Landing a job as a new college graduate can be difficult, but opening your own business, with a degree in art, was a particular challenge.
When Joan Riordan, fresh out of UC Davis, opened Espresso Metro at Freeport Boulevard and 11th Avenue, near Sacramento City College, she never dreamed she would still be running the coffee shop nearly three decades later. Tuesday, Riordan donned the same 1950s-era dress she wore on June 7, 1988, and celebrated 28 years in business.
She worked during college at Cafe Roma, a coffee shop in Davis, and an older man who serviced the espresso machine announced that he had leased the space for a coffee shop he planned to open with his son in Sacramento’s Land Park area. After having second thoughts about a father-son partnership, he asked Riordan to join the business. Previous tenants had included a pizza restaurant and a hair salon, Riordan said, recalling that people in the neighborhood seemed dubious about the prospects for a coffee shop.
As the business was preparing to open, she recalled, people would walk by an say, “Good luck. Nothing makes it in that building.”
“We showed them,” Riordan said Tuesday.
The business “opened on a shoestring,” she said, and about six months later, she bought out her partner. The business focused on serving Sacramento City College students by offering coffee and other beverages at affordable prices.
The pre-Starbucks-era coffee shop has what Riordan and her customers describe as a “funky” character, with an assortment of tables and chairs that don’t all match. A bulletin board is available for neighbors and customers to post notices of various events. The walls are typically devoted to displays of local artists’ works. Currently featured are paintings of neighborhood and urban scenes by Jimmy Guam.
The character has changed a bit over the years. Riordan recalled many of her patrons were smokers and the shop was typically filled with clouds of smoke. A nonsmoker herself, Riordan said it became a smoke-free coffee shop a few years before smoking in restaurants was banned by law. The change did not hurt business.
Although the character of the coffee shop has remained much the same, Riordan said competition from chains such as Starbucks has led to some changes. People now bring their iPhones and laptops, as well as their newspapers and books to read while they sip their coffee. The shop also has added sandwiches and pastries to the menu. It takes more than coffee to cover the lease payments these days, Riordan said.
The staff also has had to respond to the “Starbucks lingo,” she said. A “caramel macchiato” is now listed on the cash register menu, although not on the menu board displayed at the counter, Riordan said.
I say it’s wholesale socializing as opposed to retail socializing.
Mark Stivers, longtime Espresso Metro patron
Espresso Metro has seen business go up and down depending on the economy, and has fared better during some downturns than others.
“We did well during the recession in the ’90s,” Riordan said, noting that sometimes people return to school when the economy is bad, boosting the shop’s student clientele.
That didn’t happen during the recession that began in 2007. “We had five slow years,” Riordan said. Her husband’s “real job” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped keep the business afloat.
She and her husband have three children, ages 23, 19 and 16, all of whom have attended McClatchy High School and have helped out at Espresso Metro. Riordan said some of her employees are Sacramento City College students, but others have been on staff for more than a decade. Some have left for a few years to raise children, then returned to work part time.
Although Riordan describes herself as an introvert, she said the interaction with staff and customers is what she enjoys most about the business.
The coffee shop has plenty of loyal patrons. Charlie Barnes, a lawyer, was working on his laptop at the coffee shop Tuesday afternoon. It’s a good place to get some work done outside the office, he said. Barnes said he discovered Espresso Metro when he was a student at Sacramento City College and started frequenting the shop again after moving back to the area.
Mark Stivers, a piano tuner, said he comes to Espresso Metro daily and compares it to a community center. It’s a place where he makes friends and meets with friends. “I say it’s wholesale socializing as opposed to retail socializing,” he said.
He enjoys the mix of patrons – college students and faculty, residents of the Land Park neighborhood, and what he described as Bohemian types. Stivers said he has displayed his artwork and played his accordion there. He even wrote a song – sort of an Italian waltz – about Espresso Metro.
“If it was gone,” Stivers said, “I don’t know what I’d do.”