One challenge I had not foreseen in turning a coffee shop into a restaurant was the legacy of the location - especially in a small town. The coffee shop had run for about five years under various owners with varying degrees of failure. The problem was quite obvious upon studying the numbers: The door costs (rent, utilities, insurance, etc.) were far too high for a coffee shop to be viable. The store was extremely large, with enough room in the back for a full kitchen and enormous pantry, but this space just wasn’t viable for seating.
The limited number of tables had to turn over much larger covers than even a round of double half-caf lattes could provide, and rural coffee drinkers aren’t known for their high espresso consumption. I didn’t even want the espresso machine but Dave didn’t want to take it with him and it was plumbed in with holes through the counter top. I needed every square inch of counter space to generate revenue but finally acquiesced to keeping the old La Pavoni espresso machine in place until I could find out what, if any, revenue it could generate.
The espresso machine wasn’t all that Dave left behind. There was art on the walls that appeared to be for sale by a local art dealer, a bubble gum machine in the front entrance that had a sticker indicating it was the property of some vendor, and a piano that belonged to a local music teacher. Furthermore, there were numerous boxes of various types of candies and chocolates lined up on top of the baking display cooler and these candies and chocolates all belonged to various charities using them to solicit donations.
A cordless phone became my best friend as I spent several days measuring up the store for the renovations and new equipment while talking on the phone to the endless array of people who were taking more money out of the store than all of the previous tenants combined. Most of the charities required several calls. I would call the number on the collection box only to be told I had to call the fund raising secretary. I would leave a message for the fund raising secretary only to hear back days later that I had to call a local volunteer. I would call a local volunteer who would say he or she couldn’t remove the merchandise without being contacted by the head office. This just went around and around. Some of the boxes never did get picked up and ended up in storage in the pantry with other items that I hoped Dave would eventually claim.
The bubble gum machine vendor was particularly deluded and required several phone calls.
“Hello, Bob’s Confections,” he said.
“Hi, I just leased a storefront in Humbug and one of your machines is here,” I explained.
“Oh, you are the new owner of the coffee shop?”
“No, I didn’t buy the coffee shop, I just leased this storefront.”
“So you are putting a store in there?”
“No, a restaurant, and I was hoping you could pick up your machine.”
“Well a restaurant needs a gumball machine in the lobby.”
“If it does then I’ll put my own in. When can you pick up your machine?”
“I’m sorry, I’ve had that location for years now, and I’m not giving it up.”
“Actually you don’t have this location,” I explained, “I hold the lease and I want your machine out.”
“No, no,” he said, “I do quite well there and I plan to continue.”
On and on this conversation went until I finally screamed at him to get his damn machine out of my store. He huffed and puffed a bit but finally agreed to come and pick up his machine within a week. Two weeks later I phoned to see why he had not arrived yet and he made some feeble excuses accompanied by a further attempt to convince me to let the machine stay. Several more phone calls ensued. Eventually we had one final phone conversation that resolved our little problem.
“Hello, Bob’s Confections.”
“Bob, where the fuck are you?”
“Your vending machine is still in my store, are you on your way to pick it up?”
“You can’t expect me to just drop everything and come and get it,” he whined.
“Do you hear that bell, Bob?”
”That’s me going into the front foyer. Did you hear that car, Bob?”
“That’s me, opening the door to the street. Can you hear that scraping sound, Bob?”
“Yes, what’s going on there?”
“That’s the sound of your machine being dragged out, Bob. It’s now sitting on the yellow dotted line in the middle of Main Street.”
“Take all the time in the world picking up your fucking machine, Bob. It’s no longer my problem.”
I clicked the phone off and Bob was never heard from again. I assume he picked up his machine but, to be honest, I didn’t happen to look out front again until the next day. Either way, the machine was gone.
The art dealer wasn’t as problematic as Bob but he was even more deluded. Upon being asked to remove his art he offered to come right over to resolve matters. When he arrived he was very personable and claimed to fully understand my situation. He handed me an envelope and said, “I’ve brought this proposal for you to perhaps encourage you to change your mind. It outlines my commitment to the quality of the show and details the rent.”
I was slightly encouraged by his offer of rent. Not one of the other legacy leeches offered any sort of revenue and, in fact, actually drained money from the previous store. The art was problematic because it really created a coffee house atmosphere but I thought that perhaps I could look the other way this once for a vendor actually offering to supplement door costs. I opened the envelope and read his letter and to my astonishment he actually indicated that I should be the one paying rent; $75 per month!
I openly laughed and said, “You want ME to pay rent?”
He fumbled a bit and said, “Well, usually I just take the rent in product.”
I stopped laughing and said, “You want to use my restaurant to sell your art without paying a penny for door costs AND you want me to give you free food?”
Obviously insulted he said, “These are quality shows that I put on. I bring in only the best artists and spend a lot of time choosing pieces appropriate for the venue.”
I replied, “You’re an art dealer, that’s your business. Do you charge people admission to your gallery?”
“I don’t have a gallery,” he said.
“And you not only want to use my place as a free gallery but you actually expect me to feed you in return?”
Needless to say his art didn’t stay on my walls long. I couldn’t believe how backwards things were in Humbug. I would eventually learn that this was only the tip of the iceberg. Before one penny had gone into the register, and while I was still hemorrhaging money for the renovations, several local charities came by to ask me for donations.
The piano was too heavy to drag into the middle of the street and it took the music teacher nine months to get it out. I didn’t mind it that much, to be honest, as it was a nice piece of furniture. The music teacher was a bit more realistic than the art dealer and at least didn’t try rent the piano to me. All she wanted was for me to close the restaurant on occasion so she could put on music recitals, although she couldn’t understand why I would want to charge her anything.
Even in the middle of renovations, a couple of hippy kids dropped by to tell me that they were going to use my place for a poetry reading. They didn’t ask for permission - they just seemed to think it was a matter of courtesy to tell me when they were going to do so. I just told them to fuck off. Further, I didn’t pass a day in Humbug without somebody asking me when I was going to open my coffee shop back up. The location not only had a legacy of being a coffee venue but it also seemed to have a legacy of being the unofficial town hall, available to every citizen who needed a free location for their event or fundraiser. This was a reputation I would struggle with to no end.
It didn’t matter how often I told them that I didn’t own a coffee shop, that I hadn’t closed my coffee shop, and that I was renovating to put a new restaurant in town - all they could ask was when they could get back in for coffee. Several people showed me cards from the coffee shop that said they were entitled to a free coffee if they purchased ten in one month, telling me that I had better count their previous purchases towards their next free coffee when I finally ‘re-opened’.
I made a point of going back to some people who had initially expressed excitement about my new restaurant when I had begun making trips to Humbug. Most of them had reverted to this coffee shop mentality, and when I pressed for a reason the typical reply was, “Well I didn’t know you were just buying the coffee shop.” No matter how I tried to explain that I hadn’t purchased the coffee shop, that I had just bought the equipment and leased the location, the only answers I would get back were, “But that’s the coffee shop,” or a Humbug Huh. Occasionally I wouldn’t even bother to reboot Humbuggers who were stuck in a Humbug Huh, and I just left them standing there as I walked away. I often wondered if, when they finally snapped back into consciousness on their own, it appeared to them that I had simply vanished.
No mind is as rigid as that of the Humbugger.