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California and the West

Giveaway of Coffee Shop Draws Frenzied Response


CARPINTERIA, Calif. — The idea was like something from the movies--"The Spitfire Grill" to be exact.

As in the 1996 film, in which a woman gives away her small-town Maine eatery by holding a contest, two Carpinteria coffee shop owners offered to award their business to the winner of an essay competition they staged over the Internet.

But Larry Broughton and John Alonge had little idea what a frenzied response their contest would elicit: They received letters from across the world--funny and often desperate pleas from people looking to abandon their current lives for the chance of running a bustling little cafe in a California beach town.

"This contest showed the longing that exists out there among people for another life that's not their own," Broughton said. "Like the guy who wrote to say that his life was in the toilet, that he'd just gotten divorced and then he heard about our contest. He said God told him to enter, that it was time to take control of his life."

He didn't win. Neither did the Franciscan friar who argued that a higher calling awaited those who served, adding that his winning the cafe would provide "an ecclesiastical robes-to-riches story."

Nor did the former Olympic swimmer who had put herself through school working in a restaurant. Or the countless Silicon Valley types who were ready to trade in the cyber rat race for the joys of a slumbering surfside town.

"Many said they'd spent the last 12 years of their lives making things go faster--cars and computers and e-mail messages--and that now they wanted to slow things down," Broughton said.

That's exactly how he and Alonge felt a few months after purchasing the Surfside Cafe last summer, converting it from a rundown bagel joint. They also own a coffee shop in Isla Vista, along with an interest in a group of hotels and restaurants in San Francisco.

Broughton and his wife, Suzanne, want to have a family, and he said that running the Surfside Cafe day to day was simply taking too much of his wife's time. The 37-year-old said he hadn't seen "The Spitfire Grill" when he came up with the idea for the Internet contest, but was just looking for an unconventional way to pass on the restaurant, which he valued at $200,000.

"We'd heard of people giving away vacations and mobile homes over the Web, so why not a coffee shop?" Broughton said.

For a $100 entry fee, contestants were encouraged to write an essay of 400 words or less about how winning the Surfside Cafe would be their ultimate California Dream. The owners won't say just how many entries they received, but their Web site received 18,500 hits. The entries came from 25 American states and as far away as Canada, Mexico and South Africa.

"We live in a capitalistic society, I will say that," Broughton said, adding that the partners are giving 10% of the contest proceeds to the nonprofit Clean Water Action environmental group.

The contest was judged by four local residents: a retired teacher, a political consultant, a public relations agent and a member of Clean Water Action.

Some entrants followed the rules religiously, with essays of exactly 400 words. Others wrote poems or episodes from a screenplay. Some fashioned collages, like one with a plane from Wisconsin landing in Southern California. Still others created elaborate packages that opened up like some Japanese origami project.

Some entries were rejected outright, such as the one that begged: "I really want this restaurant. Please let me have it. Here's a check for $35." Or one from a man who wrote how he loved the cafe but whose letter kept referring to the wrong eatery.

Many letters contained poor grammar and spelling, butchering Carpinteria and the Surfside Cafe, said retired schoolteacher Patsy Graziani.

"Still, judging this contest was one of the hardest and saddest things I've ever done," she said. "You just saw so many letters from people imploring, 'Please, please, help me get out of my life.' "

There were homespun tales and hard luck stories. Like the man from Long Beach who wrote: "If there ever was a job I was destined to have, this is it. I can feel it in every fiber of my being. My heart aches for it."

Or the political analyst from Washington, D.C., who wrote: "It would be wonderful to escape the pollution, potholes, traffic delays and politicians of our nation's capital and commune with my neighbors in tranquil Carpinteria."

Some entries contained lines that amused and even baffled the judges, like the man who said he'd wanted to own a cafe "ever since I was a teenager bagging groceries in Fort Worth, Texas, at the Piggly Wiggly." One woman explained why she wanted the place: "Because I'm naturally drawn to the water as a Pisces." And another: "Because I love hash browns."

Still another highlighted her plea by concluding: "And I believed this to be true even before the sea gull swooped out of the sky and stole my doughnut."

There also were grandmothers who had cooked for their families for decades and the Santa Barbara chef who wrote about how he had started his cooking career baking mud pies for his mother as a little boy.

The winning entry in the three-month contest, which ended last month, came from 38-year-old South African Marc Gorin, who had worked for 12 years in the headquarters of a restaurant chain called Spur Steak Ranch. Prompted by his sister-in-law and her husband who live in Santa Barbara, Gorin said, he and his wife, Linda, composed a poem.

It began: "In my youth, I had a dream, which as I grew, became a scheme, to find a seaside, special nook, where I could wait, serve and cook."

Gorin plans to continue the laid-back style of the little eatery with the surfboards and plaster renderings of woodies adorning the walls. "I've always wanted to own a place like this," he said, looking around. "Now I do."

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