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Little guy thrives in coffee war
Bean & Leaf takes on Starbucks, Peets
Bean & Leaf owner Heather Elkins prepares a cup of coffee. - photo by JASON CAMPBELL
David vs. Goliath doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface in the coffee war that’s brewing between two chains and an independent in the Union Square Center anchored by Raley’s.

For Heather Elkins and her Bean & Leaf Café – which she has now owned for a year-and-a-half – the stickers in the window proclaiming that the Best of Manteca competition determined her business was the best coffee shop in town when there’s a Starbuck’s a stones-throw away, it’s a badge of honor and source of pride.

The Best Community Service badge just next to it is icing on the cake.

This year was the second time that Elkins took the top coffee shop honors – beating out not only the Starbuck’s that is within eyeshot but all of them throughout town. It is something that the longtime employee of Bean and Leaf turned owner is especially proud of.

With a staff of sometimes six people including sister Erica, Elkins has taken what had been her virtual home for more than a decade and put her own unique spin on what a café should be. She used the help of friends and family to transform the interior into something you’re more likely to find in San Francisco than the cookie-cutter cafes of the area.

“When I got the offer from Richard Kinsall to come back and buy this place, I thought he was kidding,” Elkins said. “At the time I was living in San Francisco, but that wasn’t where my roots where. I knew what I was getting into, and I knew what I wanted to do when I finally did take over ownership.”

While some might think that having a Starbucks as well as a Peet’s Coffee (Raley’s) in the same shopping center wouldn’t make the purchase a wise business decision, Elkins jumped in with both feet, and honestly believes that having the mega-brewer in the same lot actually helps her business rather than hurts it.

“We get customers who don’t want to wait in the long early morning lines at Starbucks, and they come over and sometimes they keep coming back,” Elkins said. “My roommate in San Francisco said that I was crazy with the situation that was going on, but we’ve been voted the best coffee shop in town for the last two years – people are just getting tired of the corporate waits and the sterile environment.

“We offer something different here, and we have regulars that are down here every morning enjoying themselves. While other places use a push-button machine to create their coffee, I look at making coffee as an art. We make our own chai tea, and we have an extensive lunch menu. Not a lot of places around here offer that.”

And rather than playing the CD of the day, Elkins is happy that she’s able to do pretty much whatever she pleases – turning to internet radio to offer a different take and opening up the doors to live music acts on a regular basis.

One of her baristas, Taylor Vick, will be performing at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto on August 20. She hopes to schedule a date just before with brother Travis Vick at Bean & Leaf in order to give customers a glimpse of what they’re going to be performing.

And being a coffee shop, Elkins would love to see Police Chief Dave Bricker make one of his monthly stops inside of her establishment – allowing him to chat it up with the group she considers “the ladies group” so that they could voice their often boisterous opinions to someone that matters.

“I’d love to have the police chief hold one of his ‘Coffee with the Chief’ events right here in our establishment.” Elkins said. “People don’t realize what a good cup of coffee is until they’ve had one, and once they leave here, they’ll know.”

And Erica Elkins – who helps spell her sister on the early morning shifts (Heather didn’t have a day off for 33 straight days) – believes that it’s the customers that want to make sure that the doors to the Bean and Leaf Café stay open.

“They want to see her succeed – they don’t want this place go away,” Erica said. “It’s amazing how many people want to help her out because they believe in this place.”

The Bean and Leaf Café is located at 1254 W. Lathrop Road inside of the Raley’s shopping center. The business is open Monday through Friday from 4:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.