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One Cafe, To Go

Terri Vellios
George Sakkestad

(To best essay writer, current owner hopes)

By Ami Chen Mills

Terri Vellios is hoping life will imitate art--and not unpredictable life itself. As the owner of a small, homey cafe called Blvd. Coffee in a strip mall on Los Gatos Boulevard, Vellios intends to give her percolating enterprise away through an essay contest, a la the recent film Spitfire Grill. In that movie, a restaurant owner successfully gifts her grill to a deserving, young inner-city mom. But Vellios' idea to sponsor an essay contest--with an entry fee to cover her own investment--predated the movie. Indeed, the currently brewing Blvd. Coffee contest joins a growing cadre of small businesses across the country burning with contest fever. Contests like Vellios', sponsored by similarly idealistic business owners, are raging like wild(spit)fires.

Everybody's doing it--but not always with the desired results. Vellios herself first heard of the idea when she entered an essay contest three years ago to win the very cafe she's got now. In that contest, for what was then called the Giraffe Coffee Co., the owner requested an essay and $100 from each participant. When the Giraffe owner received only 300 entries (she expected 1,000) by deadline, Vellios received her check back in the mail. But with stars (and bucks) in her eyes, she worked with an investor to buy the business outright. By then, however, the old owner had already sold off the inventory, including furniture and equipment, and all that was left was the lovely green marbled espresso counter. Still, Vellios says, "I could see myself behind that counter." Vellios bought the counter and what was left of the lease, and hitched her wagon to the almighty coffee bean. For three years, she says, the cafe has been a romantic adventure in business ownership. "I love the whole thing of coffee. Customers come in, and you get to know their lives. They become an extension of yourself. We have people who bring their families in and introduce them, saying, 'This is our coffee shop.' I've seen so many minor miracles. I've seen little kids grow up--and I've blossomed myself."

Now, with a husband who travels twice a month and two teenagers, Vellios says the romance is over. "I can't be here as much, and so I'm compromising what I set out to do. My little dream has to go." Vellios says that someone who owned and worked at the coffee shop could earn a living with it. Last year's gross sales were roughly $150,000.

For $150 and a smartly written essay, anyone over age 21 can enter to win the cafe, its equipment and furniture, a kick-off inventory, a cash drawer full of change, the lease and an option to renew, and 40 hours of free training from Vellios herself. But Vellios needs 300 entries to break even and pay off her investor. As of last week, she'd collected approximately zero entries, although she's given out a few hundred entry forms. "I think everyone's waiting until the last minute," she says. The deadline is July 7.

Vellios is hoping to succeed where, apparently, few others have succeeded before. The World Wide Web offers some idea of where contests like this have gone in the past. One AOL search offered up a page of contests giving away everything from a press shop to a home in Orlando, Fla., to a tool store in Las Vegas--and if you won that "exciting essay contest" you could busily "begin creating your own tool empire." Another contest for a beach house on Topsail Island in North Carolina began with a bang ("I am ... very sure we will receive sufficient entries to award the beach house to some VERY lucky person," wrote its publicity director) but ended after its second call for entries failed to attract the desired response. Vellios, who searched the Web first for ideas, says one contest offering a beach house in Florida was canceled after its sponsors became embroiled in a messy divorce, and Vellios says her emails to other contest sponsors for information went mostly unanswered.

Up in San Francisco, a similar contest for a SOMA restaurant has drawn "hundreds" of entries, according to its PR manager, Joseph Solis. But these came after the owner made appearances on the CBS Morning News and Mornings on 2. Vellios, however--whose PR firm consists of herself and her staff--remains undaunted. If she doesn't get the number of entries she needs, there's always Plan B. "I'll list with a broker, I guess. But I don't want to do that. It's not as romantic."

For more information about the Blvd. Coffee contest, call 408/356-4665.

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From the June 19-25, 1997 issue of Metro.

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