by NICK BUCHANAN
An unusually warm February breeze brushed through Sabaidee Coffee House’s tall French doors as they stood propped open, inviting more customers to join the lone college-aged men fuddling with a few textbooks and a laptop computer at a table. Eyeing their empty plates, Delana Ball bent in her seat towards them.
“How was everything, guys?” she asked. They nodded in agreeance, saying, “The steak and cheese crepe – it was great.”
With her promises of quality validated, she turned back and said, “See, people love it.”
Ball, one of two independent coffee house entrepreneurs in Tiffin, purchased and rebranded the former Java House at 45 South Sandusky St. a few years ago, reopening it in 2014 as Sabaidee Coffee House. She has spent the past three years positioning her business with a homey environment and creative menu offerings, like those ever-popular crepes and a blended coffee drink coined the Carmella.
Opened just a few years prior to Ball’s business, Bailiwicks Coffee Company is nestled in the downtown district in a nondescript brick building across the Sandusky River from Tiffin University’s campus and has earned its owner, Jessica Williams, awards from the Seneca Industrial and Economic Development Corporation and Heidelberg University.
When the women opened their coffee shops, they were the only two in Tiffin’s coffee market, but as of late, they both have been faced with a new challenge: the growing Market Street commercial district.
As Tiffin University students prepared to return home for winter recess last semester, a steel-beam shell stood across from the town’s shiny new Chipotle location. By the time students arrived back for spring semester in January, those steel beams had transformed into a Tim Hortons franchise, haphazardly landscaped but already operating under a soft opening.
The Canadian coffee and bake shop added to the existing branded competition for Sabaidee and Bailiwicks: Among the sweep of eight restaurants that came to town in just 18 months, a Dunkin Donuts location opened in May 2015 and has become a popular destination for college students and Tiffinites alike.
Ball said that her business has felt the impact of the competition, suggesting that the town needs to shift its priorities away from restaurants and towards retail stores that will draw crowds that will frequent the restaurants the town has now.
“I think we’re about done with food businesses,” she said. “They need to bring in more Kohl’s, Penney’s – big time stores. People go to Findlay for that now, then they eat there.”
Tiffin’s JCPenney location closed in October 2016, leaving an even bleaker outlook for the potential of a retail revival. In spite of a national restaurant chain boom that brought the likes of Jimmy John’s, Mr. Hero, and Buffalo Wild Wings to town, many of Tiffin’s strip malls are checkered with empty storefronts. The only retailer that remains in the Tiffin Mall is women’s fashion outlet Maurices, and as The Tystenac reported in February 2017, new ownership of the mall seems to have gotten off to a rocky start.
Williams claimed that for her business, though, the competition has had the opposite effect, strengthening profits as customers seek an experience over convenience.
“One thing I have noticed throughout the years is that competition can be a huge benefit to business,” Williams said. “Competition has created a sort of ‘coffee culture’ in Tiffin. Over the past several years, even with other offerings in town, our sales have increased significantly.”
Bailiwicks, however, sits comfortably in the downtown district on the visible corner of East Perry and South Washington streets. Williams said that she draws customers from both Tiffin University and Heidelberg University, as well as the downtown professional population.
“I don’t think a day has gone by since I started that there hasn’t been the mayor, various city council members and county commissioners, and other prominent members Tiffin society come through the doors of the shop,” she said. “We strive to provide a welcoming environment and meeting space for all types of people – students and professionals alike.”
Meanwhile, Sabaidee sits in a more uncomfortable position, outside of downtown and across Sandusky Street from one of its main competitors, the Starbucks-branded Dragon Brew café inside Franks Hall. Ball said she has had difficulty alluring Heidelberg students and currently relies on Dragons for most of her business – a niche population of people that disappears for many months out of the year, taking hopes of profitability with them.
“Students are gone five months out of the year. You have summer break, spring break, Christmas break… It’s tough. I gotta have the community. Trying to make it only on students is tough. I need the community to survive,” Ball said.
While she acknowledges the essentiality of TU students to her business, the hand that feeds her business is the same hand that, in one way, chokes it, as well.
“Parking is an issue. You know, students park on the street and stay in class for a few hours, or they park out back… That’s not meant for students, and it kills us. All of us – McCartan’s and Rosie’s, too,” Ball said, referring to the small parking lot and limited street parking assigned to Sabaidee and business neighbors McCartan’s Grocery and Rosie’s Soups ‘n Such. “Some people don’t come because they say, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to find parking.’”
To maintain business, she emphasizes relationships with the university’s students. On Mondays, she hosts conversations with students who speak English as a second language; on Thursdays, Bible studies and homemade dinners; on sporadic occasions, game nights. And she does it all free of charge.
“They don’t pay me for this. I’m just building relationships with students,” Ball said.
In some respects, she feels connected to the campus – a handful of professors hold class and regular office hours in her shop, and the campus activity board paid for a one-off promotional period last November during which students could get a free drink. But eager to do more promotions with the university if it is willing, she said there’s more room for improvement.
Unlike Williams’ mix of university students and working professionals, the majority of Ball’s customer base is one that is always on the search for lower prices and more convenience. While Sabaidee offers delivery services to anywhere on campus – spare classes in session – for orders over $12, students still seek out cheaper alternatives a few blocks away.
“College kids, they want to save a buck, but they’re not getting quality,” Ball said.
And the big chains, equipped with drive-through windows and the luxury of widespread brand recognition that smaller shops lack, know how to draw in the frugal: Dunkin Donuts once offered hot and cold coffee for 99 cents on Monday mornings, while McDonald’s unleashed a winter-long special, charging one dollar for hot coffee all day, every day.
“Prices are cheaper, quality is worse,” Ball said. “I had a class in here, and I saw [a student] drinking something from Dunkin Donuts. I think it was some sort of cold brew. I made her a creamy vanilla cold brew, and I said, ‘Try this.’ And her eyes lit up. There’s a difference.”
Williams echoed this sentiment, touting Bailiwicks’ product quality and atmosphere.
“Coffee as an industry tends to favor the small, independent shops. It’s like making the comparison of a McDonald’s to a fine dining, five-star restaurant,” Williams said. “Convenience and brand recognition is one thing, but people and the market seem to seek out unique experiences and high quality – two things that Bailiwicks provides. We roast all of our coffee in-house and within a week of brewing – that makes an enormous difference in the quality of the coffee and our beverages. Our staff is highly trained, and we feature a unique environment and a custom experience.”
When it comes to her own position in the market, Ball is modest, maintaining that she doesn’t want to tear down any fellow business owners in Tiffin.
“Same, same but different. That’s my motto,” she said. “I’m the same as Starbucks, but I’m different. I’m the same as Dunkin Donuts, but I’m different. I’m the same as Bailiwicks, but I’m different.”
What makes her business different, though? Ball said that there’s one key element.
“Relationships,” she said. “We all have relationships with almost everyone who comes in here. We know their names. We know their aspirations. Within five minutes of being in here, we know something about you. And you’re going to get a friendly experience here. I have a fantastic staff. They’re personable. They love students. I’ve never had anybody say they don’t like a member of my staff.”
By the time I walked out the door, a blended peanut butter and chocolate drink in one hand and a free sample of iced coffee in the other, Ball had already learned my major, my position with the paper, and somehow, my minor allergic reaction to some fruits – a far stretch from the friendly faces at Dunkin Donuts, who know me only by my extra-large dark roast order.
“It’s tough. I’ll figure it out, though,” Ball said as prepared to get back behind her counter. “I’m going to be successful, one way or another.”