Situated on the corner of College Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard, between a small nail salon and a Chase Bank, an orange sign attracts attention to Clockwork Coffee Shoppe, a quiet study nook for San Diego State University students and passersby alike.
When Clockwork co-owner Gordon Smith first developed the idea, he had one goal in mind: to provide high-end coffee in the College Area.
“I knew I wanted to do a coffee shop that really focused on doing higher-end coffee, unlike other places in the area that are more like restaurants that serve coffee. I wanted to be the specialty coffee in the area,” Smith said.
An idea is born
Having worked in cafes and coffee shops in La Mesa and North Park, Smith said he had an extensive background in brewing quality coffee and operating a coffee shop prior to opening his business.
“Although we had to learn how to manage a really small kitchen, coffee was always in the bag,” Smith said.
The concept for the coffee shop is based around the “On the Clock” deal, whereby a customer can pay $6.99 for an hour of unlimited coffee, $5.99 for the following hour, and so on, according to Smith. Customers still have the option of purchasing individual drinks.
The name Clockwork Coffee Shoppe emerged as Smith developed a business plan. Instead of naming the business Clockwork Cafe, as he had originally planned, Smith said he chose to put the word “coffee” in the name to reinforce his vision of focusing on the quality of coffee.
“It’s snappy, and it’s easy to brand,” Smith said. “It has the meaning of on-time and punctual, and it just worked out.”
Challenges of opening a small business
Smith described the process of opening a small business in San Diego as “terrifying.” Although he was confident in his idea, he said that he knew he needed help, and partnered with family member Laura Smith to open the shop.
In conjunction with Laura Smith, who had experience with small business startups, Gordon Smith moved forward with the project.
“Neither of us had opened a restaurant or any sort of cafe, so we had no clue what we’d have to do with the health department,” he said.
Despite his initial concerns, Smith said working with the health department was easy. Obtaining building permits during the renovation process posed the real challenge. The resulting construction delays caused the shop to open about five months late, Smith said.
Focusing on the coffee
The coffee used by Clockwork comes from local San Diego roasting companies, including The WestBean Coffee Roasters, Zumbar Coffee & Tea, Dark Horse Coffee and Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, according to Smith. On an average day, the shop has a house coffee in addition to coffee from four to five other roasters. Smith goes to cuppings at local roasters in order to taste and select what he thinks is the best coffee to serve in the shop, always keeping his customers in mind.
“We’re a little bit of an oddity,” Smith said. “I don’t think there are any other coffee shops in San Diego that carry multiple roasters.”
The variety of coffee available at Clockwork is one of the reasons SDSU student Shoshauna Borowitz goes there.
“There’s always something new to try, and it always tastes great,” Borowitz said. “No matter which roast I get, I love when they do a pour-over instead of regular drip coffee, because it tastes so much better.”
In addition to providing its customers with variety, Smith said, Clockwork also provides them with quality. Their coffee is brewed from beans roasted only two to three days before arriving at the shop.
Once coffee beans have been roasted, they should be given time to rest, according to Heather Brisson, the head roaster at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in San Diego. This is important because it gives the coffee time to continue developing its flavors, she said. After the coffee rests, it is at its freshest between three and 10 days after roasting, she said.
Sourcing coffee from local San Diego roasters is something that Teal Cooper, co-owner of VendiBean, echoed when she described her business’s success. Although VendiBean operates out of a vending machine instead of a retail space, the taste and freshness of the final product is still something best achieved by sourcing coffee from local roasters, Cooper said.
“When we first began, we were using coffee from a Seattle-based roasting company that tasted OK, but not amazing,” Cooper said. “We recently ended up finding a good chocolaty, Brazilian blend through Swell Coffee Company , which tastes so much better and is a lot fresher.”
According to Smith, most of the local coffee shops roast their own coffee. While Clockwork does not roast its own coffee, it instead focuses on preparing the coffee well in order to provide the highest quality of coffee to the customers.
The customers keep coming back
According to Smith, about 80 percent of the customers who enter Clockwork Coffee Shoppe on a daily basis are returning customers.
“The fact that we have a really high return rate of customers makes me feel like we’re doing something right,” Smith said.
Smith attributed the high return rate to the quality of both the coffee and food at Clockwork. Despite having a “closet-sized” kitchen, Smith said, both Clockwork’s food and coffee receive positive Yelp reviews.
“We put out pretty basic stuff done simply and done well, and I think people respond to that,” Smith said.
Clockwork’s welcoming atmosphere is also something that keeps customers coming back. Borowitz said she used to go to Clockwork at least twice a week when she lived nearby, whether it was to get a cup of coffee before class or to sit and study. She lives farther away now, but still visits Clockwork to grab a cup of coffee and study.
“The people there are just really nice and personable,” Borowitz said. “They’ll say ‘hi’ to you and they’ll know your order if you come in often enough.”
Other SDSU students, such as Denise Chang, can often be found studying at the tables in the coffee shop. With its numerous seats and spacious layout, there is always a place to sit and study, according to Chang.
Since opening in September 2014 with five employees and serving between 120 and 150 customers a day, Clockwork has grown to nine employees and is now serving between 300 and 400 customers a day, according to Smith. Success did not happen overnight, and it took almost a year for Smith and his co-owner to begin taking home small paychecks, he said.
“Most people hear about overnight successes, but if you throw enough effort at something, you’ll succeed,” Smith said.
In the future, Smith said, he hopes to open new locations across San Diego, and to expand the current location and potentially make it into a 24-hour spot without compromising the quality of the product — the key aspect of the business.