Up the Valley: Coffee Klatch

October 11, 2012

Can a small, locally-owned coffee house survive a Starbucks across the street? Today’s column in the Star

They say that water seeks its own level. I’ve been wondering whether the saying also holds true for coffee.

A photo recently posted on Facebook featured the downtown Napa location of one of my favorite local spots: the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company. The shot is snapped from inside the coffee house, looking out through the window, where the word “STARBUCKS” looms large on the newly opened business across the street.

It was good to see signs of life in downtown Napa, but also troubling to find another small, locally owned business facing pressure from a national chain — and a behemoth at that.

It took me back to 1996 and the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where a Barnes & Noble superstore forced the closing of Shakespeare & Co., a beloved 81st Street independent. Of course, B&N was able to drive S&Co out of the neighborhood through diabolical tactics involving wide selection, low prices, comfy couches and — yes — good coffee. And some bookstore closings turned out to be premature mercy-killings, just ahead of an inevitable demise at the hands of Amazon.

We are fortunate in St. Helena to boast a small independent bookstore and a Planning Commission that would sooner permit a tattoo parlor or off-track-betting outpost — so long as they were independently owned — than an upvalley Starbucks. Still, the coffee colossus has a super-competitive secret ingredient it may add to the brew at any moment: alcohol.

While Starbucks has not applied for permission in Napa — yet — the chain has been selling wine and beer in Seattle since 2010, and plans to add 25 more wine bars by year’s end. To do so in Napa would apparently require no additional city permit — just a license from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Coffee-and-booze bars sound like a bad combination to me. Customers at the St. Helena Roastery are already a lively bunch; I shudder to think what would happen if the baristas started slipping rum into their morning lattes. The place has always had a mellow, college-bookstore feel, with a brainy clientele and staffers resembling chatty coeds and indie IT guys. They would seem much more likely to peddle marijuana brownies than brandy-laced mocha cappuccinos.

Nancy Haynes and Doug Dunlap, the Roastery’s president and general manager respectively, sit back-to-back in a shared office, clicking incessantly at their computers while multitasking on the phone. I have no idea what they are doing, but I suspect it has something to do with speculating in coffee futures or manipulating the market for Guatemalan decaf dark roast. Nearby, burlap bags with coffee beans from exotic places are stacked up, shortly to be fed into the giant coffee grinder. The smell of roasting coffee beans, and a slightly singed scent, fills the air, adding some aromatic fresh-ground gravitas to the proceedings.

Meanwhile, on the other end of town at Sogni di Dolce, the mood is less Nirvana and more La Dolce Vita. The kinetic and super-efficient baristas all seem to resemble one another, in a skinny blond supermodel kind of way — stepping into the cafe is like entering a Robert Palmer video. The lead singer in this act is owner John Lockwood, who is always on the go, improving, expanding and moving faster than a double-shot-espresso-fueled Vespa. John seems destined to be surrounded by beautiful women, including his two young daughters.

An alcoholic aperitivo would fit right in here, or could lace the exotic gelato flavors like salted caramel and coconut tropicale that have led some locals to resemble spoon-carrying addicts from the ’80s. I frequented Dolce when I worked nearby, always coveting the classic donut with sprinkles. A devoted following prefers the freshly-prepared panini, along with the cool modern décor, televised international sporting events and cosmopolitan vibe.

Coffee can be a controversial topic because people have such strong tastes and opinions. I remember neighbors who would only drink Illy coffee at Keller’s before it closed; others drink Peet’s with scones at the Model Bakery. And for those who want preposterous pretension with their morning percolation, Dean & DeLuca sells coffee filtered through a civet cat’s anus, at $60 for 50 grams.

But the point, if I can just put down my doughnut for a moment and make it, is: Coffee cliques will choose their spot, and there are more than enough caf-and-decaf customers to go around. Deciding which coffee house you frequent may not be as momentous a choice as, say, Slytherin versus Gryffindor, yet people will tend to self-sort and consort with like-minded connoisseurs.

And while going up against Starbucks may not be competing on a level playing field, surely there are enough stubbornly loyal chain-hating locals to ensure the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company’s survival. At least, that is, until Amazon figures out how to deliver hot lattes through the mail.

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