The New Job Creators: Lift Brings the 'Third Wave of Coffee' to Riverside

Geoff Gouveia behind an espresso bar made from a Cessna wing. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

The espresso bar is a gleaming silver airplane wing, from a Cessna 150 that ran out of gas and crashed years ago on McKinley Street in Riverside. Steffen Sommers recounted how, after he and business partner Allen Andra had decided to open a coffee house, and after they'd decided one day driving down from Big Bear that it would be called Lift, for the lift given to humans by coffee but also for the element of flight, they figured they wanted a plane wing.

So they went to Flabob Airport, in Rubidoux, knowing it was a historic spot, and they met a pilot, of course, who said he had a plane wing in his backyard, adjacent to the Box Springs Mountains. It was painted white, with thick primer over that, and they painstakingly stripped and repaired and polished the wing, with the help of a craftsman. Now, the little green light glows just beside the counter where people order, and the metallic gold of the siphon brewers is reflected below the hands of people waiting for their lattes.

Geoff Gouveia, a Riverside native like Sommers and Andra, stands behind the bar, finishing a Rosetta design with a flourish on the surface of a latte. "Coffee is serious business," he said. "But coffee like this is really fun because it's precise, and you have to hit your mark again and again." Gouveia, a muralist, artist, manager here and barista, used to work for a large chain, but he loves Lift Coffee Roasters. He went to Boston, to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, where there were thousands of people at the equivalent to coffee's Super Bowl, to learn about various brewing methods. "I saw the best at latte art throwdowns," he said with a grin. That's when baristas compete to make designs -- he explains the Rosetta, the Monkhead (circle in the cup), the Heart, and the Tulip. "We do throwdowns here, to see who takes out the trash," he joked. But there's a practical aspect to latte art -- "it tells you the quality of the milk, the texture and consistency and temperature," he said.

Rosetta latte art | Photo: Dougals McCulloh

Sommers called it "the third wave of coffee that's happening right now." He broke it down like this: decades ago, Europe had great coffee, in places like Italy and France; then Starbucks and a few other American companies started serious coffee here, but that turned into corporate drinks produced in bulk. "Superautomated and mass mechanized," Sommers said, "which you have to do with a chain. But the third wave is about craft culture, small batch, specialty. We roast each bean to maximize flavor potential. We do single origin espresso -- beans from one farm."

And so it's always about passion and love: The intensity required to open your own business in 2013, when large corporations are still sitting on millions and billions of dollars, hesitant to give out loans, forces you to think creatively. When America lost millions of jobs back in 2009, and politicians mentioned the words "job creators" millions of times to influence policy, here are two young men -- both of whom became fathers in July, both of their wives giving birth two days apart, and both with full-time jobs -- that are opening a brand new business. Sommers and Andra employ two managers, Gouveia and Matt Henderson, and five baristas. (Lift Coffee Roasters is open 16 hours every day.) That's seven people working in this economy, as well as the ripple effect of equipment, supplies, coffee beans and all. "Whether the economy is good or not, people allow themselves the luxury of a good cup of coffee," Sommers said. "And I'm glad we didn't cut corners."

Steffen Sommers at his new place, Lift Coffee Roasters. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Sommers, 25, a civil engineer, and Andra, 26, owner of a construction company, took huge chances opening a business from the ground up. They didn't meet in Riverside, despite being born and raised in the city at the same time - they became friends while hanging out at an iconic coffeehouse in Newport Beach called Kean Coffee, owned by Martin Dietrich, which taught them about craft and also atmosphere. When they committed to their own coffeehouse, they searched for the right space, finally finding a 1,200-square-foot dismantled office suite full of debris on Central Avenue in Riverside. Gutting it and designing something this beautiful by themselves, Sommers filing the plans, Andra getting his construction crew together, they built a place that looks like a still life from a side street in Italy. Dark wood, countless ceiling beams painted brown by Andra, washed cement floor, and distinctive touches like the back wall and counter, made of wide boards, salvaged lumber from a former barn in Riverside.

Community and coffee. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

"It was a nightmare working on the space," Sommers said, sitting at the round table, looking around at the crowd. They opened July 30, and on this first Friday in September, at 10 a.m. there were 30 people inside. By noon, every table and couch and chair was occupied, and five people were in line to order from Gouveia. Selling hot coffees and teas, even during a heat wave, has worked for Lift because the quality is so good, but also because of the beauty of the place, and the atmosphere. "We haven't lost money on a single day," Sommers said, waving at someone else coming inside. "It's worth it, to see community here."

Caleb Sorola, left, and Joe DiGerolamo enjoying their coffee. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

It's clear that when people treat coffee as art, the taste is exquisite. On off days, Gouveia roasts his own beans with a friend. "My favorite are Ethiopian beans, any of them from Kaldi and Yirgacheffe," he said. That nation is the origin of coffee beans, and those regions are legendary. Customers Joe DiGerolamo and Caleb Sorola, both students at California Baptist University, came on opening day and are here at least three times a week -- because of the taste and the quality of the coffee, when compared with other places. "They roast their own beans, and the flavor is amazing," DiGerolamo said. "You know those little circles of people who love coffee -- you hear about good coffee." Sorola added, "They take their time. It's great." Congressman Mark Takano came in for his favorite drink -- ginger beer (non-alcoholic), which he can't find anywhere else, he said.

I was here at 9:30 p.m. the other night, and the place was still full, people working on laptops near the barn-lumber back wall, but also people leaning forward to talk passionately about politics, religion, art, people taking another sip of coffee, and the barista behind the silver wing of the Cessna, polishing and polishing where customers lean forward all day, hands on the metal, watching the foam.

Lift Coffee Roasters, 3590 Central Ave., Ste 101, Riverside

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.


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