I always marvel at what galvanizes a community, though I have learned it is seldom the really important things.
I came to that conclusion after several years as a TV reporter in New Orleans. I covered some of the most significant and explosive issues in the state in the 1990s and early 2000s—the legalization of land-based gambling, coastal erosion, the indictment and conviction of former Gov. Edwin Edwards, the alarming escalation of violent crime—but a story I did on a cat-killing spree in Gretna elicited a more visceral and vocal reaction from viewers than almost any other in my 12 years on the air.
We covered senseless murders that seemingly bothered people less than did half a dozen dead kittens in Jefferson Parish. And this was back in the days before online blogging. One can only imagine the tenor of outrage had the blogosphere been in existence back then to give a forum to the folks at PETA.
I was reminded of that response in the wake of the brouhaha that ensued when news broke that the much-beloved Highland Coffees would be closing its doors after 25 years at the end of December. Property owner Hank Saurage, who in 2011 bought the 20,645-square-foot collection of buildings that includes the 4,389-square-foot coffee shop space, was unable to reach an agreement on a new lease with Highland Coffees founder and owner Clarke Cadzow.
Reaction was swift and immediate. Regulars of Highland Coffees took to social media to vent their outrage. They excoriated Saurage and suggested nefarious motives were behind his failure to renew Cadzow’s lease. More troubling, perhaps, they vowed to boycott whatever new establishment he might bring to the Highland Coffees space.
It’s unclear, as of this writing, exactly how the story will end. After several days of enduring online character assassinations and threatened boycotts of his new tenant, Saurage announced his intention to reopen lease talks. Things quieted down. As of press time, the two sides were still at the table.
Let’s hope there’s a happy ending to this story. In the meantime, it’s instructive to step away from the emotions of the situation and consider a few facts.
First, there are no villains here, and Saurage is not the bad guy in all this, despite the beating he has taken from those who post hateful comments behind the safety of their online handles.
He might have been naďve in underestimating the backlash that would come from forcing a 25-year-old neighborhood institution to shut down. He also would have been well-advised to do more homework on the front end, both to try to mitigate the potential damage to Highland Coffees—though he owes them, really, nothing—and to his own reputation.
But at the end of the day he took a lot of heat from critics who were not privy to the conversations or negotiations that transpired between him and Cadzow over the terms of the lease. There have been a lot of assumptions. None, best I can tell, are based on fact.
Second, the corner of West Chimes Street and Highland Road is a prime piece of real estate, just outside the North Gates of a major SEC university.
Most of the restaurants, bars and retailers that have leased space in that immediate vicinity over the last five years are paying an average of $30 per square foot, according to local real estate appraisers. Most Starbucks outlets in this market, meanwhile, pay between $35 and $40 per square foot, depending on their location.
We don’t know if Highland Coffees has been paying anywhere close to the $130,000 a year or more its 4,400-square-foot space could command, based on those market averages. Chances are it is nowhere close. But that’s the going rate in the area, and you can’t fault Saurage, who has skin in the game, for trying to maximize his investment.
Third, coffee shops are a hard way to make a living. Sure, it’s the dream job of many a frustrated office grunt—to own your own coffee shop, be your own boss, and create a warm, inviting atmosphere for people who spend hours over lattes talking about things that matter.
But the reality is not so glamorous. Margins are slim—after all, you can only charge so much for coffee and croissants—and many of the most loyal customers are also the worst. They come early, stay late, camp out on the free Wi-Fi and spend all of $7.
Fourth, that highly desirable Highland-Chimes corner—though an attractive location in one respect—is inherently fraught with unique challenges.
Parking is limited. The student customer base disappears every summer. A growing number of national chains are moving into the area, driving up rates and increasing competition. It’s hard for a local business owner to make it. Just look at the turnover in the past few years. There’s a reason.
Finally, the passion that exists among so many for a business like Highland Coffees suggests there is a demand for it—a need, really, on some deeper level to have at least a few homegrown establishments in this community that offer more than generic, processed food and wide-screen TVs.
The challenge lies in figuring out how to make them work, supporting them in more ways than by just warming their well-worn club chairs and reading their recycled newspapers.
Local businesses like Highland Coffees are what make a city unique and, therefore, great. But they’re businesses, not charities. It’s incumbent on everyone who professes to care about this one to help make it work.