Behind the Bus

The double-decker Bristol offers morning customers scones, caffeine and a smile or two

When Pat Fromm moved to Tucson six years ago, she thought she might want to open another thrift shop, like the one she had in Philadelphia. But after poking around town for a few years, she still hadn't found a good place to set up shop. And it was driving her crazy.

"I have to stay busy," she said.

She'd driven by the Bristol Coffeebus on Broadway Boulevard, she said, at least 100 times, yet had never noticed it. It was for sale, according to a story in the Arizona Daily Star. The old owner had started the business back in 1997 and wished to sell so she could move out of state.

"I've always been fascinated by anything British," Fromm said. An Anglophile since the days of Beatlemania, Fromm bought in.

Lucky for Fromm, Brits from all over town flock to the Coffeebus.

"It gives them a sense of home," she said.

One of her British regulars traced the bus back to England for her, even finding a photo of the bus, already decades old, when it first arrived in San Francisco in 1968. The customer used to work on double-decker buses as a mechanic and got a buddy back home to look up the history of the bus.

A topless two-decker, the bus was perfect for touring. It served as a tour bus on Fisherman's Wharf for years before it was made into a coffee shop.

But even with all the Brits who stop in for tea (the Bristol is stocked with an array of British imports, of course), Fromm is still holding out for one more.

"I still haven't gotten to meet Paul McCartney," Fromm laments. "I hope he stops by someday."

Like McCartney, Fromm is a die-hard vegetarian and animal-rights activist. So don't go the Coffeebus expecting an egg-and-bacon bagel (though you might find a wider variety of scones than you're used to).

The heart of the Coffeebus, said Fromm, is the regulars. The walls of the bus are lined with hundreds of photos of the staff and customers.

The top deck is a popular spot to sit, said regular customer Cornelio Rubalcava, who works at Mervyns, which is almost next door to where the bus is parked, by the northwest corner of Broadway Boulevard and Craycroft Road.

"Today, I need three shots," said Rubalcava. "We're having a sale."

Jacob Dray, 6, and his mom, Jackie Castro, came to the Coffeebus for breakfast one Wednesday morning.

"This used to be a real bus, Jacob," Castro told him as he skipped up the stairwell to the top deck, where there are seats and tables in the shade. The two shared a sesame bagel for breakfast.

"I came to the drive-thru the other day, and they said they had seating upstairs," Castro said. "So I told him last night that we were going to eat breakfast at the Coffeebus."

Like Castro, lots of customers stop in for the first time just for the novelty of eating on a retired double-decker. It's those who keep returning that become part of the family.

"All we do is joke and tease," Fromm said. "People come here to be entertained. We're a little crazy here."

It seems to work. Many customers return to the bus during their morning commute--and Fromm has a solution for bad customers, like one who insisted that her latte was made improperly a few months back.

"I told her to go to Starbucks," Fromm said.

It wouldn't have been a far drive. The Coffeebus is located right between the Starbucks at the Park Place Mall and one at El Con Mall. But Fromm doesn't hate Starbucks like some might expect.

"They did a big favor to the rest of us," Fromm said. "They glamorized coffee."

The bus is only open Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to noon. She tried staying open until 3 p.m., but it didn't pay off. Most of the customers are early birds.

It took a while for Fromm to adjust to the morning grind. "Sometimes, I'll be up around 3 a.m. still, and I'll figure on just staying up all night, since I have got to be up in a few hours anyway. I've always been kind of a night owl. The weird hours at first were kind of a turn-off."

But, she said, she prefers these hours over the seven-day workweek she'd have to put in if she had opened another thrift shop.

Dale Dahlberg and Ken Wilder have worked at the Coffeebus since shortly after Fromm took over in 2005.

"We're all good friends around here," said Dahlberg. "We all hang out a lot. Pat's not so much a boss; she's more of a friend, really. It's hard not to talk a lot when Pat's around."

A low turnover is a bit unusual for a coffee shop. All the baristas seem to like their job, and the customers notice, which brings them back.

Stewart Kuper drives through for coffee every morning before he opens his jewelry store just down the street.

"They're always smiling here," Kuper said.