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Coffee Brings a Community Together in Richmond

Timber and Catahoula are great examples of community building in Richmond. We should be so lucky to see his efforts replicated throughout the City of Richmond.

Barnidge: Coffee brings a community together in Richmond

By Tom Barnidge
Contra Costa Times columnist

Posted: 11/23/2009 04:46:40 PM PST

Updated: 11/23/2009 05:35:24 PM PST


THE FIRST THING you notice about the Catahoula Coffee Company is that the location on San Pablo Avenue is all wrong.

Next door is a boarded-up housing project. Across the street is a liquor store. A half-block south is a smog-check station, and to the north is an auto body repair shop.

Is this any place for a coffee house?

"It's the perfect place," said Jovanka Beckles, a regular, "because it's right here in the neighborhood."

The neighborhood is the North and East neighborhood of Richmond, which often is identified as something other than a destination for exotic coffee blends.

Tim Manhart friends call him Timber is the man who made it happen. With a considerable investment of time and money his shiny red, 100,000-BTU coffee roaster cost $40,000 he has built a loyal following in two years and has helped pull a community together.

He has hosted neighborhood events farmers markets, car shows, art fairs, musical performances and poured free Java for communal gatherings such as Tent Cities and neighborhood council meetings. He donates coffee for fundraising auctions to help schools and local charities.

"I wanted to do this for years," he said of the cafe. "People are always looking for a place to hang out. But every time I got started, I'd run out of money."

Patrons first were attracted by the coffee and the roasting show, which Manhart supervises with a stopwatch hanging from his neck and an eye on the temperature gauge. The beans require special attention not too hot, not too long before raking and packaging. What keeps customers coming back is something less tangible.

"It reminds me of the old coffee shops with couches and lounge chairs," said Ellen Seskin, who visits several times a week. "It doesn't look like that, but it feels like that. It really brings people together."

Word has spread, as glowing reviews on yelp.com attest. Dozens recommend the coffee, but they just as often applaud the owner's effect on the area. Some excerpts:

"Timber is really involved in the community and a force for good in the neighborhood. We need more business owners like him."

"Catahoula isn't just about the eye candy and atmosphere; it's about the people, the neighborhood and coffee."

"He helps other locals promote business as well as his own. That's the kind of guy you want roasting your beans."

It nearly never happened. When Manhart moved from Omaha, Neb., to Richmond in 1999, it was to take a job that didn't work out. He then focused on a housekeeping service, Merry Maids, which he still runs from a building next to the coffee shop.

When that enterprise blossomed, he could afford to pursue his obsession, which remains a labor of love. ("We're holding our own," he said, "but I wouldn't say we're profitable. I'm not taking a salary out of this.")

His personal attachment is unmistakable. The shop is named after his favorite breed of dog. The bags in which the coffee is packaged bear the image of Mocha, his pet catahoula. There's nothing remotely corporate about the operation.

"People come to the place with their kids," Seskin said. "People bring their dogs and sit outside. He's trying to get a community feeling going not just to sell coffee, but to bring the neighborhood together."

Manhart said he once was told a neighborhood "all begins with a cafe."

He has found a lot of friends in Richmond who agree.

Reach Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.