Archive for Sunday, December 3, 2000

Coffee contest heats up

Specialty shops pour into Lawrence’s java jumble

December 3, 2000


Competition among Lawrence's gourmet coffee shops may soon have the bite of a double-tall cappuccino.

Outlets hot to meet the needs of this city's black-liquid connoisseurs are popping up everywhere.

New to the mix is a drive-up cafe, Z's Divine Espresso on East 23rd Street; a Starbucks in SuperTarget; and a downtown cyber shop, Cafova. These and others have joined a stable of more than a dozen Lawrence coffee houses that run the gamut of size, design and clientele.

Does the cup runneth over?

"I think, currently, Lawrence is a little oversaturated with coffee shops," said Jason Schreiner, coffee manager of Milton's Coffee and Wine, 920 Mass.

Mark Zwahl, owner of Z's, at 23rd and Harper streets, said basic rules of business economics would determine which coffee houses survived when supply exceeded demand.

"Competition will improve the quality of the drink and the quality of the service," he said. "If anybody is going to fail, it's people who don't pay attention to that."

National market blend

Coffee shops in Lawrence need not reach for a panic button yet, said Mike Ferguson, marketing director for the nonprofit Specialty Coffee Association of America in Long Beach, Calif.

He said the coffee shop industry in most Midwest towns was immature compared with cities on the East and West coasts, which already went through tremendous growth spurts and now face daunting market corrections.

Nationally, about 12,000 outlets are preparing specialty coffee beverages these days, up from 5,000 in 1995.

"We think it will drop down to 10,000 in three years," Ferguson said.

Much of that attrition will occur in coastal areas, he said.

After the decrease, Ferguson said, the number of specialty houses in the United States is expected to grow at a modest pace and return to 12,000 units by 2007.

"We've had a fine adolescence, but it's time to slow down and concentrate on a healthy industry," Ferguson said.

Finding a niche

To survive, Ferguson said, it isn't enough to fill a cup with syrup, mountains of whipped cream or foamed milk and a dash of cinnamon or chocolate. Coffee shops must buy the best coffee and have excellent customer service, he said. Neither is especially easy these days. Buying the highest caliber beans is tricky business and the robust U.S. economy prompts significant employee turnover in coffee shops.

It's also important for stores to find a niche that reflects the community it attempts to serve, he said.

"For example, in Long Beach, in the East Village area, you better have art from locals on the walls," Ferguson said. "If you're in a community with a lot of people working out of home offices, you'll need phone outlets, computers. If you're on the bohemian side, you'll need couches, soft lighting."

In Lawrence, shops have assumed a character that helps define clientele.

Zwahl, who opened Z's in April, said his drive-up window catered to morning commuters in need of a quick jolt before darting across Kansas Highway 10 to jobs in the Kansas City area.

"I think that is the niche that needed to be filled," he said. "People have been begging me to set up out west."

Reuben Evans, manager of Bourgeois Pig, 6 E. Ninth St., said his shop appealed to an eccentric crowd, in part because it offers more than coffee. "We serve alcohol, too," he said. "We have the broadest range of people in here. We get a range from 21 years old to 70 years old."

The non-smoking atmosphere at La Prima Tazza, a fixture for 10 years at 638 Mass., appeals to regulars, manager Laurel Wimberg said.

She considers the current mix of coffeehouse culture to be healthy for Lawrence. "I'm glad to see there is enough room for different places and styles," she said.

Not quite Seattle

Lawrence resident Chris Carr witnessed development of the coffee-shop craze in Seattle.

And Lawrence, he said, is no Seattle.

"I couldn't walk two blocks without hitting a Starbucks not to mention all the other shops," he said.

Carr, community relations coordinator at Borders Books, Music & Cafe, 700 N.H., said book and coffee lovers could mix those passions at Borders' Cafe Espresso.

He said students at Kansas University provided Lawrence's java entrepreneurs with a deep customer base. "In a college town, I don't think it can be oversaturated," he said. "People want a place to study."

While it lasts, Carr is getting his fill of Lawrence coffee. He appreciates the city's variety of coffee roasters and the special twists offered by baristas.

"The amount of coffee I drink is shameful," he said. "I go from shop to shop. I take total advantage of the diversity."

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