Her eight fingers and two thumbs clutch a piping hot cup of black coffee. Steam rises from the black mug and wisps in the cold winter air.
Melissa Eisner is nestled in front of the giant window walls of the coffeehouse she helped build with business partner Kurt Winbigler. Coffee Bandits is the culmination of months of inspiration, years of frustration and an undeniable determination to prove that Merced is fertile ground for young entrepreneurs.
“You always hear, ‘Merced can’t be this and it can’t be that;’ there were a lot of naysayers when we first started,” says Eisner, who moved to Merced from Santa Cruz. “Now, when people walk in their eyes get really big and they say it reminds them of Berkeley and other places. The community has been super supportive.”
Eisner hatched the idea of a coffee drinker’s coffee shop more than a year ago after trying to find a place to do homework downtown. She felt like there wasn’t a single place that welcomed her with her backpack and books.
“The detachment is huge,” says Eisner of UC Merced’s Lake Road campus. “There’s a feeling of divide. We wanted to make a place for the community and the UC downtown.”
Instead of seeing the negative, Winbigler says they saw a chance to make a difference.
“This was a unique opportunity,” says Winbigler, who was a member of UC Merced’s founding class and moved to Merced from Concord. “This was a solid idea and it just made a lot of sense.”
Coffee Bandits opened its doors on Dec. 3 and have since become a downtown hideout for coffee lovers, bookworms, and social groups. The open floor plan features comfy couches and booths, original art from local artists, a piano and a guitar.
“It’s a place where you can not only enjoy nice cup of coffee, but great company,” says Oscar Torres, co-owner of J&R Tacos and a prominent local artist. “The atmosphere is so cozy, it’s very artistic … They are just great.”
Coffee Bandits offers a lot more than just a nice cup of coffee. Having worked at Coffee Cat in Scotts Valley, Eisner has a keen appreciation for the art of coffee making.
“We’ve worked hard to impress on all of our employees that every drink is its own piece of art,” says Eisner. “This should be a luxury item.”
Eisner talks about reading the foam, paying attention to color and sweetness. They get their beans fresh from regional growers and guarantee every cup’s quality.
“Practice, practice practice,” says Eisner about their secret to the best espresso. “You can never practice too much.”
Chip Walden, the shop’s general manager, is an experienced barista, having worked at the popular Campbell shop Coffee Society. In total there are six employees that include Damian Pantoja, Andy Laguna and Wes Galangco.
Located in the retails spaces below the Merced Theatre (Scheduled to open April 22), Eisner says she has no doubt Coffee Bandits has found its home in Merced.
“You know, we thought about getting a place closer to UC,” says Eisner. “But downtown has an advantage. If there is one place that is a crossroad for all of Merced’s walks of life, downtown would be it.”