Jeff Clinard spent a decade in Los Angeles chasing his dream of being a comedian. The Irvine native rose to become a main stage performer for Improv Olympic West and the troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, but ultimately it was his day job at Peet’s Coffee & Tea where he found his true passion.
“I fell in love with coffee, and fell in love specifically with interacting with customers,” he said. “It’s better to be a light-hearted barista than it is to be a really caffeinated comedian.”
So Clinard, 33, stepped away from comedy to jump into the coffee world full-time. And after years of working in the industry, earlier this month he opened his own café in San Clemente, Bear Coast Coffee, which offers coffees, teas, from-scratch pastries and stunning views of the coast.
“The thing I love about coffee — and that I loved about comedy — is that we come to these shops for human interaction,” he said. “I wanted to do comedy because I like making people laugh and improving their day. But now, if I have someone who comes to my shop, even if they’re not in the mood for a joke, I can meet them where they are and improve their day.”
When Clinard left comedy, he knew he wanted to open his own coffee shop, but he also knew that he had a lot to learn first. So he took a job at Portola Coffee Lab in Costa Mesa and got involved in national organizations such as the Specialty Coffee Assn. of America and the Barista Guild of America.
In 2014, after working at Portola Coffee Lab for a few years, Clinard sold his car to buy his own espresso machine and launched Bear Coast Coffee in San Clemente, the city where his wife grew up that had also become his new home.
He started the café as a pop-up shop, renting space from The Cellar and operating in the mornings and afternoons when the local wine and cheese bar would have been closed for business.
Bear Coast Coffee quickly built up a large following, and after two years, Clinard felt it was time to move and get a space of his own. So in May, Bear Coast Coffee opened its own shop on Avenida Victoria, across the street from the San Clemente Pier.
Clinard sees Bear Coast Coffee as a sort of bridge between the “coffee purists” — like his old customers at Portola Coffee Lab or Intelligentsia Coffee — and the majority of coffee drinkers, who are used to ordering off a Starbuck’s or Peet’s menu.
“There had to be a way to serve amazing coffee without having to teach you to be the kind of person who can go into Intelligentsia or Portola, where you have to be part of the coffee scene just to order,” he said. “I love both of those places, but I also knew San Clemente and that it would be forcing something on a community that it didn’t want so much.
“I was a competitive barista, so I can talk about competition and training. You want to go nerdy, I can go nerdy. But if you want a cup of coffee and hang out over a muffin, that’s fine too.”
The menu is simple and easy to understand, a feature that Clinard says was influenced by the fast-food chain In-N-Out. Hot coffee is $3, iced coffee is $4, espresso is $2.50 and mocha is $5. Additional syrups and flavors, such as caramel, ganache and almond milk, cost extra.
Bear Coast Coffee sources its beans from around the world — “I know how to pick stuff that’s better than anything else in Orange County,” Clinard said — and makes everything else from scratch in-house, including the almond milk.
Although the menu is basic, like In-N-Out, Clinard says the shop has “quasi-secret menu items” and welcomes customers to “go as crazy as they want.”
“If someone wants to put something weird in their coffee and we have it, we just do it,” he said, noting that many other coffee shops don’t allow modifications. “Even though our standards are so high, if a customer wants to doctor it, if they’re paying for it, then fine. Something we learned is that you have to make sure the customer is more important than the beverage you’re making.”
In addition to beverages, Bear Coast Coffee also serves pastries, and soon Clinard plans to add grab-and-go sandwiches and wraps to the menu. (The pop-up featured a more extensive food menu, including scrambles, toast, soup, salad and sandwiches, but the new café had to scale back its food production because of space constraints.)
Now that the new shop is open, Clinard hopes to continue improving his product — and in the process bring some joy to his customers’ day.
“I want to make really, really happy people,” he said, “and to do that with coffee.”