Long Beach coffee shop feels effects of slow economy

The economic downturn's forcing many people to cut back on luxuries. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez talked to the owner of a small coffee roasting company in Long Beach who's struggling to convince customers that gourmet coffee is indispensable.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Mike Sheldrake was in high school when he discovered gourmet coffee.

Miek Sheldrake: I was drinking commercial coffees out of a percolator. And then one day, on a trip down to Balboa Island, I saw a little coffee house that couldn't have been 20 feet square, and they had these little beans in these burlap sack, and I bought them. And I made a cup of coffee on the little filter cone the fella sold me, and I thought, where has this been all my life?

Guzman-Lopez: That was more than 40 years ago. For most of that time, he's owned and run Polly's Gourmet Coffee, a quaint shop with an espresso maker near the front door, an 80-year-old roasting machine in back, and bulk Jamaican, Colombian, and Hawaiian coffee beans for sale.

Sheldrake: I've been noticing a steady and slow decline in the number of patrons we have every day. We are losing maybe 8 to 10 percent of our customers, customer count, over the last 6 or 8 months.

Guzman-Lopez: Sheldrake says his patrons include the well-off from the Naples area nearby, and plenty of working class people from Belmont Shore. Customer service and a good product, he hopes, will help him get through the coming months.

Sheldrake: Some of my staff members are saying, well, we have fewer customers, let's raise prices. Well this is the last thing you want to do in this economy. You would rather make a little bit less margin than have your customer come back and maintain the business relationship, than to try to make it all up on one customer. That's ridiculous.

Guzman-Lopez: Daily cash flow, not loans, allows Sheldrake to make payroll and cover other costs. He won't talk about Polly's per-cup profit margins. Retail coffee businesses, he says, spend about 50 cents out of every dollar on the coffee.

The rest goes to labor and profit. Sheldrake's had to lay off a few employees, and that's forced the 61-year-old to put off retirement and spend more time behind the Polly's Gourment Coffee counter.

Sheldrake: And I was planning my retirement, and I had some people interested. We were talking about in five or six years, maybe, they would buy the store, and all of that is on hold. And so I'm right here. People ask me what my retirement is, and I said "Buy a cup of coffee, that's my retirement."

Guzman-Lopez: Sheldrake predicts the worst of the economic downturn will be over in several months. He says a new president, whoever he is, will restore some confidence and add a much-needed jolt of energy to the country and, he hopes, to business. Just like that first cup of coffee in the morning.