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Tension, competition mount between local coffee shops

March 27, 2008

The world of business is known for the rivalries between great owners like Rockefeller and Carnegie, and great products like Apple versus Microsoft. But nothing has prepared River Falls for the battle of the coffee shops.

Hot Spot Coffee House and Billiards, Kinni Coffee and Lounge and Lighthouse Coffee,  now occupy three downtown properties in River Falls, and the competition for business is getting fierce.

The Hot Spot opened at 114 S. Main St. under the ownership of Latashia West and Eric Anderson in September 2007. West began with a vision of a place where patrons could come to relax, read a book and surround themselves with the work of local artists and musicians. The idea soon expanded to include a game room with pool tables, dart boards and a jukebox. 

The new business seemed to be growing steadily for the rest of the year until co-owner Anderson suddenly ended his partnership with West in January.

Anderson maintains that his departure from the business venture was due to disagreements concerning the direction of The Hot Spot. He wanted a different atmosphere and a place that served more organic products. 

“Going green is the future, especially at an ‘ag’ school,” he said.

However, rumors quickly began to surface that Anderson’s personal relations with some of the employees at The Hot Spot were the real cause behind the split.

Earlier this month, Anderson opened his rival coffee shop, Kinni Coffee and Lounge, just down the street at 122 S. Main St. with co-owner Jason Coverston. Two former female employees of The Hot Spot are now working for him.

West has felt the tension on the block since that opening. 

“It’s not so personal with those employees [who left],” she said. “It is more uncomfortable with an ex-partner who moved two doors down, uses the same vendors and is going after the same niche.”

West believes that Anderson used her five-year business plan as a model for Kinni Coffee, but she is confident that The Hot Spot will not be affected by the competition. 

“It is nothing but, and still is, a passion for me. I felt like I could share that with someone, but that was not the end result,” she said.

While Kinni Coffee and Hot Spot may share a history, Anderson is trying to set his business apart from the others by applying for a liquor license. This license would allow him to sell beer in his establishment. However, if the license is granted, it would not include hard liquor. Instead, he plans to sell micro-beers like Rush River, a locally-brewed beer.

Lighthouse Coffee, located at 208 N. Main St., is also planning menu changes to compete with the other two coffee shops downtown. The owner, Abigail Testa, has also applied for a liquor license that would allow Lighthouse to sell wine to its patrons, but also not as a full bar. 

On March 7, Lighthouse Coffee acquired the rights to Elm Street Deli in order to expand their food selection. Testa is hoping that the soups and sandwiches will bring more people to Lighthouse and provide a new lunchtime option. They will also deliver food and drinks to places in town and on campus for patrons who may not want to walk to the far north end of Main Street. Testa is not concerned that she will lose any customers that come into the shop to her delivery service.

“We don’t get the traffic because we’re not as visible,” she said.  “But once a person experiences it, they’ll do the extra block and a half.”

West has no plans to apply for liquor licenses or change the menu at The Hot Spot. Julie Fischer, an employee there, doesn’t think selling liquor would be a successful way to beat the competition.

“Once they get it, they [Kinni Coffee and Lighthouse] will have to sell so much food and have a different crowd, and we’ll still have our regulars,” she said.

Their customers also agreed that they preferred an alcohol-free coffee shop. 

“I see a coffee shop as an alternative to the bar, a place to get away from that scene,” student Stacy Dekkers said. 

“I guess it’s kinda nice if you have a friend that wants beer and a friend who wants coffee,” student Laura Shipman said.

Anderson, West and Testa may disagree on the best way to run a coffee shop, but they all agree that the competition between them helps them provide a better product to their customers.

“Coffee shops close to each other create coffee addicts,” Testa said. “[They] pursue more of their addiction and more interest in the product.”

Lighthouse Coffee, The Hot Spot and Kinni Coffee hope to be able to tell just how well their business plans are affecting customers’ cravings this spring when the snow melts and downtown Main Street sees much more pedestrian traffic.