As I mentioned in my year end wrap up, we started 2012 talking about Iron Bird Café (IBC). I figured because no one was talking about it, the assumption was, IBC was doing fine. Well, I was wrong. The silence on IBC was wonderful actually. No whining business owners, just a simple business decision being made; closing IBC.
Unlike in 2011/2012, there were no last minute plea from bloggers to “Save the Clocktower” or some Mural District devotees to “band together to defeat the Legion of Doom”, whomever that Legion is. Nope, nothing, which was quite refreshing after the last time IBC went down.
I did see some nonsense on Facebook about everything from a lack of green space in the area for dogs and calls for urban renewal, neither of which have anything to do with the success or failure of IBC. I was hoping the Cat Enthusiasts would come out and declare that if only IBC were “cat friendly”, IBC would still be in business. I always find it amusing dog lovers find reasons cafes should be dog friendly, while cat lovers voice no opinion.
People seem to always have excuses for IBC but reasons for failure? Never.
There is a legitimate alcoholic beverage argument out there, but I have difficulty reconciling alcohol, coffee, and a café concept working together in the space as a reason for the failure. I think the alcohol argument is one more excuse in the case of IBC. Do I think alcohol within the framework of a different concept in the space is a reasonable argument? Yes.
Iron Bird Cafe is a good case for reflection and to discuss the real reasons for failure, not lack of green space and dog friendly areas. After two failed attempts to make a coffee café successful in the Iron Bird commercial/retail space, is someone fool enough to believe the third time is the charm? Some fool believer/dreamer might. I would argue that anyone who tries another coffee concept at Iron Bird in the same configuration EVEN WITH alcohol is a fool. So here are some things to consider, future Iron Bird vacant space leasee.
The physical property IBC leased is a legitimate topic to discuss; it’s big and it isn’t cheap. One must begin to wonder, is a coffee-based café the appropriate business to operate considering the size of the space and the amount per square foot? The coffee based concept has failed twice under two owners, with the latest owner having successfully demonstrated owning and operating coffee and tea based establishments in different parts of Fresno. The operators of Teazers obviously have a history of being solid business owners in the tea and coffee world. They understand profit margins, volume, foot traffic, etc. IBC is by no means an anchor property. It’s not the Starbuck’s in downtown Seattle for heaven’s sake. IBC has simply been an establishment that serves coffee on the corner of Fulton and Divisadero. Nothing more. It’s not iconic. It’s not a symbol. It’s not an anchor tenant.
The matter of location may also lead us to why a coffee café has failed twice at Fulton and Divisadero.
If I’m an attorney that lives off of Milburn and Herndon and works Downtown, where do I buy coffee on my way to work? Answer…Starbucks at Milburn and Herndon. If I’m a Judge that lives near Champlain and Perrin and works Downtown, where do I buy my coffee on the way to work? The Grind on Champlain and Perrin. If I’m a PG&E employee that lives off of Bullard and West and works Downtown, where do I buy my coffee on the way to work? Dutch Brothers on Bullard and West.
I can repeat this exercise all day long, but it’s indicative of the issue. Fresnans LOVE convenience. In none of the examples above do any of those people take Palm to Fulton to Divisadero to work in the morning. They probably all take a Freeway that connects them to Downtown rather than surface streets. And in each case, there is a convenient coffee house, probably with drive-thru, that enables each person to get their fix within a half-mile of their home to buy coffee on their way to work.
When the lawyer, judge, and utility employees in my local examples finally get to work Downtown, where do they get their 2pm coffee break? Either in the office they work or within walking distance of their office. Fulton and Divisadero is not walking distance for Fresnans who work Downtown. If a Downtown employee drives to a lunch location, it’s highly likely they will order coffee at the restaurant or drive through the nearest Starbucks on their way back to work. Make isolated arguments all you want, if you work at the Library Downtown, you don’t walk to IBC for lunch and coffee. You probably walk to Teazers.
There is one exception to the post-lunch coffee argument, Café Corazon.
But Cured Ham, why does Café Corazon stay in business? Shouldn’t they be in the same predicament that IBC is in? Until recently, they didn’t serve any breakfast or lunch items and they’re not located near the Freeway.
However, in Café Corazon’s case I see several differences and exceptions.
- Leo has carved a specialty niche; he imports and roasts his own beans. No one in Fresno does this.
- Café Corazon is located in a higher density area retail area; meaning breakfast, lunch and dinner crowds are higher in The Tower than near Fulton and Divis.
- More people live in The Tower than Fulton and Divis.
- Leo has a more simple concept, serve really good coffee. Leo doesn’t care to be all things to all people.
- Leo works in his own store, knows his customers, and interacts; he’s not just an employee who doesn’t want to be there that day making minimum wage and has no idea how to froth milk.
- The post-lunch coffee is realistic for Café Corazon because of its location in The Tower near a regular lunch crowd. While none of these exceptions would have given IBC an edge, they collectively give an advantage to Café Corazon.
- Café Corazon has a small retail footprint and a rent to match its volume.
I actually go out of my way to drink Leo’s coffee. Not every day to be sure, I generally brew at home a type of coffee Leo doesn’t make in a Mocha pot. If I’m ever in The Tower, I drink Leo’s coffee. Why? Because he’s a specialist and I appreciate his attention to detail. In fact, I know that I would purposely go out of my way to NOT drink IBC if I was even close, but rather head to Café Corazon. Sorry IBC lovers, Corazon makes a better coffee. When I lived and regularly visit San Francisco, I drink my coffee at Illy or Peet’s only. I don’t drink Starbucks. In Sonoma County, I drink Flying Goat Coffee espresso because it’s pulled properly. If there’s no line at Blue Bottle, I will drink coffee there. Ritual Coffee is another place I go, one of them resides in the Oxbow Public Market in Napa.
Oh yes, I can be a coffee snob too. But you probably figured that already.
In the final analysis, Iron Bird Café was a flawed concept from the beginning. The location, the space, the traffic flow, dining options, parking are all factors in IBC’s demise. Fulton 55 across the street proves something can work at Fulton and Divis, just not coffee.
So what’s next? I’d look at the space and lease provisions first. This is where the alcohol provision comes into play. Traffic flow will play an important role. The “build it and they will come” argument is for dreamers and fools, a restaurant will prove to be a horrible idea, even though the community around it will push for such a concept to some idiot that has an undercapitalized dream. Something with higher margins, smaller square feet, and less reliance on traffic flow would be my bet for success.