The co-owner of the popular student hangout The Art of Espresso discusses why his coffee kiosk is so popular and how it contributes to the UCSD community.
Any UC San Diego student winding through the halls of the Old Student Center or making their way through the eucalyptus trees past the Mandeville Center is sure to have passed by The Art of Espresso, a hub of socializing and studying students and faculty, all with cups of coffee in their hands. At first glance, The Art of Espresso might appear to be just another one of the many coffee carts that dot UCSD’s campus. However, this particular coffee cart isn’t part of a chain, and it’s not just another coffee cart: It fosters a community space for students, faculty, teaching assistants, and visitors alike.
Co-owner of The Art of Espresso Sam Belfer remembers when he and his business partner, Patricia Collins, first started the business in 1999. At the time, coffee shops hadn’t yet become as popular as they are today. The duo decided to team up to serve coffee together and realized that a university, a place with a need for coffee and community, would be a perfect location to do so. Before they set up shop, the space — now a popular student hangout — was bare and uninviting.
“When we started, there was nothing here,” Belfer said. “People didn’t really even walk in this direction. We had a couple of tables, and we used to take turns doing the crossword puzzle, and one of us would help a customer. We slowly built up a space [in which] we thought people would, with a little bit of culture, want to hang out. In the beginning, people weren’t used to us being nice. People would walk by, and we would say ‘hello.’ We had music going, and we were drinking our coffee. We kind of brought that coffee shop vibe to campus. Slowly, there would be a following, and people started to get it.”
Even when the sky is gloomy and there’s a chill in the air, the tables scattered across the pavement at The Art of Espresso are filled with customers, some of whom are chatting and others who are working on their laptops. Around the time when classes end, customers come flooding in and a long line begins to form. A typical, coffeehouse-themed tune floats through the air: The Art of Espresso plays a variety of genres, from jazz to reggae and everything in between.
The Art of Espresso serves a variety of hot and cold beverages. Coffees, lattes, mochas, teas, and hot chocolates fill up its menu, and some of its specials are quite creative with their flavors. Patrons can sample a Mountain Man (a hazelnut mocha), a turmeric honey tea latte, and a white lavender mocha. There’s also a smoothie selection for a great price. True to the cart’s name, the espressos make up some of the best orders on the menu.
“We always joke that if Patty and I only sold what we liked, it would be single espressos and chocolate croissants,” Belfer said. “Our espresso is really tasty. Some of the blended drinks, especially the Blended Bliss, which is like a blended mocha, are popular. We also try to keep it fresh. We’ve got pumpkin spice for this time of year.”
Belfer doesn’t spend much time at the other coffee carts on campus, but he thinks that his business’s strict attention to detail, excellent staff, and spot-on customer service sets it apart. He knows the importance of delivering a quality cup of coffee in a short amount of time, especially to accommodate hectic student schedules.
“We’ve always tried to find that sweet spot of high-quality product at a reasonable price, with lots of good customer service,” Belfer said. “For me, when I’m out in the world and going to various shops, customer service typically lacks nowadays. You go to places, and you wait around forever.It’s our goal to try to make the most of this business while the opportunity is here. People are busy; they’re going off to class, so we try to get everybody a really good product at a really good price and with a personal interaction.”
Belfer’s goal has always been to create a community space on campus. He thinks UCSD could use a little more community, especially for the sake of the students living on campus.
“I hope we’re a space where the community can come together, from top to bottom,” Belfer said. “It’s an organic space. Certainly, we’ve facilitated and laid the groundwork. But now, it’s become this organic space where people can interact. It can be a professor, the vice chancellor, a student, a TA. Everybody can kind of exist in the same space. I think we created the initial space for that to happen, and then it became an organic thing; now it just feeds on itself.”
The customer base at The Art of Espresso is loyal, and Belfer is so familiar with his dedicated returning customers that he even knows some of them by name and many more by their morning and afternoon coffee orders. For those whose names he doesn’t know, he practices.
“I can figure out what they drink in the morning, what they drink in the afternoon,” Belfer said. “I have kind of a weird brain like that. Patty and I both have that ability to recognize somebody and know what they’re having.”
Belfer has seen many changes happen over the years and experienced many momentous occasions, all from the shelter of his coffee cart. The Old Student Center, now home to the Women’s Center and the LGBT Resource Center, wasn’t even built when The Art of Espresso first planted its roots on campus.
“There have been so many ups and downs since we’ve been here,” Belfer said. “There are people who met here and ended up getting married. For both Obama victories, I was here. We’ve lived through some construction periods. I was here serving coffee when 9/11 happened.”
The Art of Espresso has been successfully thriving at UCSD for years, and it just celebrated its 19th anniversary. When asked if he would ever consider expanding his business, even to just another coffee cart on campus, Belfer paused. He responded that he would be interested if the shop were to be in an indoor location, but otherwise it would be tricky. There are some challenges to running a labor-intensive outdoor coffee kiosk. Despite generally sunny San Diego weather, there have been some cold and rainy days where he and his staff haven’t enjoyed serving coffee.
“People have asked us over the years about opening another location,” Belfer said. “I’m not sure that’s what we want as a business model. It seems like everyone else’s business model, but those shops always seem to come and go. Part of our success is that there’s always an owner here, so that the pride and ownership comes through. We have this longevity because there’s always an owner present.”
Instead, Belfer said, The Art of Espresso would like to keep doing what it’s doing: serving coffee to its loyal customers, welcoming new ones, and bolstering UCSD’s student community, one cup of coffee at a time.
“It’s always encouraging when the campus tours roll through here, and I can hear the guides talking about our reputation as a coffee shop on campus and a cool place to hang out,” Belfer said. “We’ve always felt like if we ran our company with integrity and executed what we wanted to create for the campus — a sticky spot for people to hang out — that it would work,” Belfer said. “So far, so good.”
Art by Allyson Llacuna.