Friday, September 09, 2005

Small-town Dixon coffee shops carve own niche

Article Launched: 09/11/2005 07:53:14 AM
Challenging the Giants
Small-town coffee shops carve own niche

By David Henson/Staff Writer

Damiano and Terry Impastato own the Firehouse Coffee Co. in downtown Dixon and say they compete against larger chains with their friendly customer service.

Dressed in a black knee-length apron, Kealy Mannion strolls through downtown Dixon with a basket of fresh-baked pastries and muffins from the Firehouse Coffee Co.

To an outsider, it might be an odd sight or reminiscent of the idyllic days of door-to-door milk deliveries. But, hand-delivering breakfast to local shops and taking orders for lattes and mochas are just part of the daily routine for the small, locally-owned coffee shop - and a way to differentiate themselves from the larger, chain java shops.

"Some days it's really good and we make like $80 (door-to-door)," said Mannion, who knows by heart what all her regular customers order.

In a world of retail

Firehouse Coffee Co. employee Kealy Mannion delivers an order in downtown Dixon. (Brad Zweerink/The Reporter)

coffeeshop giants, carving out a niche can be difficult for mom-and-pop coffee stores. Everyone recognizes the big, green Starbucks logo. They know what to expect, what drinks they'll have and how quickly they will get their order.

But the shops like the Firehouse and Java California, also in Dixon, fight back against the big boys of coffee by drawing on their local connection.

And it's apparently working.

"If we don't get there soon enough, then they start getting antsy and will call in their order," said Terry Impastato, who took over the coffeeshop with her husband, Damiano, this summer.

For Java California owner John Waterman, his connection - not only to local residents, but the needs of Dixon - is what keeps his business buoyed in spite of a Starbucks a few doors down.

"If you take care of the community, the community takes care of you," Waterman said.

Terry Impastato agreed, saying that as a business owner and a local resident, her neighbors become her loyal customers.

Of course, there is more to it than simply living in and giving back to Dixon.

"You need to be able to provide something unique," Terry said.

For the Firehouse, that means hot homemade lunches like Terry's lasagna, imported Italian sweets, a selection of a half-dozen or so gelato flavors and free wireless Internet access.

For Waterman's Java California, it means having meeting areas for local groups, a selection of books for customers to read at their leisure, staying open 24 hours, free Internet access - and, whimsically, nine flavors of whipped cream.

And of course, both are big believers in the quality of their coffee drinks.

"People go to Starbucks because its a big name and they don't know they can get a better drink," Waterman said.

While competitors with Starbucks, the Impastatos don't begrudge the big-chain its dominant market share.

"As far as the big guys go, it's great to have them around," Damiano said. "It raises the awareness. Without them, the coffee business wouldn't be around."

Waterman, on the other hand, takes a more tongue-in-cheek, almost guerrilla-like approach. When the Starbucks moved in a few doors down from his store in 2001, Waterman began honoring their coupons, offering regular Starbucks customers free drinks for a week and throwing the company an anniversary party.

"Most mom and pops will rollover and play dead," he added.

But local customers won't exactly let either coffee shop fold. Each has its own ardent, loyal customers of both the coffee and the local ownership, such as Marie O'Donnell, who discovered Java after her husband died a few years ago.

"When you live here, this is your place, so I give what I can to it. This is like a home," O'Donnell said. "(Waterman) does so much for the community. Whatever he gets, he gives out 10 times as much."

David Henson can be reached at

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