Feature article: Business

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Originally published in Columbus Business First: Coffee bars in Clintonville increasingly make rounds

By Leslie Birdwell

If you build it, will they come?

If you brew it, will they drink?

The answer from the coffee trade is yes, at least for the Columbus neighborhood of Clintonville.

Chalk up 2004 as a year of expansion for cafes in this neighborhood with a lot of reopened roasters and the appearance of the big kid on the block – Starbucks Corp. Each coffehouse has a different approach to set itself apart from the crowd.

Mark Swanson, president of the Stauf’s Coffee Roasters chain that includes the Cup O’ Joe cafes, is philosophical about the swarm that includes Starbucks and Caribou Coffee Company Inc.

“Competition is going to happen. You can’t have just one coffee place in Clintonville. We’re not going to be the only ones,” he says.

Recent construction along North High Street hurt business, and parking can be a problem, but Swanson is confident about his customer base and the business’ place in the community.

Stauf’s prides itself on a quick turnaround when responding to customers’ suggestions, such as Wi-fi installation, changed hours and lunch availability. The business also supports community organizations by supplying products for charity events and donating gifts for silent auctions.

“Our customers are ourselves. We are the people who spend time in coffee shops. It’s a very nice relationship,” says Swanson, whose Clintonville Cup O’ Joe is at 2990 N. High St.

Scotty MacBean’s in Beechwold/Clintonville reopened under new management in November. Its 6,300-square-foot facility offers restaurant service and community rooms. Co-owner Kirby Witmer says custom coffee roasting sets the business apart from its rivals.

“We can roast it tonight,” he says, “and it will be ready tomorrow.”

The business, at 4675 N. High St., also has two community rooms. Witmer says the location’s atmosphere makes them unique.

“I think there’s more of a homey feeling to our location,” he says.

Enter Caribou, Starbucks

Customers with a fondness for L.L. Bean will love Caribou Coffee at 3645 N. High St. The shop’s atmosphere shop boasts soft seating, fine cabinetry, a fireplace and a child-sized table and chairs. The kids’ corner includes comfy club chairs for parents and footstools in the shape of friendly, stuffed toy bears.

Caribou, which runs more than 300 stores nationwide, aims for a 1,600- to 1,800-square-foot cafe, says Chris Toal, vice president of marketing.

The company also looks for drive-through space if possible, “but it’s not a differentiating point for us,” he says.

Caribou is interested in expanding in Columbus and has collected demographic information to help the push. Toal knows his customers and what they like, down to the hours women with children are more likely to patronize the shop. It doesn’t hurt that Caribou’s location has high visibility in a new retail development, an easily negotiable drive-through and plenty of parking.

Jeff Rains, a partner in Breads of the World LLC, which runs Panera Bread Co. stores in Central Ohio, is complimentary of Caribou’s Clintonville location.

The Panera store, 4519 N. High St., at just less than 5,000 square feet, is also in a new commercial development, accessible to pedestrians and has parking. While Panera has a menu with soups and salads and runs a bakery, it also promotes flavor-of-the-day coffees, has a coffee club punch card and brews espresso.

Panera doesn’t compete directly with specialty coffee retailers, and Rains isn’t worried about a cafe glut.

“You’re not cutting up the same pie,” he says, “The pie is getting bigger. Absolutely more coffee is being consumed in Clintonville. There’s a concern that Starbucks will overwhelm everyone, but that’s not the case.”

Last year also saw the appearance of a 1,700-square-foot Starbucks cafe in a former Pizza Hut storefront at 3416 N. High St. and North Broadway Avenue.

“We look at several factors when deciding where to open new locations,” Starbucks spokeswoman Valerie Carlborg says. “Most importantly, however, we choose to offer Starbucks Coffee locations based on what our customers tell us.

“We spend a lot of time listening to our customers and understanding what we can do to enhance their experience. That being said, customer requests for Starbucks in Clintonville played a significant role in our decision to open a store here.”

Starbucks also opened a licensed cafe last March inside the Giant Eagle supermarket at 2801 N. High St.

The senior member of the coffee club is Mozart’s, 2885 N. High St. In Columbus since 1995, the store has a full menu, a bakery and serves beer and wine to accompany meals.

“At first, I was a little worried, but not anymore,” says owner Anand Saha. “We are a typical European coffee shop,” he says, with fresh flowers on the marble-top tables. Mozart’s also features live classical music and ample parking.

Just as more than one restaurant or bar can co-exist on the same block, it seems there might be room for more than one java joint.

And since Clintonville is largely dry between Webber and Morse roads, perhaps there’s a proportional relationship between an increase in coffee bars and the absence of neighborhood taverns.

“Coffee shops are telling a story about how people spend their time. It’s awesome,” Swanson says.