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Coffee roaster: neighborhood change starts with cafe

on January 17, 2010

Tim Manhart didn’t get a lot of encouragement when he decided to open a coffee roastery in Richmond’s North & East neighborhood.

“Some of my good friends told me in so many words, ‘You will fail,’” Manhart recalled, hearing only gloomy predictions: “‘Richmond does not have the type of clientele that will want and appreciate the high level of coffee you’re producing.’”

There was the problem of appealing to the general Richmond clientele, and then there was the problem of the economy.

Manhart had barely opened the coffee shop when the national economy plummeted into the worst downturn since the Great Depression — a downturn that has hit small businesses particularly hard.

Last year, more than 400,000 small businesses (establishments with fewer than 100 employees) shut down in just the first quarter, eliminating more than one million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But two years after opening, Catahoula Coffee (named after Manhart’s favorite dog breed) is still brewing.

Manhart says that’s because coffee is “an affordable luxury,” and that in times of economic hardship, a community-gathering place — like a coffee shop — becomes even more sought-after.

“I’ve had people that have been laid off, people who have lost their homes and been through a lot of trauma … and they still come in and get a cup of coffee,” Manhart said.

Manhart’s cynical friends questioned the ethics of enticing Richmond’s hard-pressed blue-collar locals to drink custom-roasted lattes at $3 a serving.

But Manhart says the Catahoula clientele has been a revelation, dispelling some widely-held notions not only about who drinks gourmet espresso, but about who makes up Richmond’s population in general.

He said he was at first surprised to see landscapers and mechanics among his regulars, but perhaps even more surprised to see a large number of local artist and musician-types — the kind he said you’d expect to see in San Francisco or Berkeley coffee shops, but not Richmond.

Manhart has lived in Richmond since 1999, when he bought a house in the North & East neighborhood and took over a Merry Maids franchise, which includes the property next door to Catahoula.

And although he’s enthusiastic about the amenities of his adopted neighborhood — affordable real estate, easy access to Interstate 80, Bay views from the hills — he says Richmond’s reputation for crime and blight still keeps many East Bay locals from venturing north of El Cerrito.

But, Manhart said, that reputation might change if more entrepreneurs were willing to make an investment on the San Pablo Avenue corridor of North & East. He points to the commercial development of Temescal — a rough-turned-hip neighborhood in North Oakland — as a potential success model for North & East.

“That area was a dump 10 years ago. I remember I used to drive through it really fast because of that,” Manhart said of driving along Telegraph Avenue, the neighborhood’s main artery.  “It started only with a couple of shops and it’s really blossomed.”

Manhart envisions better schools and the razing of abandoned buildings as prerequisites to improve Richmond’s quality of life, but also, he muses, wouldn’t it be nice to have a pizza joint nearby where you can get a Racer Five and a good salad? Maybe he’d even open it himself.

“I’m never opposed to doing anything,” he said, “but I’ve got my hands full now.”


  1. Linda Newton on March 11, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Manhart has the right fix on Richmond. I’ve lived in the area since moving to the East Bay from the City in 1980. There was a cafe on McBryde that served espresso, et al, but it was only fair. Catahoula makes GREAT lattes that are beautiful. I wish he had a second place in my new neighborhood in Richmond! Coffee is an affordable luxury. You can sit and read or talk for hours. Cheaper than a box of popcorn.

    I hope from his example that more small quality places emerge.

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