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While the revitalization of downtown Santa Rosa remains a work in progress, a variety of local entrepreneurs are confident enough to invest in the city’s future.

Their optimism is based on the “Field of Dreams” theory: if you will build it, the visitors will come. And nowhere is that more evident than the nearly $300,000 bet Cody Brown and his family are making on a downtown revival.

The Brown family pooled together the money — including his mother’s 401(k) retirement savings — to open Crooks Coffee downtown on Sept. 15. The shop entered a highly competitive coffee sector with other local upstarts Acre Coffee, Flying Goat Coffee and national behemoths Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee. There’s also Brew Coffee and Beer House, which has carved its own niche attracting a younger crowd from dawn to dusk.

All of those coffee brands are represented along the downtown corridor — and Starbucks even plans another downtown location in the new hotel planned on the west side of Old Courthouse Square.

“I wanted to be near more coffee shops. That is my goal. I’m highly competitive,” said Brown, a tattooed-and-bearded 36-year-old who grew up in the area. His family’s coffee shop sits at 404 Mendocino Ave., just a block north of the reunified square.

Crooks’ opening comes as the downtown is remaking its identity amid the struggles of Santa Rosa Plaza, where anchor retailer Sears plans to close by year end and Macy’s future in the shopping mall is uncertain. There have been small wins as established restaurants The Parish Cafe and The Naked Pig also have bet on the allure of a vibrant downtown.

Tantalizing projects are taking shape for 2019. The historic Empire Building on the west side of Old Courthouse Square will reopen in the spring as a 71-room boutique hotel. On the eastern edge of Railroad Square, Marriott plans to break ground to build a 142-room AC Hotels.

Peter Rumble, chief executive officer of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the hotel projects will provide a “tremendous benefit to downtown and the city” by bringing people to shop, eat, drink and play in Santa Rosa.

As 2018 draws to a close, the downtown is certainly on its way to becoming a Coffee City.

“I do believe in the city and what they want to do,” Brown said. “Our coffee shops are getting on the map a little bit, which is cool.”

That view is shared by Steve Decosse, co-owner of Acre Coffee, which opened downtown on Fourth Street during the summer of 2017. Acre continues to get more traffic even though Peet’s and Starbucks are just down the block.

A Petaluma-based coffee purveyor, Acre focuses on a lighter roast of coffee beans and a food menu that goes beyond the typical sweets to include choices like wild Alaskan smoked salmon combined with cream cheese capers and pickled onions.

“Our sales are creeping up every month a little bit,” Decosse said of his downtown coffee shop. “We’re almost in the black in that location.”

The coffee craze goes well beyond downtown Santa Rosa. What’s striking are the number of locally owned independent coffee shops that continue opening across Sonoma County, even though Starbucks has close to 50 locations and Peet’s operates another six.

For example, Taylor Lane Organic Coffee of Sebastopol recently opened its fourth location in the Whole Foods store in the Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa. Acre is planning to go into Sebastopol at an old Starbucks shop next year. Flying Goat will see more competition in Healdsburg — where it has two cafes — as Plank Coffee of Cloverdale opens in north Healdsburg and Black Oak Coffee of Ukiah has secured space in the city.

Despite the crowded field, there’s still room for new entrants like Crooks Coffee, Decosse said. “I think there are opportunities for young people” to come into the coffee business, he said.

Acre’s co-owner said any new entrant must have a robust food lineup to go with the coffee, noting on some days he sells as much as $1,200 in avocado toast at his five locations.

“It’s not enough to have the cookie and scone,” said Decosse, who has focused more on sourcing local products along with gluten-free items to cater to customers’ needs. “You have to increase your cash flow. The only thing to do is to have a comprehensive food program.”

For Brown, opening Crooks fulfills a dream he’s had for years of opening a coffee shop. As a writer who owns a nonprofit publishing company, he’d frequent various coffee shops to write.

“Being a writer, I was really fed up with corporate coffee shops,” he said.

Brown’s coffee shop idea got a kickstart two years ago after his mother, Kim Gott, was part of a mass layoff at Alvarado Street Bakery in Petaluma.

“I wanted to open a coffee shop with my life savings, which wasn’t much. My mom goes, ‘Let’s use my 401(k) (retirement account),’ and that’s the money we began to use,” Brown said.

With an interior design background, Brown sketched out the shop with a modern look of exposed ceiling beams and wood floors, along with Gothic undertones like the large painting of Edgar Allen Poe hanging from its main wall. There were plenty of construction mishaps, though, that threatened the family project before Crooks opened.

“This building was not forgiving. The plumbing was wrong. The electrical was wrong,” Brown said, noting the new floor was incorrectly installed and had to be redone. “We thought we were going to run out of money.”

His brothers, Zach and Zane Brown, invested in the project, along with Gott’s partner, Karen McDonald, to get the coffee shop operating after one full year of work and restoration. Each of the family members help out in the shop with five other employees. Gott oversees the food. She makes the sandwiches, scones and cookies and sources pastries from Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg. She gets drink ingredients from Petaluma Coffee & Tea Co. Zane is in charge of operations and Cody handles marketing and exploring other business opportunities for the family.

Crooks Coffee operates under a simple business plan: to offer quality food and drink at a lower price than competitors. For instance, its avocado toast sells for $5.50 — about $2 cheaper than others — and a 12-ounce cup of coffee sells for $2.25.

“It’s truly robbery when it costs somebody a $1.10 to make a cup of coffee and they charge you $3 for 12 ounce,” Brown said.

The Mendocino Avenue coffee shop also will allow you to sit for hours as you hammer away at that long-forgotten novel or text friends across the world. It also stays open later than other shops with weekend winter closings at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. over the summer.

The Brown family’s gambit so far appears to be paying off. Crooks is serving about 170 to 200 customers daily, ranging from Santa Rosa Junior College students to retirees from Kenwood.

“We have a lot of customers who don’t even live near the area,” Brown said.

Crooks should have its chance for more local business if city development plans come to fruition.

“You get that first housing project in, then you get a grocery store, then you get more housing and then you get more businesses. We just need that first domino to fall,” the city’s vice mayor, Chris Rogers, said.

There’s movement on the housing front. Developer Hugh Futrell, who is shepherding the Empire Building project, has two downtown housing proposals, including one at Seventh and Riley streets that will have at least 21 residential units slated to be completed next year.

“I think there are a lot of serious people who are looking at downtown,” Futrell said of other developers.

Brown said he will continue to look downtown for more coffee drinkers. He thinks he can capture customers who will not walk up Mendocino Avenue from the square to visit Crooks. To do that, he’s seeking a permit from the city to set up a coffee cart on Old Courthouse Square to compete with the adjacent Starbucks when it opens next spring as part of the hotel on the square.

“My goal is to change downtown. Like I said, I am massively ambitious,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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