they can be accepted, comfortable and welcomed, he said.
“The Living Room succeeds brilliantly beginning with the very name of their business,” Rippo said. “The shops are constructed like someone’s expanded living room. The furnishings are bought with an eye toward finding something like you might find in your parents’ house.”
Even in their larger shops, the partners have kept them cozy, with “excellent” lighting, Rippo said. “Basically, their whole approach to how they present their environment is first rate,” he said.
According to Rippo, coffeehouses began to re-emerge around 1990, and Wick and Konig’s restaurant experience was a good mix.
“They brought all of that experience into the caf & #233;, which has worked well for them,” Rippo said. “They captured a significant market early and they’ve always held it.”
Fellow coffeehouse owner Clayton Stich said the local coffeehouse market is competitive, and the Living Rooms have an excellent reputation.
“They’ve done a good job,” said Stich, who owns Clayton’s in Downtown San Diego.
A couple of years after Wick sold his Swiss restaurant in Pacific Beach, he decided to start a coffeehouse-bakery.
“It started to become a trend,” he recalled. There had been a couple of similar establishments in Chicago where the Swiss-born Wick had lived for six years.
From there, he enlisted Konig and Rolf Saladin as business partners. Konig, who is from Germany, had worked for Wick at his restaurant. Wick had met fellow Swiss Saladin in Chicago 10 years before.
Creating An Ambience
Saladin is a silent partner whose main responsibility is the furniture and look of each shop, Wick said. The partners agreed on the coffeehouse’s atmosphere.
“We basically wanted to have a look of the ’30s and ’40s,” Wick recalled. “We figured we’d play Billie Holliday music it would be just like a real antique, older coffeehouse, where you feel very comfortable.
“That’s where we had the idea to just put antique furniture there, to not make it look so modern.”
When scores of coffeehouses were launched in the early ’90s, many of them took a hasty approach, using plastic tables and chairs, Rippo said. The Living Room was different, he said.
“To be specific, the Living Room carefully developed their image,” Rippo said. “They did that image first, and they did it as well as it can be done, and I don’t think anybody has really equaled them in that sense.”
After the partners scouted locations, nearly settling on Downtown and in Kensington, Saladin’s wife noticed a house for sale on El Cajon Boulevard near SDSU. They decided it would work, and opened it on Thanksgiving Day, 1991.
As they set up shop, Wick recalls, passers-by were dubious as to whether a coffeehouse could succeed in the neighborhood.
“People would just walk by and say, ‘What are you guys doing?'” Wick recalled. “We’d say ‘We’re opening up a coffeehouse,’ and they’d go, ‘What, are you guys crazy?'”
For the first couple months, business was slow.
“In the beginning, we were open Fridays and Saturdays until four o’clock in the morning, and there were days that there was no business whatsoever,” Wick recalled. “I think the first day, we took in $91 dollars. It was pretty rough.”
Then people started to come in.
Two years later, their first store a commercial success, Wick saw a location open in La Jolla, on Prospect Street. Saladin looked into it, and within a month, the company had secured its second location. It opened in September 1993.
“Then, a couple years later, we got bored again,” Wick said.
The partners took over a third coffeehouse on University Avenue in early 1995. The same thing happened three years later, when they found a two-story house on Rosecrans Street not far from Point Loma Nazarene University. Another coffeehouse had just vacated it, Wick said.
For Point Loma, the partners went a step further and got a beer and wine license.
“It felt like we needed something extra,” Wick said.
The Living Room has gone to all the best neighborhoods for locating coffeehouses, Rippo said.
“It’s by feel,” he said. “You can use that approach, and it’s as valid as a much more carefully maintained numbers-crunching approach.
“These people have been in the food business for a long time, and they bring years of that kind of experience into everything they do.” The closing of other coffeehouses didn’t daunt Wick or Konig.
According to Konig, success comes from more than serving mochas with Swiss and Belgian chocolate. It’s absorbing trends, he said. For instance, when juices became popular, the Living Rooms started serving them.
According to Rippo, employees’ training also portends a coffeehouse’s success.
“The Living Room, I think, is one of San Diego’s best examples of well-run, well-managed and friendly independent coffeehouses,” he said. “People entering the trade would do well to look very carefully at their operation and be very careful about what they can learn from them, if they want to do well in this trade in this town.”
Knowing Your Clientele
The Living Rooms have different target markets for their shops. Signs posted at the La Jolla location, for instance, discourage studying, Wick said. The shop is smaller than the others and intended for tourists.
However, the opposite is true at the College Area and Point Loma Living Rooms, he said.
“They’re pretty good,” he said of students. “Most of them who stay long, they eat there, they drink there, they get some more stuff, and they just keep buying stuff, which is pretty nice.
“A lot of people study in there, which is beyond me,” he noted lightly. “I don’t know how they study in there. It’s so loud and obnoxious.”
Wick laughed. “And one thing, it’s a total meat market, a pick-up place,” he continued. “It’s really well known. People go there to check each other out, which is fine with me.”
Wick is unsure of what’s next for his business.
“Another person gets up and has a total business plan , exactly what they do,” he said. “For us, it just happens.”
The company is entertaining talk of going public, Wick said.
The partners are about to add ice cream to the caf & #233;s’ menus. They are talking to vendors, and concocting ice cream desserts, Konig said.
Right now, trends in the coffeehouse industry tend to involve flavors, and are often sparked by the major coffee chains, Konig said.
“I think Starbucks sets the trends for that, and then everybody else does it, too, and then it depends on who does it the best,” he said.
Caramel has been particularly popular for the past three or four months, he said.
“In a couple of months down the road, it’s something else again,” he said.