From Starbucks to Street Level Cafe in Santa Barbara

Sean Comer

Sean Comer
By JEREMY NISEN

Sean Comer, 34, started working at Starbucks when he was 17.  “I got bit,” he says — and not by the beverage bug (that came later). Rather, the customer service side of things intrigued him.

It’s an attitude that carries through to his current goal, to open Street Level Café, a mobile coffee and sandwich business by way of tricked-out trailer.

It will primarily be based in a large technology-based business park in Goleta, but have some flexibility on weekends, when Comer says he’ll park at WheelHouse bike shop to take advantage of the Farmer’s Market crowd.

Comer’s plan is to be open for business by mid-January or early February 2011.

Having spent years in the food service industry, with the likes of Zizzo’s, Bagel Café, and Jonah’s Deli, in addition to Starbucks, Comer is confident he knows not only what a customer wants in general, but what a Santa Barbara-based clientele wants in particular.

While Comer looked to the burgeoning high-end mobile food movement in Los Angeles for reference, his tailored approach for Santa Barbara means fewer flashy graphics and “in your face” methods than L.A. counterparts.

Instead, Comer prefers simplicity —”getting back to basics” is something of a motto—and he is striving to make Street Level Café “classy.”

Logistics are very important as well, especially to customers. Comer is hoping to serve the crowd that is currently stopping at a Starbucks or similar on the way to work. With Street Level Café, he will be right at their businesses’ doorstep, allowing professionals to save time and enjoy high-quality products.

Comer describes the location as being across Hollister from Storke Plaza. Specifically, the mobile café will be parked Monday through Friday at 6760 Cortona Drive (until very recently the parking lot of Boar’s Head Pacific Coast Provisions), which makes it convenient to an estimated several thousand potential customers in the surrounding business complexes.

“We want to make it more convenient, we want to make it better, and we want to make it friendlier,” he said.

In addition to saving time on the traveling end, Comer wants to save customers time on the service end as well. Comer’s “shop on wheels” is a “top of the line trailer,” and he says he’s trying to cram about 15 years of experience into its design, which places a priority on speed of service. In some cases this means high-tech solutions, like a touchscreen point of sales (POS) system instead of a cash register, for speedier inputs up front and valuable data on the back end. But the form factor of the trailer is of equal importance. Hot drinks left to right; blended drinks right to left; an open counter against the back wall for the deli slicer and Panini press to build sandwiches — Comer readily shares his methodology and reasoning. The trailer also has three portals, which make it far more open than most food trucks.

“Most food trucks have a small window, and that’s it,” he says. “I want this entire trailer to be open. I want my customers to have eye contact with myself and my employees. It’s part of the whole business — I want them to see us, to see what’s going on, I want this to be a shop. This is a coffee shop, like walking up to the counter at Starbucks or Panera Bread.”

The mobile shop will be set up with tables and chairs and, eventually, Wi-Fi.

“We’re selling coffee, not caffeine,” he adds, explaining that he wants people to be able to sit down, relax, and enjoy a beverage.

Street level Café will carry four types of coffees daily —decaf, flavored, bold, and light, available brewed, via pour-over method, as espresso, or even whole bean for home use.

The espresso shots will be pulled by hand on a double boiler La Marzocco machine rather than the super-automatic, one-button machines many big stores (like Starbucks) are currently employing.

Comer hasn’t yet decided on his wholesale roaster, but has narrowed it to two local companies. Street Level Café will also serve several high-end teas (while Comer enjoys coffee, he’s more passionate about tea) and lemonade, but not standard sodas.

Comer’s morning goal is to serve 150 coffees by 10 a.m. and 75 to 100 customers per day for lunch.

“Coffee is definitely our core,” Comer says. “But instead of having a ‘coffee shop that does sandwiches,’ my idea is that at 11:00 a.m. I reopen as a full-blown deli.”

Conscious of launching a business in a down economy, Comer is determined to keep lunch options to less than the Santa Barbara average, which he says is about $9.50. His goal is for people to reasonably spend $5.50–$6 for a sandwich and a drink. In addition to made-to-order sandwiches, Comer intends to have a $2.99 pre-made “poor boy” sandwich special, which will change daily.

Comer is determined to stay away from pre-packaged products, instead opting for high-quality fare. For example, a product he’ll serve is almonds from local business Fat Uncle Farms—at which, synergistically, Comer is renting space to serve as Street Level Café’s commissary.

Comer is not afraid to reach out to the community. He credits Larry Weidl of local firm Weidl Construction as with giving him great feedback on his trailer retrofitting—not to mention a place to park the trailer while Comer’s getting it ready to go. The day that Comer spoke to The Daily Sound, the interview started at local café Java Station, where owner David Bozzini and Comer were discussing health regulations and the finer points of barbeque as Bozzini prepared a tri-tip on an outdoor grill. When asked about negotiating Santa Barbara’s health codes, Comer quickly credited his contact at the health department with being extremely helpful.

“I love dealing with people,” he says. “Santa Barbara just has some amazing people.”

It seems like all the ingredients are in place for a very compelling business, chief among them an entrepreneur with industry experience, who’s done his homework and is extremely motivated. The proof, of course, will be in the ability of Street level Café to attract customers. There’s still plenty to do—finish the trailer, decide on a roaster, make decisions about other vendors, and create the Web site. Comer’s recently registered streetlevelcafe.com; while it’s currently a placeholder site, when opening day approaches, the latest news on his venture will be found there. Those tasks represent the tip of the iceberg . . . thus Comer’s very long hours in building toward his dream.

Comer, who is married and has two small children, says that finding the time for the extremely long days is possible due to his “very understanding wife.”

“I’m very lucky she’s supported me 100% in this,” he says. “She knows it’s been my lifelong dream. It’s been hard on us, but we’re going to do it.”