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Phoenix’s Copper Star Coffee is a Repurposed Fueling Station

Published: Monday, April 30, 2012

Updated: Friday, July 20, 2012 14:07

Copper Star Coffee

Ryan A. Ruiz

An old gas station serves as the new location for Copper Star Coffee.

The pumps out front of Copper Star no longer dispense gasoline, but the former gas station is still a great place to refuel.

The building, constructed in 1933 as one of the first service stations north of Indian School Road, now houses Copper Star Coffee, pumping out lattes and pastries instead of leaded gas.

With empty burlap coffee sacks lining the ceiling, artwork in acrylic and fused glass from local performer and artist Nick Tarr displayed on the walls, and a vintage brass cash register up front, the interior of Copper Star looks and feels like the quintessential independent coffee shop. Owner Bill Sandweg took his inspiration from the coffeehouses of west Los Angeles, near where he attended college in the early ‘90s.

“The coffeehouses there had that kind of European, very bohemian vibe,” he said. “My friends and I would go to study and sometimes be there until three in the morning. That was the coffeehouse culture I was used to, and that’s what we tried for here as well.”

Sandweg attributes much of his success to a focus on Copper Star’s core identity as a coffee shop. While Starbucks has started offering beer and wine at many of its locations, Copper Star sticks to coffee, pastries and a couple of sandwiches. The “best of” awards dotting the walls attest to the wisdom of that formula.

“If you look at restaurants that do really well, you can look at them and say exactly what they are,” he said. “We are a coffeehouse and bakery. It’s not muddled. It’s not unclear. If you’re trying to do 20 to 30 things, you’re not going to do any of them well.”

The authentic atmosphere is even more remarkable, considering Sandweg hadn’t planned on turning the space into a coffee shop at all. After years in the restaurant business, including a stint managing an Oregano’s, the Phoenix native decided to open his own place in the city’s central corridor. He acquired the building with the intention of transforming it into Copper Star Café, a barbecue and American food joint.

When his designer informed him there wouldn’t be enough space for a full-service restaurant, Sandweg switched his plans to a coffee shop. While living in LA he had managed a local Starbucks and tried to open his own coffee house twice.

“The first time it didn’t get off the ground because we had no money, and the second time we had lots of money but no location,” he explained. “But those experiences made it an easy fallback for me because I had already done a lot of the heavy lifting.”

Sandweg learned converting an old building to a new purpose involved plenty of heavy lifting of its own, especially in Phoenix. Cumbersome, inflexible ordinances and inexperienced city staff stretched the process, which Sandweg expected to take up to six months, into an ordeal lasting well over a year. He recalled one incident where a staffer inadvertently kept all five sets of Copper Star’s grading and drainage plans for months without passing them along to the proper channels, assuming they were for “reference purposes” rather than review and processing.

“I think a lot of times they were so busy that our plans got lost or misrouted” he said. “It was definitely frustrating then, but I like to think that the success of the business has made it worth all the trouble.”

Since Copper Star opened in 2006, Phoenix has streamlined the process for adaptive re-use of structures, a change that Sandweg was pleased to see.

“In Phoenix we bulldoze all of our history,” he said. “With adaptive re-use you’re at least keeping the buildings if not the original businesses.”

Professing a “low opinion” of big-time developers and the “shopping center culture,” Sandweg said he prefers the small, family-owned businesses prevalent in central Phoenix, even the ones he’s competing with.

“There are at least seven to eight other independent coffee shops and bakeries right in the area and we’re all a little bit different,” he said. “But we’re also all awesome. If we weren’t, there would be a Starbucks on every corner.”

Places like these make central Phoenix feel like a “small town in the middle of a big city,” Sandweg said. He and his family live just a few blocks away from Copper Star’s location on 7th Avenue in the Melrose District, and Sandweg said there’s no place he’d rather be.

“My wife and I were both born here and went away for school, but we came back because we know the beauty of Phoenix and we know its potential,” he said.

Copper Star Coffee, 4220 N. Seventh Avenue, Phoenix, 602.266.2136, copperstarcoffee.com

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