Co-founder of Art of Espresso, Sam Belfer, talks about founding it, challenges they have faced, and what he loves most about running a coffee shop.
“Here’s your iced salted caramel latte.”
“You’re welcome, have a nice day my friend!”
UC San Diego’s Art of Espresso sits near Mandeville Loop, across from the colorful graffiti blocks and next to the cluster of brown buildings that make up the Old Student Center.
Popular drinks are featured on a colorful chalkboard menu, and tables adorned with big green umbrellas surround the modest tent. In this lounging area, professors talk about their research, couples go on dates, and friends catch up.
Sam Belfer and his business partner Patty Collins founded Art of Espresso, their independently owned coffee shop, in 1999. Belfer and Collins have sold their coffee at this same spot for the last 22 years. One of them is always there, alongside a number of employees and a manager to make sure everything is running smoothly.
Before becoming a coffee business owner, Belfer shares that he grew up in Wisconsin, where his grandfather and then his father owned a bar. He grew up behind this bar and eventually found his way behind his own coffee bar.
“My partner and I both love cafe life and we both wanted to try to create a space and a community here on campus, a sort of sticky spot where people would come together,” Belfer told The UCSD Guardian. “Our goal was just to create a spot for everybody, whether it’s a student or a professor or a grad student or just a visitor, to all mingle together and feel organically what we think college is supposed to be about.”
When Belfer and Collins tried to set up their coffee business, they looked all over San Diego – Belfer remembers driving around the city and knocking on doors looking for a spot. They were open to any location in the San Diego and La Jolla area, but weren’t initially expecting to settle on a college campus.
They eventually ended up at UCSD due to coincidence: one of their friends was working here and looking for someone to start a concession stand outside the Mandeville Center buildings, since a lot of events take place there.
In the past few years, Art of Espresso faced its biggest challenge so far: COVID. Like millions of other small businesses throughout the United States, Art of Espresso remained closed for approximately sixteen months.
Even now, Belfer says business is not back to normal, presumably because of fewer students and staff on campus (since Fall Quarter 2021 and Winter Quarter 2022 were a mix of remote and in-person). He hopes that Spring Quarter will increase traffic, and as of now, he and Collins are taking it day by day and doing their best to keep going.
Belfer thinks it takes effort for people to “put their money where their mouth is” and support the small businesses that have endured during COVID.
A survey of over 5,800 small businesses in the United States reported that the “median firm with monthly expenses over $10,000 had only enough cash on hand to last roughly 2 weeks.” Therefore, being open on-and-off for over a year took a toll on many small businesses, including Art of Espresso.
Belfer notes that in order to partially alleviate these challenges, individuals can choose to engage in small gestures like occasionally buying a coffee, bringing a friend, or just spreading the word about Art of Espresso.
Aside from COVID-induced challenges, Belfer says that another challenge is people’s reliance on large chains as opposed to experimenting with small business goods.
“It’s been really tough coming back,” Belfer told The Guardian. “I would say that, the concern that generally people are turning away from the mom and pop businesses and going to corporate stuff, I would say that’s one of our challenges, to keep people coming and supporting small businesses instead of just going to what might be convenient or what they know or what they’re advertised to.”
Despite these challenges, it brings Belfer and Collins a lot of joy to create the very space they set out to create back in 1999: a place where the UCSD community can come together and connect.
“I think that’s my favorite part, seeing people come here and have some joy in their day,” Belfer said.
Belfer and Collins floated the idea of retirement and their tentative exit strategy, but as of now their main focus is getting business back to pre-COVID levels. Eventually, though, they hope to hand down Art of Espresso to someone that cares about it as much as they do.
“It would be our hope to hand it to somebody that believes in small businesses, privately owned and operated, and hope that they can take the torch and keep going with it,” Belfer said.
Image courtesy of Oishee Misra for the UCSD Guardian.