Even before opening the door, the aroma of coffee beans, slowly roasting inside, invites customers to have a seat and stay a while.
That’s how customers are greeted every time they enter Mildfire Coffee Roasters on Huebner Road.
“Mildfire is an extension of our living room,” baristas Mark and Tricia Sobhani said. When looking for an alternative to Starbucks or the next great pizza place, students should think outside the box of large, retail chains and go local.
UTSA graduate student Dena Gandy believes that when people go local, they seek originality.
“It’s about relationships, uniqueness and the creativity that larger chains just don’t have,” Gandy said. Her favorite family owned restaurant is La Chinita’s on Avondale. “I go for the price and quality,” adds Gandy, but she also likes the fact they know her by name.
The idea of specializing in roasting beans in-house came to the Sobhani’s while on vacation in Costa Rica. They toured a locally owned coffee plantation, where they saw firsthand how the beans were harvested and roasted.
“We wanted to set ourselves apart,” Tricia said. Back home, they embarked on business classes at UTSA’s Business Development Center to learn how to formulate a business plan. Their passion for coffee is now a successful business.
But it’s the Sobhani’s passion for coffee combined with fun, memorable experiences they share with their customers that keep patrons so loyal.
“We set out to make the best coffee possible,” adds Mark Sobhani. But what Mark didn’t expect, were the friendships he formed with his customers who live in the neighborhood.
Going local provides senior communication major, Scott Frierson, friendly customer service and personal relationships.
“I favor [Twenty Grand], a neighborhood bar on Bandera because I know a couple of bartenders that work there, so I know they’ll take care of me,” Frierson said. “I can always expect to have a good time.”
Jacob Valenzuela, owner of Deco Pizzeria in the Deco District, says his restaurant has become a central meeting place for friends and neighbors.
“I love that my customers are from the neighborhood,” Valenzuela said. September marked the sixth-month anniversary for Deco Pizzeria, but this endeavor has been years in the making.
“Living and working in the community for the past 20 years has prepared me for this,” adds Valenzuela. Leaving behind a successful job in corporate America, Valenzuela pursued his dream of restaurant ownership last year, and business couldn’t be better. But the real payoff for Valenzuela is the connection to the community the pizzeria now offers him, “Every day, I get to have a big party with friends and family,” Valenzuela said.
For junior chemistry major Matthew Valdez, the appeal of going local means individuality. Valdez loves the authentic Mexican food at the locally owned Blanco Café. Despite three locations, “each restaurant has its own identity,” Valdez said. For Valdez, the secret to Blanco Café’s success is the unique flavor of each restaurant. Individuality is also why senior finance major Rodrigo Mata enjoys the adventure of finding great local eateries.
“I like uniqueness and don’t mind going out of my way to find places that are different and have originality,” Mata said.
Relationships, product expertise and innovative customer service allow independent business owners a chance to really get to know their customers. In fact, he knows them so well, that Venezuela said, “I can tell who’s in the house by the pizza the chef is making.” It is this same personal service at Mildfire Coffee Roasters that has customers accustomed to the staff knowing their drink preferences better than they do.
“When a customer sees a new face at the register, they have to stop and think about what it is they usually order,” Sobhani adds.
As large retail chain stores and restaurants continue their march into the city, UTSA students may find it challenging to find these local gems, but help is on the way.
“There is a movement forming in San Antonio right now to patronize locally owned businesses,” said Robert Vargas, creator of the Facebook page, San Antonio Owned! Thanks to his page and other publications such as the San Antonio Current and San Antonio Magazine, students don’t have to go far to find great locally-owned hotspots.
When students take the time to go outside the box, students are sure to discover that independent business owners are personally invested in their products and the community they serve. So, when searching for good times, unique adventures and innovative cuisine go local and be sure to make a few friends along the way.