A New Grind: Trouble’s Brewing on Java Row

Anyone cruising down busy Speedway roughly between Country Club and Alvernon Way has seen the deluge of espresso entrepreneurs lining the boulevard: On the west end sits villainous caffeine overlord Starbucks, and on the east, the laid-back, loft-like Black Crown Coffee Co. Fighting it out in the middle are a new-ish Dutch Bros chain venture, a java-and-juice bar inside upscale grocery store syndicate Whole Foods Market—and plucky joe-on-the-go vendor Coffee Times Drive-Thru.

During its impressive 20 years in business, locally owned Coffee Times has weathered all manner of business climates and restaurant trends. But now, the Little Kiosk That Could is going up against Big Coffee in a hot-blooded battle of the beans: International caffeine-and-doughnut conglomerate Dunkin' has chosen to build its newest drive-thru immediately next door—just a stale-donut-hole toss away.

"Corporate invaders, or whatever you want to call them ... we're just surrounded by them at this point," said Dave Mannell, a native Chicagoan who bought the microbusiness from his brother nearly 15 years ago. "But right next door? They're not usually quite as obvious about it."

Native Tucsonan Scott Hinsch, who has run cozy Black Crown coffeehouse east of Alvernon Way for nearly a decade, didn't mince words when standing up for a fellow small business owner.

"It's just a despicable, evil move," he said. "It's one thing to open a business, and a whole other approach to purposely try to put someone out of business. Whoever owns it has so little foresight that they had to say, 'Hey, here's a little mom and pop drive thru. They're successful. Let's steal their hard work.' It's crazy."

Dunkin's global media relations office did not respond to Tucson Weekly's request for comment.

With some 56,000 vehicles using that section of Speedway daily, it's a particularly hot property for retailers trying to cash in on traffic headed to or from downtown, area hospitals, surrounding historic neighborhoods, Catalina Magnet High School and the University of Arizona.

"For corporations, the community are just numbers—but we have relationships," insisted Coffee Times co-owner Michael Cripps, who is Mannell's nephew and business partner. "I've been here long enough to see customers graduate from high school, get their first car, go to college and get married. These people have seen my kids grow up. They know me. I know them. And I love 'em to death."

When the Dunkin' shop is built on the dirt lot next door—currently empty, save for two spindly saguaros, piles of scrap cardboard, and for some reason, a mattress—its drive-thru lane will likely wrap around to the west side of the building, where motorists will have a close-up view of ... Coffee Times' bustling kiosk, and its surprisingly speedy lines.

The diminutive venture—run out of a 336-square-foot, cream-and-burgundy-colored modular building at the intersection of Speedway and Jones Boulevard—is an efficient operation, built for fast turnaround. It boasts two drive-thru windows on opposite sides, two more walkup windows in front, and when needed, a back door that baristas use to run orders out to motorists waiting in lines that sometimes stretch around the corner onto residential streets. On a good day, Mannell said, eight workers can serve up to 800 vehicles.

Over the years, the business has expanded its original coffee, tea and espresso drink menu to include fruit and veggie protein smoothies; kids' beverages and snacks; and sweet, flavored frappés that still pack a bold java punch. Unlike most corporate competitors, it also offers cannabidiol (CBD) infused brews and healthy wraps, as well as a host of vegan, gluten-free and keto-friendly pastries.

Featured artisanal breads come from homegrown bakeries like Grounded Sweets, Village Bakehouse, Houlden's Rise Above and Wholesale Bagels, Inc. Gourmet coffee beans come from California's F. Gaviña & Sons, Inc., but also from Tucson faves like Black Standard Coffee, Blessed Grounds, Mission Coffee Imports and Tucson Coffee Roasters.

"We're promoting local bakers and coffee roasters right and left," Mannell said. "That's how I sleep easily at night: knowing that we did our part to try and help Tucson remain a strong, vibrant economy, by spending as much money locally as we can."

The owners also take time to focus on local philanthropic causes by donating coffee or other items to a variety of neighborhood associations, churches, school districts and organizations like Tucson COVID Healthcare Workers' Meal Fund, Casa de los Niños, Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation and Gospel Rescue Mission.

Mannell and Cripps acknowledge that some of those charitable relationships are intensely personal. Cripps—an amiable guy who at one point dropped out of college in Tennessee and became a singer for a hardcore punk band—faced serious substance abuse issues before cleaning up, starting a family and purchasing Coffee Times with his brother Jeremy and their uncle.

Mannell has also battled addictions, which left him homeless for a time. And he still deeply grieves the loss of his brother, Tom, who died of AIDS in the late 1980s.

"Some of those people that we're helping are exactly where my family was, or I was, or my friends were years ago," he noted. "My problems today, including the pandemic, are luxury problems. I'm glad to be alive."

Mannell, a self-described "eternal optimist who has a cynical side," takes a pragmatic view of the uncertainty surrounding corporate raider Dunkin': "The downside is we might lose our business. The upside: We have a business to lose."

Like many other restaurants, Coffee Times was hard hit by the COVID pandemic. Unlike some, it managed to ride it out, mainly due to owners' personal financial contributions and two federal Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, which enabled owners to meet payroll and pay utility bills.

click to enlarge A New Grind: Trouble’s Brewing on Java Row
Barista Shannon Stephens

When the first transmissible cases of COVID hit Pima County in March 2020, Coffee Times' 16 employees were considered "essential workers," enabling the kiosk to stay open even during citywide lockdown. Before COVID, it operated seven days a week, essentially 4:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Afterward, operations were slashed to five hours daily, Tuesday through Saturday. Baristas are now back to serving up java daily.

Employees fearful of serving the public at the beginning of the pandemic were allowed to stay home for a while—and during that job-protected leave, owners also continued to pay their medical insurance premiums. Front-line workers were compensated with extra hazard pay, routinely tested for COVID exposure, given time off to get vaccinated, and required to wear masks while on the job. Customers were asked to mask up for transactions, too—and while most cheerfully complied, Mannell noted that a few took the time to issue "veiled threats" along with their coffee order.

In the end, and despite some testing scares that shuttered the shop temporarily for deep cleaning, no COVID infections were traced to Coffee Times workers or customers. Businesses has continued to pick up, so more workers have been hired—and employees' regular wages have been boosted from the Arizona minimum-wage rate of $12.15 an hour, up to $15 hourly.

"That's not to say that we're more profitable than we ever were, because we're not," Cripps cautioned. "We actually made zero money during the pandemic. But we paid so much in wages to show our appreciation to our employees."

That led the Pima County Small Business Commission to name Coffee Times its 2020 Small Business of the Year. It was an unexpected honor—but with a streetside hot-pink-and-neon-orange "Dunkin' Coming Soon" sign clearly visible to workers inside the tiny kiosk, big corporate competitors are seldom far from mind.

Competition isn't inherently evil, noted fellow local business owner Doug Levy, executive chef of Feast, a chic dining establishment that also survived the pandemic, thanks to PPP loans, customer loyalty, and charitable good works for healthcare workers and others in need.

"I think any business—be it a corporate monster or a small independent business run by a literal mom and pop—has the right to set up shop, hang out their shingle and see who comes," he said. "The important thing is building a relationship with your guests that makes people want to come back. Maybe you build it through familiarity of product, or through advertising—that's what Dunkin' Donuts does. Maybe you build it through the quality of your product, or through knowing customers' names and what they always get. That is what Coffee Times does."

Freelance writer Bryn Bailer is a "Classic Mocha Frappe, 16 oz., with whipped cream on top" kinda gal.