Mitch’s Java ‘N Jazz - One Coffeehouse’s Battle Against Starbucks

Mitch’s Java ‘N Jazz - One Coffeehouse’s Battle Against Starbucks

 

I graduated from San Diego State University in 1989 where I played basketball for the Aztecs. Although I received my Bachelor’s degree in Speech Communication, I was really just interested in pursuing a professional basketball career. After being cut by the Atlanta Hawks, my dreams of being in the NBA quickly diverted to dreams of a long and prosperous European basketball career.  Yet after two years of playing pro ball in France, a regular trip to the doctor’s office changed my life, my dreams, and my career forever.  

Mitch’s Java ‘N Jazz was conceived in France while I was playing professional basketball just outside of Paris. Jazz clubs and coffeehouses were abundant throughout Europe, especially in Paris. I often frequented these hotspots and truly enjoyed the experience. Upon returning to my hometown of Newhall, California, I realized the Santa Clarita Valley would be the perfect place to combine top quality jazz with great espresso; thus the birth of Mitch’s Java ‘n Jazz.

“Whether it is our outside patio, our European-style espresso bar, our country French living room, or our nightly live entertainment, there is something for everyone at Mitch’s Java ‘n Jazz. Mitch’s Java ‘n Jazz business plan - 1994

 I was diagnosed with a heart condition known as Cardiomyopathy. It’s a condition in which the heart muscle loses its strength, and if pushed too hard, could become fatal.  The condition took the lives of basketball stars Hank Gathers (Loyola Marymount University – 1989) and Reggie Lewis (Boston Celtics – 1993). After receiving the news, I quickly determined that my basketball career was over. I was devastated. Not only did my dreams end, but my career ended as well. And on top of that, my health wasn’t so good. I was in a scary place, and when I arrived back home to California in 1992, I did not have a plan. My dad needed some work done on his house, so I helped him out. In the process, we spent a lot of time talking about options and ideas.  

My dad owned a product placement firm (Unique Product Placement) in North Hollywood whereby his company would represent corporate brands in films and television shows. His company was the largest in the world and he was considering expansion in the mid-west. He offered me a chance to launch his operations in Chicago. As good as that sounded, after being in France for almost two years, I really wanted to stay put in Southern California. We talked about my experiences in France often and how I enjoyed the more social lifestyle compared to Americans who sat around and watched TV every night. We talked about the sidewalk cafés and the coffee. One such conversation lead to the idea of opening up a coffeehouse.

 I believe that coffee & especially espresso cannot be truly enjoyed unless it is consumed in the right atmosphere. The warmth that coffee brings should exemplify the place it is enjoyed.”

Mitch McMullen - 1992

I researched several independent coffeehouses all over the country, from Hollywood to Montana. I looked at menus, décor, ambiance, employees, customers, the brewing equipment, cups, and tables. I visited these popular hotspots at all hours of the day and night. Although I saw some cool coffeehouses, I decided my place had to be different. I wanted it to look more like the old country cafés I frequented in France. And so, I put great care into the design. The walls and beams overhead were faux and antique textured. The floor was distressed hardwood. The bar was oak, and everything looked perfectly old country French. The bathroom had fairly expensive wallpaper, a pillar sink, an antique mirror and a wall-mounted chain-pull toilet. I used to get more compliments from the women about that bathroom. My mom told me that if I had nice bathrooms, my female customers especially would appreciate it.  

I had a nice outdoor patio with a brick flower bed, which kept a nice border between us and the street. I added a huge awning over the side area for shade, which proved to be a major attraction. There was also an upstairs which had a fake fireplace, couches and several nooks for patrons to read, play chess or chat… while sipping their lattes, of course!              

      

Divine Purpose: To lure people away from bars and into our non-alcoholic   espresso bar.

General Purpose: To have the warmest possible atmosphere for people to enjoy    good taste, good quality, and good company.  

Specific Purpose: To serve the best cup of espresso/cappuccino in town, and to     serve it with a “sidewalk café/country French living room”     ambiance.

Mitch’s Java ‘n Jazz business plan - 1992

 

My first location preference was given to Starbucks, and I had to accept a location rich in charm but poor in foot traffic and even street traffic. My first landlord believed in me and trusted my business plan. He hoped that my business would be a success and thought it had potential to bring customers to the retail center, which would be good for his other tenants. He was right, as my business became a destination point and brought a lot of people to the shopping center.  From day one, I had customers lining up out the door.  

 

Your name says a lot about you

 

The name Mitch’s Java ‘n Jazz literally came to me in the middle of the night. I struggled with the name for a long time. I wanted something cool, hip, classy, something that felt European. Yet nothing I came up with reflected my true personality. I tried Tasse de Café, but it sounded too much like a restaurant.  Another one, Euro Espresso, sounded too elite and didn’t fit my personality. (Although Euro Espresso made the first draft of my business plan, it did not make the final cut.) I began looking at other business names, began pondering what I liked and disliked about them. There were a few local businesses that had the names of the owners in their titles… Billy’s Board Shop and Big John’s Tires are two very successful local businesses. I felt my name should be in the title because I wanted to personalize the entire experience for the customer; I wanted to give them confidence that this owner takes pride in his business. I added the words Java and Jazz mainly because they sounded good together – and also because they painted a good picture as to what one could expect at my business. Java is synonymous with coffee, and Jazz implies live music.  Combined, we have Mitch’s Java ‘n Jazz, a coffeehouse owned by Mitch and featuring jazz. People referred to the place as Mitch’s, or Java, or Java ‘n Jazz, and when they walked through my doors, they experienced Mitch, a great cup of coffee and some good local jazz… a winning combination!

 

Night business…

 

I worked with the music departments of local high schools and colleges, placing announcements up on their bulletin boards, asking for jazz bands that would play for free coffee drinks and tips. I had more requests to perform than I knew what to do with. I started asking for demo tapes, and within days, hundreds were sent to me. I quickly discovered which bands had followers and which ones didn’t. It really didn’t matter who I booked on a Friday or Saturday night, as the customers were lined up out the door and around the corner. I just wanted subtle background jazz to enhance the ambiance and add to the customers’ overall experience. I booked popular bands, some blues bands, a reggae band, and some light rock on weeknights. Amazingly, Sunday through Thursday nights were packed!  

 

There was an obvious need and high demand in my hometown for live entertainment in a safe, non-alcohol-driven environment. The musicians performed because they loved to perform, and because they liked the vibe and smoke-free/drunk-free environment. In Southern California, one can find talent in the arts easily. I hosted a poetry night, karaoke night, reggae night, open-mic night, and many other events intended to give people a good time. Live music was a big part of my competitive advantage. I really got into it too. I bought a sax from a blues musician named Bobby Hart who was a regular and also performed at my wedding. I had a jazz performer teach me how to play and I sat in with our Thursday night regular reggae band, Jah Moon, and played Buffalo Soldier to cheering ‘java-junkies’ every week. During our annual Sober New Year’s Eve Party, I always played Old Angst ine at midnight to heavily caffeinated patrons.

 

___________________________

 

Meanwhile, due to the early success of my coffeehouse, I begin pursuing additional stores in better locations. Trying to secure second and third locations was very difficult. I kept losing locations to Starbucks. It was very frustrating, until I ran across an old high school basketball teammate, David Strauss, who worked for Jim Backer at Newhall Land and Farming & Co. He gave me a break and allowed us to sign a lease in a new development in a prime retail location at our local mall. That location was a dream because it already had plenty of foot traffic. No longer would I have to lure people to my destination, as they would already be there. A large movie theatre, restaurants and high-end retail stores were within walking distance of the new location. All I had to do was repeat the formula that worked so well at the original coffeehouse.  

 

 

 

Original Business Plan

Working name: Euro Espresso

January, 1993

 

(Notice the line “We are selling an atmosphere”)  If nothing else, Mitch’s Java ‘n Jazz was full of atmosphere and ambiance.

 

What is PR?

 

A few months after I opened, a customer named Mike McGrath approached me and explained a concept called Public Relations (P.R.) to me. We drank lattes and discussed how PR could help my business. He was young and enthusiastic like me, and did my company a great service by explaining to me the basic fundamentals of PR early in my business venture.    

 

Public Relations is a marketing component essential to the arsenal of any small business. It is more than just free advertising. It’s all about creating interesting stories and pitching them to the news media, thereby fashioning more credible stories than any advertising can do by itself. A story about your business in the paper or on TV is a lot more powerful than a paid advertisement. Stories are viewed as more credible because they come from an objective reporter, whereas paid advertisements are viewed as just that – paid ads.

 

Sometimes a good reporter will find you, but usually you have to be pro-active with the media and become the expert in your field. That way, press opportunities will come to you more often. Establish yourself as an expert, and you can become a good resource for the media.    

 

Word of mouth traveled fast and Mitch’s became a local hot spot. I pitched the media often with stories surrounding our different events – the Sober New Year’s Eve party, Earth Day celebrations, local jazz artist recognition, Reggae Night, poetry night, and Javapalooza, which was an all-day event with a dozen bands.  


3 comments

  • MJ

    Mitch had the right idea but was 20 years too early…with what is happening with D-town Newhall presently, M j&J would have become a destination if located on Main St. As it was, it provided us a safe house that was always appreciated. Thanks Mitch!

  • MJ

    Mitch had the right idea but was 20 years too early…with what is happening with D-town Newhall presently, M j&J would have become a destination if located on Main St. As it was, it provided us a safe house that was always appreciated. Thanks Mitch!

  • Mike & Amy

    We were new to Santa Clarita in 1993. We used to sit upstairs, in 1994, sipping Java and listening to live music at MJ&J. I remember our friends (new young parents) would bring their toddler who could hang out in the couches upstairs with us. A great spot. Fond memories !

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