Things were percolating despite some empty seats on a recent Monday night at Midnite Expresso.
Music and caffeine lovers, many of them sporting goatees and red bandannas, milled about the sidewalk in front of the tiny Belmont Shore coffeehouse, while inside a lone guitar player on a stool belted out such original songs as “Joth Is Still Looking for Pia Zadora.”
But the musician, C. Lee Clarke, was dissatisfied. “I’d like to have a harp player,” said Clarke, 32, a traveling minstrel who said he lives in his car and plays wherever he can. A backup harpist would have enhanced his performance, he said.
Two months ago that would have been no problem, according to owner Mike Obering. For years, Midnite Expresso had featured groups of local musicians in addition to espresso, cappuccino, cheesecake, sandwiches and chess. Musicians performed in duos, trios or more.
Then earlier this summer, Obering said, a police officer appeared one night and cited the establishment for violating a city ordinance that requires a special permit for live entertainment by more than one musician at a time. So Obering reluctantly told his musicians that they could perform only solo.
As a result, he said, he has become involved in an issue that will probably keep cropping up with the emergence of new European-style coffeehouses in Long Beach and elsewhere. In the last four years, musicians say, at least five such cafes have opened in the city, two in Belmont Shore, one downtown and several in other neighborhoods.
Unlike larger bars and discos that serve liquor and feature popular musical combos, coffeehouses offer an intimate, non-alcoholic environment in which conversation can flourish, patrons say.
In addition, they say, the establishments provide performance venues for less-experienced musicians whose styles are sometimes experimental and often non-commercial.
Midnite Expresso regular Phil Jacoubowsky said the cafe serves as “a meeting point. People (come here) to talk philosophy, arts and music.”
“We’re just a small coffeehouse trying to provide an atmosphere,” Obering said. “We shouldn’t be treated like the big (bars) making lots of money.”
But Jaunice Floyd, the city’s business license supervisor, disagreed. She said it is her duty to enforce the law equally.
“We treat them all the same,” Floyd said of her office’s requirements regarding entertainment licenses. Midnite Expresso “is doing the same thing as a larger place.”
To get a license, all businesses--regardless of size--must go through the same long, costly process, in which the outcome is uncertain. After applying to the city, Floyd said, an owner must pay flat fees for inspection and approval by various departments and finally submit to a hearing before the City Council, at which any neighbor or resident may object to the issuance of an entertainment license.
The process is necessary, Floyd said, to allow affected parties to comment on proposed activities likely to affect the quality of life in their neighborhoods.
While in most cases entertainment license hearings are held before an establishment opens as part of the general licensing process, she said, city inspectors--and on occasion, police officers--make random stops at businesses to determine whether establishments are complying.
“Actual citations are rare,” Floyd said. “We generally give them lots of warning.”
Neither Floyd nor a spokesman for the Long Beach Police Department could confirm that a citation had been issued against Midnite Expresso, but Obering said a police officer had issued a citation.
Moins Rastgar, co-owner of System M coffeehouse in the city’s downtown redevelopment area, said he applied for an entertainment license last year after city officials told him that he was violating the law by allowing musical groups to perform.
For four months, Rastgar said, the group performances--for which his place was well known--had to cease while city agencies conducted inspections related to his application for an entertainment license.
Rastgar said that the inspections and other application costs totaled $2,000; that business dropped 40%, costing him another $30,000, and that after the license was issued, Rastgar spent an extra $5,000 in advertising to woo his customers back.
“You can see how much of an impact it can have,” he said. “In a small business, it could be enough to force someone to close down or sell.”
Midnite Expresso, which seats 30, has had a drop of about 20% in business since the combos disappeared, Obering said. But others said there is an even more dramatic impact on local musicians, many of whom depend on modest establishments such as Obering’s to showcase their talents.
“It’s really sad,” said Michael Rothmeyer, 20, a guitarist who has played at many coffeehouses, including Midnite Expresso. “A lot of people who come to listen just don’t want to go to a bar. Solo is fine, but to have more (players) offers broader possibilities.”
Without venues such as coffeehouses that are accessible to less-established groups, the musicians said, many will never get the experience or exposure necessary to hone their skills and move on to larger audiences.
“I believe,” said Gregg Young, a Belmont Shore-based musician whose group, the 2nd Street Band, has played all over town, “that the arts are the heart of a city, and if you have something that’s restricting that heart’s growth, then it’s not doing the city justice. If you don’t have a spot to see (younger unestablished musicians), how will you know that they’re there?”
Obering said his coffeehouse had been allowing musical groups to perform for at least four years, without interference from the city.
Two years ago, when he bought the establishment from its previous owners, no one told Obering that he would need a license to continue the live entertainment that had already become a tradition there, he said.
But the former president of a local residents’ group said he had received complaints about the coffeehouse and had mentioned them in a letter to city officials.
Bud Huber, who until recently was president of the Belmont Shore Improvement Assn., said: “I can tell you that (the place) doesn’t fit into the category of one of the necessarily good members of the community.
“We believe that complying with city codes is part of the game of being in business,” said Huber, adding that while he has no objection to coffeehouses per se, he generally does not favor establishments or activities in Belmont Shore that add to what he perceives as the congested conditions there.
“If the city is finally starting to enforce its codes,” he said, “I say ‘Hallelujah!’ ”
City Councilman Doug Drummond, whose district includes Belmont Shore, said he is unaware of controversy involving Midnite Expresso but added: “If we permit one (business) to operate without licensing, then we are opening the doors to others, and the laws have to be equally applied.”
Obering said he is applying for an entertainment license and is considering the possibility of expanding his facility.
He said he is also forming a committee that will try to persuade the City Council to change the licensing law to ease the financial burden on smaller establishments that apply for a license.