'Coffee's the drug of the '90s . . . the new, safe drug.' : Tasting a Different Kind of Brew : Food: A growing number of Americans are choosing gourmet java and coffeehouses over alcohol and bars.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's not the Left Bank in Paris or a Florence piazza. But who cares when the espresso is so fittingly forte , the cappuccino so suitably foamy?

Certainly not the customers savoring gourmet Euro-brews at Starbucks Coffee, a cafe in the Torrance Crossroads shopping center. They sit at sidewalk tables gazing on the black asphalt parking lot as if it were the Eiffel Tower or Michelangelo's David.

Starbucks is not the only upscale cafe that has popped up in the South Bay recently to pour coffee, the latest American food staple gone designer. In malls, storefronts, even old houses, coffee is being clothed in everything from mocha and latte to panna and raspberry cream and sold to the public. Reflecting a nationwide trend that has specialty coffee sales booming, four new java joints have opened in the South Bay in little over a year.

"Coffee's the drug of the '90s . . . the new, safe drug," said Rick Hankus, a restaurateur who last year opened a coffee house, Java Man, in an old Hermosa Beach house. He also owns the Ocean Diner in Hermosa Beach.

Gourmet or specialty coffee, as it's known in the trade, is freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee made from beans with such pedigrees as Kona and Kenya, Sumatra and Sulawesi. Commercial coffee, by contrast, is the already-ground stuff you buy in a can at the grocery store.

Though sales of the tin-can variety have been static in recent years, specialty coffee sales reached more than $1 billion last year, five times their level of a decade ago, according to the Specialty Coffee Assn. of America, which is headquartered in Long Beach. Specialty coffee, the trade association predicts, will have captured a third of the nation's coffee market by 1999.

Market experts agree.

"The (younger) generation who turned off from coffee is coming back to specialty coffee," said Leonard Teitelbaum, a food industry analyst for Merrill Lynch, the New York-based investment firm. "Everybody is looking for taste and identity."

The question, Teitelbaum said, is whether the coffee craze is a fad or a trend. He's betting on trend, pointing out that specialty coffee sales have remained strong over the past three years despite a particularly difficult recession.

In the South Bay, the specialty coffee trend is easy to spot.

Every weekday, Hankus' Pier Avenue coffeehouse unlocks its doors at 7 a.m. to a line of commuter customers thirsting for latte, cappuccino and quadruple jump-starts (four shots of espresso in a large coffee).

The atmosphere is decidedly funky at Java Man, where local artists hang their works and would-be poets pen sonnets to the sea. But the coffee is strictly upscale, with prices ranging from 95 cents for a basic cup to more than $3 for a caffe mocha with several shots of espresso.

"I buy my coffee (roasted) from five different places, one in Oregon, one in Washington, and three in Los Angeles," Hankus said. The out-of-state coffee supply is flown in by second-day air to ensure freshness.

At Starbucks, a Seattle-based chain that will soon open its second South Bay outlet in Manhattan Beach, coffee gets the respect once reserved for fine wines. In its missionary zeal to convert the American consumer to specialty coffee, the company offers everything from impromptu lectures about its beans to maps showing where they are grown.

Starbucks, an upscale Winchell's where scones and biscotti have replaced the lowly doughnut and where individually prepared cups of coffee have banished the pot, has opened 200 store-cafes across the country.

Coffee is getting so chic, it's intimidating. On a recent morning at the Nordstrom in Redondo Beach, one customer looked sheepish as she asked the man behind the espresso bar, "Do you have just a cup of American coffee?"

No, the man said. He then offered to improvise by adding hot water to a shot of espresso, creating what in coffee bar lingo is called a caffe americano.

Running hard to catch up with Starbucks is the new Java Centrale, a year-old Sacramento-based chain of upscale coffee cafes that also offer light lunches, along with specialty coffee drinks and beans to go.

Java Centrale has also weighed into the South Bay market. Its first South Bay franchise opened last month in another Torrance shopping center, Village Del Amo, on busy Hawthorne Boulevard. The chain expects to have 126 outlets nationwide by the end of 1994.

While Starbucks' decor is northwestern, Java Centrale's is European, with a brightly colored Italian feel. Java Centrale seeks to capture the European cafe look and popularize it here, said Gary Nelson, the chain's president and chief executive officer.

"The European cafe done right is just starting to break very, very virgin ground in the United States," Nelson said.

Societal changes account for much of the boom in specialty coffee, according to industry experts like Ted R. Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Assn. Said Lingle: "People are moving away from the bar scene, from wine and liquor."

In Manhattan Beach, 33-year-old Kim Siehl Houston agrees. She gave up a sales career in the computer industry and last year opened The Hungry Mind, a bookstore and coffeehouse.

Increasingly, people want to go out at night and socialize, but not where liquor is served, Houston said. She said her establishment is filled every evening, often with regulars who come down after dinner for coffee, conversation and dessert.

The Hungry Mind serves Graffeo--coffee from the San Francisco roaster of the same name.

"It's very, very high-end and it's expensive, but I think it's the best," said Houston, who also serves music and poetry readings along with her syrup-laced, European coffee concoctions.

Specialty coffee merchants are confident that demand for their product won't dampen. "I think it's almost recession-proof," Hankus said.

Industry experts say that for many people, gourmet coffee drinks represent an affordable luxury in a society of downsizing incomes and expectations.

Can't afford a new pair of $80 designer jeans at Nordstrom? Stop at the store's shiny espresso bar on the way out and splurge on a $3 coffee drink. Nordstrom, also based in Seattle, uses only Starbucks coffee.

Can't afford to see Europe again or to eat at fancy gourmet restaurants? Go out for a cappuccino or buy gourmet beans and grind them at home.

"It's like good wine," said Brad Landin, vice president of operations for Java Centrale. "Once you have had a good cup of coffee, you will never go back to bad coffee."

And from the perspective of coffeehouse owners, said the coffee association's Lingle, selling a cup of coffee is still the most profitable transaction in the entire coffee industry. Lingle predicts the specialty coffee industry will continue growing for years.

"I'd say it wouldn't surprise me if it went well into the year 2010 because all the fundamentals are right," Lingle said. "People enjoy the product. It's a good value and the people involved in it are making a profit."

Java Jargon Espresso: Espresso is a shot of deep, rich black coffee made to order by forcing extremely hot water rapidly through freshly ground beans directly into the cup. There's no such thing as a pot of espresso. Espresso con Panna: An espresso topped with whipped creme. Cappuccino: The most popular of the Italian coffee drinks, cappuccino is espresso covered with hot steamed milk and "cap", whence it takes its name. The ideal ratio is one-third, one-third, one-third. Caffe Latte: Hot streamed milk with just a shot of espresso. May or may not have foam on the top. Caffee Mocha: Much like latte but made with steamed chocolate milk and a cap. A favorite among the younger set. Macchiato: Espresso "stained" or "marked" with a dollop of milk foam. Caffe Americano: A shot of espresso with the rest of the cup filled with hot, purified water.

BARRETT STINSON / Los Angeles Times

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