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Lu Sensation: Coffee maestro Ryker Brandt makes some beautiful cappuccino at the ever-popular Lulu Carpenter's.

Why Can't We Be Friends?

Another bit of Metro Santa Cruz's 10-year history is its famous former feud with Lulu Carpenter's. But now there's no bad blood, just great coffee.

By Jessica Neuman Beck

Lulu Carpenter's might seem like the perfect place to flip through Metro Santa Cruz while sipping a latte, but way back in 1994--the year of Metro Santa Cruz's inception--it definitely was not.

That year, a bitter feud erupted between the owner of Lulu's (then called Espresso Royale Café), Manthri Srinath, and one of Metro's former writers (who, per Srinath's request, shall remain unnamed). As Srinath tells it, this particular writer was spending a lot of time at Lulu's, occupying one table while chatting with a friend at another.

"I said, 'Could you guys share a table?' and they copped an attitude about it, so we kicked them out," Srinath remembers. "They stood on a table, protested for their right to study, said they were going to boycott us. I was like, 'You know, to hell with you.'"

The result? An article in the next week's paper.

"Metro Santa Cruz's editor did this whole sensationalist press thing--you know, 'Bad coffeehouse owner throws out students for studying,' Srinath says. "I'm like, 'You know, if you guys are going to be that irresponsible, then you can't circulate your paper in my business.'"

Then he laughs. "I have an attitude problem," he says. "I'll be the first to admit it."

A couple of years later, Metro Santa Cruz and Lulu's kissed and made up, as it were.

"At some point the manager I replaced myself with put the paper back in," says Srinath. "Which was fine. I was like, 'I'm over it.' And ever since then everything's been fine."

Srinath has always had firm ideas about what kind of coffee shop he wants to run. "People want it to be certain things. I'm not a study hall. I'm not a poetry-reading coffee shop, either," he says. "There are 50,000 people in this town and 49,000 of them don't come into my shop, but the thousand people who do care about us really like what we do."

For that reason, Lulu's has a strict "no studying after 6pm" policy, designed to make Lulu's into a place where people can go to socialize.

"Before 6pm, we're very student friendly," Srinath says. "My theory has always been I don't want any single group taking over my business. A coffeehouse is a community place."

Lulu Carpenter's has a long and venerable history in Santa Cruz. Best known historically as a downtown saloon, it was damaged in the '89 earthquake and left vacant. Two years after the quake, Srinath and his then-business partner found it while driving from San Francisco to L.A. to scout locations for a new coffee shop.

Since then, Lulu's has enjoyed an ever-expanding list of amenities, including WiFi, fresh-baked pastries--and a name change.

"When I took the store, my partners kept the old name, and so we were in a situation where we had to change the name here," Srinath says. "I thought, you know, if I'm going to change the name it should be something with local cachet." He thought instantly of Lulu Carpenter's.

"We donated the old sign to the museum when we took over the place," he says. "After we resurrected the name, I thought it would be cool to get some of the old stuff back, so we called them up and now we have it on permanent loan." As part of the deal, the museum gave the newly rechristened Lulu Carpenter's a plaque explaining the history of the name. "It's very cool," Srinath says. "My idea with Lulu's is sort of to use the building to tell that story."

Another thing that's changed is the public's perception of coffee. "It used to be that espresso drinks and drip coffee were two different worlds. Now you're only paying 25 cents more for a cappuccino than a cup of coffee," Srinath says. "There are people who still want the bottomless cup at Denny's, but that's not what we're about. I'm serious about being the best in the business of selling gourmet coffee."

Lulu's started providing baked goods in 2000, and now offers a full lunch menu, featuring fresh salads, hot sandwiches and casseroles. An on-site bakery, located in the basement, allows Lulu's to offer warm muffins and scones to their morning customers.

Srinath's newest project is a new coffeehouse. Coffee Cat, in Scotts Valley. "It's going to be on Mt. Herman Road, next to Safeway," Srinath says. The new store, which will open in June, will have a coffee roaster--something Srinath is excited about. "I'm looking at doing the roasting for both stores," he says. "Lulu's is going to be doing the baking for both stores." In addition to Coffee Cat, Srinath hopes to open one or two more coffee shops in the next couple of years. "I haven't decided [where] yet. I like the area. It's a great coffee culture."

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From the May 5-12, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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