The end of a caffeinated cultural icon
Lari Delapp, the owner of Coffee House Cafe, told Salem Weekly last week that he intends to close Coffee House Cafe on March 31 if he is unable to find someone to carry on the business.
It seems only fitting to avoid burying the lede for an announcement that will have a significant impact on Salem’s cultural scene. Salem Weekly’s roots are buried in the mismatched tables, chairs, and sofas at the coffee house.
The first issue of Salem Monthly was sent off to the press from there. In 2005, Salem Weekly Publisher A.P. Walther sold the coffee house to Delapp and a former partner.
Long time Salem Monthly Editor Reina Pike was saddened by the news, “It was one of the few places in downtown Salem that felt both genuine and unique.”
Coffee House Cafe stands as the first organic coffee house in the Salem area. That trend has expanded over the years, but the atmosphere of welcoming everyone, including the spiked hair, the suits and the tattooed all in one place is something that many will miss.
Since announcing to his staff that the closure was coming up, Lari has had a hard time having a cigarette without being approached about it. He sat down with A.P. and I, to speak about the chapter of his life that is coming to a close. The conversation that follows is akin to friends catching up at the wake of an old friend. It is somber, but highlighted with the memories and the past shared.
The burning question is, of course: what happened? It’s clear in Lari’s response that he’s put a lot of thought into it and, at this point, has unwillingly practiced it countless times.
“I don’t think it’s just the economy. There’s not enough people in Salem that are willing to support our style and what we’re doing. There’s enough other options in town. They are spread out and the pie is divided up,” he says.
Some people resisted the idea of Coffee House Cafe from the beginning. They told A.P. that an organic coffee house would never work in the so-called conservative town. Now organic coffee is a given in the wake of the popularity of Allann Bros and Stumptown in the Cherry City. Coffee House Cafe led the way and if it does, indeed, close (Lari says that there’s a possibility of it selling and staying open, but nothing is solid.) it will have 13 years under its belt. That’s not bad for something that wasn’t possible in Salem.
Lari has no rage, however justifiable, at the people in the community who complain about not having options like the one that he has provided for the past six years.
As he’s peppered with follow up questions about possible reasons for the troubles ranging from Courthouse Square’s closure (“Not really.”) to new competition (“No, we didn’t see much of a change.”), every few minutes he looks out the window of his office. It is positioned above the shop, giving its occupant a bird’s eye view of the activity below. His desk is scattered with stacks of a variety of Marion County business documents, payroll tax information and general bureaucratic red tape.
The peppering results in at least one piece of the puzzle: the perception. It’s known as the place where kids hang out and Lari thinks that consciously (or subconsciously) it makes some people choose not to stop in for a cuppa joe. The perception is its gift and its curse, because that was the coffee house that was created in 1998 and the one that Lari fell in love with.
The perception is a challenge, he says. But one that he found some success overcoming, at least with the people he was able to prod deeply to get an actual reason for why they don’t drink his coffee. He says that nine out of ten times, the person enjoyed the coffee once they took a step into the door.
“It is a niche that we offer. It’s a little town for people to make the choice. But there are all age groups that make the choice every day. Every hour or so the mix [of people], kind of, changes,” he adds, over the buzz of the espresso machine turning on down below.
Coffee House Cafe had stepped up the amount of events it hosted like the Emerge Oregon Art Series, which has completed its last show, and brought together the collectively bizarre artisans of the Bizarre Bazaar. Lari donated the space to both events.
Events were not profitable for the coffee side of the business. Lari says that no matter the band, out of the 20 people that show up, maybe, eight would buy something. It wasn’t enough to break even.
He says that serving beer and wine earlier might have helped.
“There’s some potential for a spike there. A lot more people drink beer or wine in the evening. If you have one coffee, you’re probably not going to have another one. But you might have two or three glasses of wine,” he says.
His dedication to the community and his staff prevented him from making the necessary business decision to close sooner.
People tell Lari that they see the coffee house as Salem’s welcoming door step. They’ve told him that they had their very first cup of coffee, or even met their significant others, there.
The people are also what Lari is going to miss the most. He says that the he’ll miss providing people “some of the best coffee that we can buy and serve. Just in a simple way. At the end of the day, it’s just coffee. There’s a good economical way to be a consumer of coffee that doesn’t have to be corporate.”
He’ll miss the friends that he’s made along the way.
“I’m going to miss the once a year traveler that says, ‘I live in Santa Cruz and once a year I visit my sister in Washington. One year I stumbled across Coffee House Cafe and I make it a point to stop here every year. It reminds me of my favorite places in San Francisco.’ I’m going to miss that.”
And Salem is going to miss that, too.
The first time I tried Toby’s Tofu Pate…have been a fan ever since. Also the BESTEST chocolate chip cookies in town. Who makes them? Ah, shall miss the CHC…
– Susan Elizabeth-Marsh Tanabe
Well that sucks It’s been a great place not just to gather with friends but locals finding locals- whether it be arts books music local projects.
– Matia Sawyer
So sad. Hoping for a miracle.
– Lee-Anne Bentson
Met my husband there when I was a just a young, spry barista behind the counter and he was a shaggy outside-table-sitting-dude. Eight years later, not much has changed. Except now we come in with our young son. We will miss that place for sure. Also, one time I stopped by on my lunch break and Mario gave me a baby goat. True story.
– Meri Myles Patterson
Lari has always been a great host to so many of us and our endeavors. I, Jami, started the Bizarre Bazaar there in 2009- we had three the first year and then Autumn took over in 2010 and made it a First Wed. monthly event. It gave many of us an avenue to sell our wares without having to make a huge payout. Lari never charged a dime. What an awesome man!
Ron and I were there when the door opened and the first customer walked in — there is nothing like the Coffee House Cafe and Salem won’t be the same without it.