Controversial Coffeehouse Up for Sale

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After years of losing sleep over complaints from his Sherman Oaks neighbors and restrictions from Los Angeles city officials, the owner of the bohemian Insomnia Cafe is calling it quits.

The joint is up for sale.

"I'm pretty beat up," said John Dunn, who opened the Ventura Boulevard coffeehouse in 1992 and was immediately swamped with complaints from neighbors over noisy, mostly young patrons. "After 3 1/2 years of fighting with neighbors and trying to run a small business, it's time to move on."

Dunn declined to disclose a price for the cafe, but said he has had more than 60 offers. Just two, however, appear serious, he said Saturday. One prospective owner has indicated that he would keep the cafe decorated with cast-off sofas as it is now and explore the possibility of opening 10 more shops with the same name around the San Fernando Valley.

"I'm looking for the right kind of money and the right kind of person," Dunn said. "It takes a special kind of person to operate a coffee shop."

Shortly after it opened just west of Woodman Avenue, the shop drew an eclectic crowd of hip, young adults looking for good conversation and a tasty cup of joe. But it also lured a sizable crowd of bored teenagers, who flocked to the late-night cafe as an alternative to nightclubs.

Soon, neighbors began complaining about the teens' lack of civility. Some drove too fast down Ventura Boulevard and on the residential streets that abut the shop. Others urinated on private property or carried on loudly until the wee hours of the morning.

The cafe's popularity as a teen hangout grew over the years, Dunn said. So much so that it was featured on television programs from "Seinfeld" to "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "My So-Called Life," Dunn said.

But Los Angeles city officials never caught the wave.

Responding to the neighborhood uproar, the City Council two years ago passed an ordinance making it illegal for Insomnia to sell coffee after 11 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. Dunn soon wound up in court after ignoring the law. He was fined $3,200 and placed on probation.

In August, Dunn converted the cafe into a members-only establishment and even toyed with the notion of valet parking in an effort to eliminate the rowdier elements of his clientele. "It was an extremely small group," he said. "Most of the kids just wanted a place to hang out."

With the new policy, the younger crowd petered out and was replaced by older college students, screenwriters and movie-star wannabes, Dunn said. Although the noise died down, so did the business.

"Initially, we lost about 70% of our business," Dunn said. "Now it's slowly coming back, but it's time to move on."

Neighbors said they appreciated getting more sleep in recent months, but added that they never intended to run Dunn out of business.

"We welcome coffee shops," said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., which lobbied City Hall in favor of restrictions on the cafe. "He could have stayed in business if he had been reasonable and responsible," Close said.

Patrons, including some who have frequented Insomnia since it opened, said Saturday they would miss the shop if it were to close. "I wouldn't know where to go," said Sean Barth, 27. "There's a sense of community here."

But others fear that even if Insomnia stays open under another owner, the atmosphere--a critical element in the fickle hangout business--may change. "The place is the way it is because of [Dunn's] personality--or lack of," said Evan Lincove, 29.

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