Coffee vendors brewing up business

Coffee vendors brewing up business
Danielle Stewart and husband Sean Sbrega who own Global Grind coffee stand at the Encinitas Library. “Everybody says, ‘You’re always working.’ It’s because we love what we do,” she said. Photos by Lillian Cox

ENCINITAS — With nine Starbucks locations in Encinitas, you’d think the latte market was saturated. Despite an influx of well-financed global chains and a deep recession, local entrepreneurs like Lisa Gomolka have proven to be as bold as a ristretto shot.Gomolka began working for The Quick Fix, San Diego County’s first espresso drive-thru chain, in 1994.

In 2005, she bought out the owner and closed the San Marcos and Oceanside shops. Six weeks ago she closed the third store at 136 Encinitas Blvd. Today, one store remains at 552 Santa Fe Dr.

“The best thing I did was to close the other shop,” she said. “The Santa Fe store has always been the busiest one and a lot of customers from Encinitas Boulevard come here now.”

During the morning commute there’s typically a waiting line of five cars on both sides of her tiny drive-thru. The top seller is a mocha latte using a homemade recipe.

When gas prices rose, and business declined, Gomolka laid off her employees and picked up the extra hours herself. Business turned around six months ago, which she attributes partially to being there more herself.

“My customers will drive up and I can see them looking for my car,” she said. “I have watched them grow from babies in their car seats to teenagers. There were times when business was really tough and I thought, ‘How am I going to do it?’ but it’s been worth it. I have no regrets.’”

Scott Thompson has lived in Encinitas so long that he remembers when Leucadia Boulevard was called Woodley Road. He worked with his parents, David and Karen Thompson, in the family business, Thompson’s Roses. Then he became a homebuilder. In 2006, he purchased Lil’ Jungle Java at 1500 Encinitas Blvd. and ran it with a staff of five until the crash in October 2008.

“Four dollar lattes are something people don’t buy when they are out of work,” he said. “The flower business was the same way.”

Thompson responded by following advice from his late father: “Keep quality high, customers happy and work hard.”

He increased quality by offering organic coffee without raising prices, then brought daughter Tiana, 18, onboard after she was laid off. Thompson credits Tiana, now his partner, with helping to increase business by 30 percent since January.

Tiana, who is transferring from MiraCosta College to Cal State San Marcos this fall, has learned valuable lessons since riding out the economic rollercoaster.

“My biggest fear is ruining my credit and falling into debt,” she said. “My goal is to be able to take care of my family when I have one and to take care of this business and expand once we turn more of a profit.”

Their biggest sellers are mocha and vanilla latte.

Even though Scott Thompson made more money as a builder, he prefers coffee customers to homeowners. “Ninety-nine percent of them are awesome,” he said.

Danielle Stewart wanted to be a businesswoman since growing up in Saratoga, Calif. After earning a business degree, she moved to San Diego and found herself working in the mortgage industry until the housing bubble burst.

“I was going to get into real estate land sales and was studying for my Series 7 license at the Encinitas Library in January 2009 and wondering where my life was going,” she recalled. “I told my neighbor, ‘I don’t even like finance. Why couldn’t I sell coffee?’”

The neighbor told her that the city of Encinitas was soliciting bids for a coffee cart at the new library. Stewart won the bid. A self-proclaimed hippie, she recruited her brother, a general contractor in Bend, Ore., to build a cart from reclaimed materials. Global Grind opened in May 2009.

Stewart works with husband/partner, Shawn Sbrega, and friends, using locally-sourced vendors including Café Moto which provides organic and free trade coffee and Encinitas pastry chef Nikki Schaeffer.

Popular drinks are Moonlight Mocha, the Peterman (chai latte with espresso) and Janis Joplin (two or three shots of espresso and coffee). “It makes you scream,” she said, smiling.

Today, Stewart said she is “living the dream.”

“It’s about living in Encinitas and not having to get on the freeway,” she said. “Now I’m working to live, not living to work.”

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