On the surface, Heather Elkins’ investment decision seemed questionable.
Who in their right mind would buy an independent coffee shop within spitting distance of a Starbucks with a drive-thru? With a Raley’s next door that added a Peet’s Coffee and Tea? With a McDonalds on the other side of the intersection that serves thousands of customers a day and added a whole menu catered to the gourmet coffee market?
Oh, and who would do all of this during the biggest recession to hit America since the stock market crash of 1933?
But Elkins knew that the Bean and Leaf Café – where she had worked since it first opened before moving to San Francisco in the early 2000s – had something special. And she knew that she had something special too – an indelible quality that she’d be able to parlay into a unique and successful business built on quality and charm.
Other coffee shops were full of people staring in their laptops and keeping to themselves. But based on her experiences in San Francisco, Elkins envisioned a place where people could come and talk and interact – reading their paper quietly in the corner if they so chose, but also having the opportunity to be a part of an environment that was vibrant and colorful.
And she made it happen.
Since taking over the shop five years ago, Elkins has turned it into both a popular café and a popular eatery, attracting lunch crowds and those that swear by her homemade recipes for everything from hummus to the bagel chips that she serves up with her sandwiches.
The hours are long – she still has days where she’s up at 4 a.m. to make sure the doors are open for commuters looking for their morning jolt – and the work is plentiful now that she has expanded the business to include a whole new dimension with the food preparation.
Given the chance, however, she wouldn’t change anything.
It’s her own little slice of heaven.
“My accountant told me that I’m not in the coffee business, but the relationship business,” she said. “You have to have a relationship with the people to provide them the best experience possible.
“I’m a people person, and you have to be a people person to be in this business – you’re constantly talking with people and remembering what they like and who their family is. That’s what sets you apart from the rest.”
Blending art, coffee and cuisine
Since taking the helm in 2008, Elkins has seen most of the independent coffee shops in Manteca close up shop as established chains move in.
Established java joints on S. Main Street, E. Yosemite Avenue and W. Yosemite Avenue have all been shuttered since she decided to take over the business from her former boss in an arrangement that allowed her to make payments as she went along.
She won’t say how close she is to finally ending up in the clear, but she’s close – a little bit of light at the end of a long tunnel that was paved with hard work and determination and a vision that she has unmistakably made her own.
Art, in all forms, can co-exist in a place where people are used to grabbing and going.
Along one wall of her shop a collection of photographs from a local shutterbug showcase some of the beauty of Northern California.
Magazine articles profiling Elkins’ amazing run adorn another section on the opposite side of the restaurant. Kitschy items of her own choosing fill the spaces in between, creating a warm and inviting atmosphere that’s anything but sterile.
It’s between those walls that Elkins has showcased the skateboard art of a local entrepreneur, the music of a pair of her own employees and a handful of other artistic endeavors that she believes helps generate long-term business.
While the morning might be for the older crowd, the night-time activities are definitely for the young, and give an air of coffee credibility to Elkins’ shop.
“We’ve had good turnouts at events that we’ve hosted, and it’s been good for the shop,” she said. “What’s great is that we have 1,000 likes on Facebook now, and when we send something out, those 1,000 people see it, and when they like it their friends see it.
“It creates a whole new realm of exposure.”
Quality, not low-cost
At the end of the day, however, Elkins is more concerned about what goes into the drinks that her customers walk away with and the food that they eat than the money that goes into her register.
Her chai tea is completely homemade. Her hummus is made fresh daily.
And even though her coffee vendor routinely tells her that he can get her a better price on a cheaper roast, she abruptly declines each time he brings it up.
“I don’t want cheaper coffee – people won’t like cheaper coffee,” she said. “That’s not what we’re about. This is a chance to create something of quality that you don’t find at other places. That’s what we’re known for, and I’m happy about that.”