Life on the road as a circus pro can make people do surprising things. While Sol Salzer was traveling, leading the advance team for Circus Vargas, he was simultaneously scouting a new city to claim. Instead, he returned home to Los Angeles in 1991 and launched City Bean, a small-batch coffee roasting operation that at its retail peak, included coffeehouses in Westwood Village, West Hollywood and Century City. A devastating car-through-the-window of the West Hollywood flagship changed the course of the company, and in 2000, Salzer revamped the business model. For the past three years, the business has operated out of a former woodworking shop east of Culver City. As always, they’re using a red 1926 Probat, the oldest operational coffee roaster of its kind in the world. Now, they’re exclusively wholesale, though it’s possible to swing by the facility for discounted bags of beans. We recently met with Salzer at City Bean headquarters, and he discussed the evolution of his company, and of the L.A. coffee scene.
How did City Bean come about?
In the late ’80s, I was traveling with the circus full time, and I was their front man. I was going ahead of the show six weeks, setting up and seeing it through my town, then jumping ahead another six weeks. I did that for three seasons, and while I was out traveling, I was really looking for somewhere else to live besides L.A., ‘cause I thought I didn’t want to live in L.A. any more, even though I grew up here and my roots were all here. As I came in contact with other cities in the United States, as much as I liked them, I found L.A. was really my home. I saw a lot of concepts out there, and nothing was happening in L.A. coffee at the time. That’s what gave me the brainchild. I didn’t have any experience in coffee, but I had a lot of food service experience and marketing experience and other catering experience. I took off a year and just studied coffee, did nothing but.
What was the name of the circus?
Circus Vargas. At the time it was the largest traveling big top circus in the world. The tent sat 5000 people and was in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Is it still around?
It is still around, in a much smaller version than back then. I actually took my kids a couple years ago and it was not the circus that I was with at all, not all, but it was still a fun show, the kids loved it. It served its purpose, it just wasn’t of the magnitude it once was.
In the year you spent studying coffee, what did you do to get up to speed?
We hired some people in the industry who were well respected at the time to teach us. At that time, I went to James [Marcotte, now an Intelligentsia West Coast sales specialist] and invited him to come on board and see things through. He wasn’t really doing anything professionally that was captivating his soul at the time, so he joined forces with me. We studied coffee for a year. We cupped coffee constantly. Our focus was always product, and that started from day one and continues today. We’ve always been a product driven company. We’re not a show. We’re not pizzaz, we don’t have marketing teams. We’re not slick. We’re a neighborhood regional roaster for Los Angeles, and we like to think we do a pretty good job at what we do. I like to let the coffee talk for itself.
How would you differentiate City Bean coffee from other coffees in the city?
Good question. Definitely our roaster gives us something that nobody else has. The metals back in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s were just of incredible high quality, so it does lend itself to a different roast style. We’ve had long relationships in sourcing beans and we take a lot of care of who we get our coffee from, and what we’re getting. So the sourcing, we really spend a lot of time on that. Everything’s done by hand. We’re not an automated system. We feel like we have incredible equipment to work with, really high quality. I can tell you until I’m blue in the face, but until it’s on the cupping table, it really doesn’t matter what I say. I really like to talk less and let the coffee do more of the talking.
What was the moment where you knew you’d build a career around coffee?
As we were learning coffee in that first year, our business plan was coming together, our financing was coming together, everything seemed to be coming together nicely, it became quite apparent that coffee was a destiny for us. I mean us because I give James a lot of credit for really bringing our product quality to a certain level and establishing some focus with coffee and with coffee quality.
Describe your company’s progression.
Our growth was, we started in retail, a small store in Westwood Village, 1992, February, which means we’re going to have our 20th anniversary coming up next February, which we’re going to gear up for and have some fun things with. It was fun. We were having a great time and doing some pretty good business. For first timers, it was a very small space, 600-square-foot total space. And then the sign went up across the street. Three, four months after we opened, Starbucks had leased the space directly across the street, twice the size, corner location, third store in Los Angeles, and they were going to battle with us right away for whatever reason. Their construction workers were coming in, literally, coming in for a cup of coffee, looking us straight in the face and saying, “You know after they open that you’ll be out of business within three months.” Absolutely serious. Dead serious. Their managers came in a month or two before they opened, and I was already pretty well connected in Westwood, working with other businesses there. They were going into other businesses, giving them free stuff and saying, “We’re going to put City Bean out of business.” Our customers were asking, “What are you going to do? What does this mean?” And our response was always the same. “Go across the street, taste their coffee, if you like their coffee better, so be it. If you don’t, come on back.” We lost 15% of our business the first month and were back to normal the second month. About the fourth or fifth month they were open, Los Angeles magazine named us Best of L.A. We produced a half-page, really nice coupon, and the tagline was, “We roast, brew and serve coffee faster than a truck drives from Seattle to L.A.,” and had copy on what we do, how we do it, why we do it, and it had a free drink coupon at the bottom, no holds barred, no strings attached. I put people on the street – I didn’t have anybody in front of their store – but I had them so nobody could walk away from the Starbucks. I figured they came into my neighborhood. They did this. I put them in four different places, so nobody could walk away without walking into one of my people without getting free drink coupons. We handed out 1000 coupons in two days and 700 came back to our store to redeem in the first week. We started marketing to their customers, the fact that they were across the street made things better for us. That was the start.
How did the retail component evolve?
We opened our second store, which we thought was going to be our flagship store, in 1996. As the company’s pretty much always been – I’m pretty honest about this – we were undercapitalized. The location never came to fruition like we hoped it would.
Where was the location?
West Hollywood. By that time, we had bought this roaster, put that roaster in the store, so it was a micro-roasting store, which created some interesting complexities. We didn’t know what we were getting into, but it was fine. It functioned well. In 1999, there was a traffic accident outside that store, and a car literally hurdled off the curb and launched itself into our store. It knocked a 200-pound mahogany bar 30 feet into the air. Nobody was in there. We were closed. Thank goodness. That was pretty much the start of the end of retail for us, as far as our focus and our passion. We had a third store that opened in Century City in the meantime, and I was already feeling like we were getting pulled away from coffee and pulled towards a lot of things that we didn’t want to manage, we didn’t want to do. We didn’t want to do the marketing and the 3000 customers per day, the things that go with retail. I really respect Starbucks, and I respect Intelli and I respect all the people that are being successful with retail. Ours never hit like we wanted it to. It’s a hard thing to make happen. Our passion was still roasting. Our passion was still coffee. Our passion was still what you see now. In 2000, we had a complete reorganization of the company. We started from scratch with $80,000 a year in wholesale sales, no facility, the roaster was put into storage. I started over, and James was no longer part of the operation – he still had his ownership – and I basically hunkered down, started over, and my wife supported us for six months and took care of everything and allowed me to tackle it and restart. That’s what I did, and it’s the best thing that’s ever happened. It put us back where we wanted to be.
What will it take to make the L.A. coffee scene great, if it isn’t already?