Sandy Frizzell will be adding outdoor seating later this summer at Grass Valley’s Sierra Mountain Coffee Roasters coffeehouse. She has expanded the business’s interior space three times since she purchased it in 2007 despite a tough recession that forced her to find creative ways to lure customers.
“The year after I bought it, 2008, the economy just tanked and I lost a lot of customers,” Frizzell said. “A lot of construction companies closed, and a lot of employees moved to the Bay Area to get work.”
Frizzell knew she had to do something to generate revenue at 671 Maltman Drive. Although the street had steady traffic, her cafe wasn’t very visible from the street. The shopping center, while neat and tidy, lacked any eye-catching features. She survived, she said, by listening intently to what customers wanted and by expanding into catering for business and entertainment events.
From the time Frizzell was a child, she told me, she had spent hours in the kitchen learning to cook with her godmother, Madame Jehane Benoit, often described as Canada’s Julia Child.
“I learned how to do quiche and very fancy foods throughout my childhood,” said Frizzell, who got into business after retiring as a forest ranger. “I always wanted to have a cafe of my own. I worked for the state of California for 32 years, and then when I retired, this business came up for sale … and I just decided I wanted to live out my dream.”
Founded in 1985, Sierra Mountain Coffee Roasters had two other owners before Frizzell took the reins. All the coffee beans are roasted locally in a separate facility. When Frizzell acquired the business, it had a tiny kitchen and a small food menu, she said, but customers wanted more fresh baked goods to go with their coffee, chocolate and tea.
“We do all our baked goods, soups, quiches here. Everything here is from family recipes,” Frizzell said. “My staff, pretty much everyone here, bakes or cooks their specialties. …We have 2,800 square feet now, and I think originally we had 600. As we’ve built up our food and our coffee, we ran out of room.”
She frequently got requests from customers for vegan or vegetarian food options, she said, so she added soups, sandwiches and quiches for them. Rather than using a range, she said, they roast vegetables they add to their dishes.
She saw that groups of people had begun to have meetings in her coffeehouse, she said, so her third expansion was aimed at providing space for a dozen or more people to gather. In that room, she added a floating oak dance floor and a sound system that could accommodate intimate musical events. It’s also home to Will Dane’s bookshop, The Open Book. Dane sublets his space.
Nevada County poet Molly Fisk and others refer to Sierra Coffee Mountain Roasters as their “third place,” a social space separate from their homes or offices. Fisk, who typically parks her belongings at the back counter near the woodland mural, blogged about the coffeehouse in one of her pieces aimed at “getting to the heart of who” Nevada Country residents are.
“The staff knows what I usually order and I know all their names,” she wrote in a March 23 post. “The owner, Sandy, has become a friend – one of those first-to-visit-you-in-the-hospital type friends, if she wasn’t the one to drive you there herself. Other regulars and I have formed loose social groups that are meaningful even though we don’t see each other anywhere else. On the rare occasions I don’t show up by 10 in the morning – usually I’m there by 7:30 – someone phones to see if I’m all right.”
During an hourlong interview, Frizzell stopped midsentence several times to greet two regular customers and a supplier, rising from her seat to hug them. She insisted on introducing her staff and explained that her team has different dietary needs. They readily offer menu suggestions, then prepare items that will appeal to other people like them.
She sells jewelry made by her staff, birdhouses made by local resident Al Kennerly and honey from Nevada City’s Bourbon Hill Bees, among other locally produced items. The Open Book has its bookshelves on casters, so they can easily be rolled aside for concerts, literary workshops, film series, dances, open mic nights and other entertainment. Dane also features books by local authors.
Frizzell stays open late, as needed, to sell goodies to those who attend. Sierra Mountain also acts as concessionaire for concerts and other events at the Grass Valley Veterans Memorial Building. On Sunday, the coffeehouse closes to the public, Frizzell said, and she rents out the space for showers, school benefits or other events. Sierra Mountain caters those as well, Frizzell said, and she views every catered event as an opportunity to convert someone new into a customer.
“The restaurant business is tough,” she said. “It’s a lot of work. I’ll work six to seven days a week. My staff is amazing. They’re right there with me. We work hard. With restauranting, the cost is high, and the profit margins are slim. It has to be a passion, or you’ll never make it. Some days, I wonder what I did, and other days, I’m thrilled that I did it.”
Frizzell, 63, said she’s been called a workaholic and doubts she’ll ever have the traditional retirement where she isn’t working. She sells her air-roasted coffee beans to restaurants and retailers around Nevada County. She’s added smoothies and sugar-free fruit sodas to her menu to draw customers in the warmer months.
“We juice fruit and add soda water,” she said. “We don’t add any sugar, so it’s light. We do a strawberry, a straight strawberry when the berries are super sweet. You don’t need to add any sugar to it. We put the puree in from juicing it and then add Perrier soda water. …We do a peach-ginger, with fresh, sweet peaches. We do a blueberry-blackberry-boysenberry one.”
She said she’s also applied for a license to sell beer and wine as she continues to evolve to meet customer demand, and she hopes to have that approved this summer.