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Community News: Southwest

CRENSHAW : Coffee Franchise Is Perk for Community

August 07, 1994|ERIN J. AUBRY

It is a phenomenon that took hold first in the Fairfax district, Hollywood and other points west: a gourmet coffee operation that sells 40 kinds of joe and an array of breads, muffins, bean grinders and paraphernalia for the coffee connoisseur.

But ensconced in Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, widely considered by corporate types to be part and parcel of South-Central, entrepreneur Eric Wilson sees his coffee business as nothing less than a moral victory.

Wilson, 37, said he encountered resistance from several coffee store franchisers before Michigan-based Coffee Beanery Ltd. gave him the go-ahead to open an outlet in April, 1993.

That was a year after Wilson witnessed the devastation of the riots and decided to get serious about starting a business that could stimulate the local economy by catering to the well-heeled denizens of Baldwin Hills, Windsor Hills, View Park and Ladera Heights.

Franchisers "told me that there was just no market for gourmet coffee in this area," said Wilson, busily serving customers at his large, airy kiosk set beneath the mall's towering skylight.

"But I was determined. I thought, 'Why should I have to drive somewhere out of the neighborhood to get a good cup of coffee?' I have a lot of friends who are into whole beans and have espresso machines. It was time to do this."

Mike Robertson, director of franchising development for the Coffee Beanery, said he agreed with Wilson.

"We felt that some people's reluctance to open in L.A. was absolutely wrong," he said. "The store--and Eric--has been a very good asset to us. It's doing very well."

The Coffee Beanery operates three other outlets in the South Bay and on the Westside.

The Coffee Beanery offers a range of flavored coffees, from Hawaiian hazelnut to German chocolate to African coffees, as well as scones, cakes, biscotti and other sweets.

For Baldwin Hills resident and coffee aficionado Cheryl Tyers, the relief the Beanery provides is sweet indeed.

"I come here three or four times a week," said Tyers as she ordered her usual: black coffee with a shot of Irish cream syrup.

"I'm so happy it's here. I was dying. . . . I had to go to the marina for this. I think people are finally realizing that black people like the finer things in life too."

Wilson says his business is holding steady, though it is not as strong as he would like. Bean sales account for about 17% of sales instead of the 30% that makes for a more comfortable profit margin.

Still, he says, the community support has been overwhelming.

"A lot of people ask me if the place is black-owned and they're pleasantly surprised when I tell them yes," he said.

"They ask, 'Are you doing OK?' and buy two cups of cappuccino instead of one. They do what they can to support me. So I want to stay. . . . I'm trying to make a difference."

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