In 1960, a successful coffeehouse didn’t need an espresso machine, but it did need entertainment that was live and original and a “clean-up man” to handle the dishes filled with the residue of chocolate covered caterpillars, caviar and smoked octopus. There have been a lot of changes in fifty years of San Diego coffeehouses and the primitive manual illustrated at right is ground zero for a vanished earlier age of café culture here.
How To Run a Coffeehouse was a slight compendium filled with the considered observations of Bob Stane, owner of The Upper Cellar, once located at 6557 El Cajon Boulevard in the 1960’s. The Upper Cellar enjoyed a good deal of success in its years of operation since it was near SDSU and there were few competitors around. Stane’s manual was as much a promotion of his place as it was a way to help other aspiring coffeehouse owners understand the business as it then was. How To Run a Coffeehouse was a spirited, yet shrewd series of observations on building a successful business from the ground up that still resonates today—when it doesn’t stop the reader abruptly with recommendations that seem like they came from another planet.
For instance, in 1960, coffee was still an experiment for many people and was merely the hook on which customers fixed their money while enjoying the atmosphere, conversation and music. Specialty coffee wasn’t single origin, organic, fair trade anything; it was mixed drinks that anticipated the Starbucks menu by fifty years. Stane’s coffee offerings, while imaginative and complex, even by contemporary standards, were brutally amateurish and primitive. Anise flavored some coffee drinks at four bits a cup—Stane recommended measuring the spice on a matchstick. Russian Coffee was an espresso flamed in a stove-top mocha pot to which a dollop of Hershey’s Chocolate syrup was added. Described in the menu as “the strength of a Cossack and the authority of a Czar” it wouldn’t likely rate high on a house’s offerings today. A now-forgotten form was Stane’s Rum & Butter Coffee—extract of rum mixed with butter and poured into a cup of French Roast. It was a pricey item, too; selling for 70 cents a cup. Slightly less expensive was the Café Creole, a coffee and chicory blend topped with whipped cream and shaved almonds for 55 cents per cup. Tea, cider, Italian sodas and Turkish coffee were available at The Upper Cellar, too; all retailed for less than 85 cents per serving.
Food was important too, and in 1960, no one seemed prone to the specialty diets common today. The Upper Cellar offered corned beef and salami sandwiches, served on onion rye with Monterey Jack cheese, tomato and lettuce at 70 cents each; kippers and sardines with soda crackers cost 45 cents per plate. But the specialties of the house—which Stane shrewdly used as a tool to promote his house and set it apart from the rest, were smoked cuttlefish, caviar, smoked octopus and chocolate covered ants, bees, caterpillars and grasshoppers—all of which could be had for less than 85 cents a serving, with sherbet for dessert.
One can only imagine how modern coffeehouse patrons would react to food offerings like this today; calls to 911 would likely be common.
But there was fine method to Stane’s seeming Eisenhower-era madness, and if the menu was primitive and amateurish, it was nothing compared to the bare bones approach to the business itself. Much of that advice is still golden today.
To quote Stane, “…as an owner and manager, the coffee house is one thing; a business. Granted it is a fascinating, sometimes weird, sometimes whimsical business, but a dollars and cents, sweat and efficiency business. When reading this book, keep this in mind or all will be lost.” Stane set out the basics: theme and atmosphere, location, interior arrangement, employees, menu and above all, entertainment in a few paragraphs that relate everything to everything else and made the Upper Cellar a profitable business from its mutually supporting parts. The theme of the coffeehouse was of course an upper cellar and everything from the entrance to the interior decor (if that’s what it could be called) recalled the notion of one. Pipes ran across the ceiling; windows were above eye level just under the bare beams. Lighting came only from candles on the tables; bulbs were shaded behind the counter. The Upper Cellar had the lock on a kind of dignified shabbiness that was all its own and its patrons loved it.
Stane chose his El Cajon Boulevard site because it was near SDSU and El Cajon Boulevard was a mecca for drag racers and other youth that filled the neighborhood then. The outer door was hard to miss. His kitchen was a one-man epitome of efficiency; everything was laid out so that one person could operate it with a minimum of wasted steps and motion. All of his equipment was used and paid for in cash. “The credit system will ruin you,” appears several times in the manual and as too many modern coffeehouse operators have learned to their sorrow, Stane’s words are as true now as they were in 1960. Portable, easily stored and easy to clean tables, chairs, movie projectors and puppet stages were important; every square inch of the Upper Cellar was for business use and nothing, not even the restroom that was labelled “The People’s Sandbox” was bigger than it needed to be.
Perhaps the biggest difference in coffeehouse operations fifty years ago from today concerns entertainment. Stane believed that both canned and live entertainment was the soul of his establishment. Silent movies and bullfight films, newsreels and anything that wouldn’t be seen on television flickered on the coffeehouse’s screen, usually double-billed with folksingers. The only other canned stuff were jazz or folk records that were run between acts. Live acts were on tap every night of the week, from opening time at 7 p.m. to closing at 3 a.m. Poetry readings, artists offering a running repartee to the audience as they created works before their eyes, comedians, puppet shows and fortune tellers were usual fare. But the real juicy stuff were the musicians; folk, jazz, blues, pop or anything else that was acoustic and preferably the work of no more than two musicians at a time. Stane frowned on paying for a group when a single singer or duo would suffice. In July, 1960 Stane boasted a run of “a blues and American folksinger, a classical voiced folksinger, a ‘Slick’ folksinger, a comedian, a puppet show and old time movies.” And he had reserves of entertainers just in case. The Upper Cellar was home to several Spanish singers and those of other cultures and Stane had some sympathy with the more progressive movements of his day. He recommended that other budding coffeehouse operators cast as wide a net on the public as possible and it was good business to let all kinds of the right kinds rub shoulders in his Upper Cellar.
Stane’s stage stood nine inches above the floor and was only three feet by three feet when the upright piano was figured in. Sets flipped every twenty minutes and all his musicians were talented people just finding a first audience—one of whom was a kid from Coronado by the name of Jim Morrison—later of the Doors. Stane recommended that as soon as entertainers got on radio or TV, others should be found to take their place since audiences could listen at home.
Practices like these are a night and day contrast to the world coffeehouses face now. Restrictive laws hamper entertainment in all but the smallest houses and in the little ones, entertainment is usually unable to make a profit. Coffeehouses with fifty seats or more have to apply for costly entertainment permits that come with many strings attached that limit business operations, and it is no simple matter for a musician looking for a first audience to play in a coffeehouse without being harassed by BMI or ASCAP, claiming that the new tunes on a six string are actually derived from a famous name and liable to infringement penalties. Coffeehouses like The Upper Cellar could not exist today under current laws and modern coffeehouses have been forced to find other forms of attracting and holding a clientele. One can only wonder what Stane would have thought of free WiFi or coupons. We do know what he thought of local laws and customs, however. He was explicit in his manual on the need to proactively approach law enforcement that often took a dim view of coffeehouses and their patrons.
Stane recommended a neighborly visit to the cops before a coffeehouse opened; where an owner could explain the nature of the house, assure the cops that no booze or dope would be tolerated and that vigilance would be maintained. He urged the prospective coffeehouse owner to work with and befriend officialdom at all levels. It worked—for awhile, though Stane explicitly stated that he discouraged servicemen from coming to the Upper Cellar and recommended other coffeehouse owners to do the same. In his opinion, uniforms and the free spirit kind of atmosphere a coffeehouse needed to thrive were incompatible. Stane had it right, unfortunately, and his manual merely foreshadowed the conflicts that all but killed coffeehouses in San Diego in the late ’60’s.
Conservative to its core, San Diego was a Marine and Navy town that saw ever-growing conflict with college types at SDSU, USD and eventually UCSD. Many young people were against the draft and Vietnamese War then, and many of the growing antiwar youth organized themselves in the Upper Cellar and other coffeehouses that sprouted all over San Diego. The powers that be didn’t like that and soon passed new cabaret licensing laws that made it harder and more expensive for coffeehouses like the Upper Cellar to keep entertainers on stage. As the war continued and feelings polarized, many coffeehouses were routinely harassed and raided by local PD in search of pot, pinkos and perversion in a drive to enhance conformity. Stane and others realized that they couldn’t fight city hall and by 1966, The Upper Cellar had passed from the scene. By 1970, very few coffeehouses remained in San Diego. Their numbers dwindled steadily until the late 1970’s when coffeehouses began to come back to San Diego—though usually without entertainment.
The battle against the coffeehouses didn’t end there. In 2000, another series of laws aimed at curtailing coffeehouse entertainment gathered momentum—until a combination of entertainers, coffee traders and media thwarted the campaign. A re-worked set of laws made it more expensive to apply for the desirable entertainment permit and the wait for bureaucratic review is now enough to discourage many house operators from bothering with one. As a profitable substitute, more coffeehouses have added beer and wine to their offerings, as well as food which also require costly permits and changes the character completely from what Bob Stane would have known in 1960. The net result has limited the kinds of culture that coffeehouses were once known to produce as a byproduct of their existence and the net effect of bureaucracy is to make more coffeehouses poorer and just like all the others. This helped giants like Starbucks undermine the independents; from the mid-1990’s, chain coffee became a serious threat to independent coffeehouses throughout San Diego and this state of affairs continued until it was moderated by the economic disaster of 2008. As Starbucks lost market share, independent coffeehouses got a reprieve from an uneven contest.
Bob Stane’s thin manual from 1960 is filled with the shrewd observations of a businessman bent on making his profits by enabling his customers to play in a world of Stane’s making; one that allowed people to step comfortably out of their regular lives and enter a happy place filled with fun, good things to eat and drink and perhaps some great entertainment from performers making their rise to stardom. It really didn’t matter if the Upper Cellar lacked an espresso machine or if the anise was measured on a matchstick or if the coffee was warmed in a diner’s cast off coffee pot. Coffee was the excuse and the means to make a buck; the real profit came from patrons that would drive twenty miles one way regularly to buy from Bob Stane in the dingy coffeehouse on El Cajon Boulevard and later proudly tell friends, “I go to the Upper Cellar.” Stane knew what the sentence meant—his customers were the loyal citizens of the place he created and he underscored this meaning in his manual. For those yearning to make their coffeehouse dream into a unique and character-filled place of coffee-powered human interaction, Stane had one word: “Go.”
Fifty years later, that hasn’t changed.