Why is it that I can find an independent coffee house in Strasburg, Virginia, but not in Bethesda? I was in Strasburg Monday visiting the RR Donnelley plant where Bethesda Magazine is printed. During a break in the printing of our January/February issue, I drove to “downtown” Strasburg and discovered Cristina’s Cafe.
Cristina’s is the anti-Starbucks. It’s is owned and run by two sisters—Wendy Cristina Willis and Crissy Florencia Willis. It is a funky, warm place where the baked goods are fresh and produced locally, and where there’s live music on Friday and Saturday nights (and open mic nights on Sundays). The menu items are written in colored chalk on blackboards.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-Starbucks. (There appears to be, by the way, a large anti-Starbucks crowd. A search of “anti-Starbucks” on Facebook turned up dozens of pages, with names like “Anti-Creeps Who Hang Out at Starbucks,” “Starbucks Hates our Troops,” and “Against the New Starbucks Hats.”) The Bethesda Magazine office is directly above the Starbucks on Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda–and I spend a fair amount of time (and money) there.
In addition, I’m a fan of Betheda’s Quartermaine Coffee Roasters, which is locally owned, but is closer in ambiance to Starbucks than to Cristina’s. (That may be because Roger Scheumann, one of the owners of Quartermaine’s, worked at Starbucks in Seattle in the early days and his stepfather was one of Starbuck’s founders.)
In the last year we’ve seen the closing of two of the few independent coffee shops in Montgomery County—Mayorga Coffee in Silver Spring and the Savory Café in Takoma Park. The blueberry pie at the Savory was so good that my wife Susan and I on several occasions had dinner in Bethesda and then drove to Takoma Park for desert.
The website Indiecoffeeshops.com lists 2,456 such shops nationwide. Only one, a Mayorga location in Rockville’s King Farms neighborhood, is in Montgomery County.
When I’ve asked restaurateurs and developers why there are no local independent coffee houses, I always get the same response: the rents are too high. But if you travel to other affluent (and expensive) locales, such as Santa Barbara, Palo Alto and Boulder, there are small coffee shops galore. Surely, there must be another explanation.
If a coffee shop like Cristina’s opened in the Bethesda area, it would be a gathering place and community builder. It would bring authenticity to a restaurant scene that is increasingly becoming dominated by chains. I’m hoping that in 2011 someone (perhaps two sisters from Strasburg?) see—and seize—the opportunity here.