Born from the pandemic, pop-up shops thrive on East Cliff Drive
Two pop-up places, Coffee Conspiracy and S.C. Bread Boy, provide their food and drink to customers along East Cliff Drive. The owners of both decided to strike out on their own after getting laid off from jobs in the service industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It doesn’t matter how many times you visit, East Cliff Drive is always stunning. The one-way road and walking path meanders along the edge of Pleasure Point and drops off into Monterey Bay, running between famed surf spots the Point, to the southwest, and the Hook, to the northeast. It’s constantly crowded with surfers, runners, dog walkers and strollers taking in the breathtaking view.
Now it boasts two new enterprises: Coffee Conspiracy Co., a coffee cart selling cold brew, and S.C. Bread Boy, a pop-up serving homemade focaccia and cannoli from the back of a Vespa. Both businesses are products of the COVID-19 pandemic, launched after their owners were abruptly laid off from their service industry jobs. Both were left wondering whether there was any future for them in the service industry, and ultimately decided it was the perfect time to strike out on their own. And now both call the stretch of East Cliff Drive between 37th and 38th avenues home.
From the back of his white coffee trike adored with his Illuminati-like logo, the bay glistening behind him, Eddie Alaniz pours a cold, creamy cold brew from a tap over ice. Alaniz offers a different curated, ethically sourced micro-roast every week or two. He has featured Onyx Coffee Lab of Arkansas, Palace Coffee Company of Texas, Wisconsin-based Coffee Wizardz and many others.
“It’s been subconsciously turning people into coffee nerds, which is kinda fun,” he says.
Alaniz was working at Verve Coffee Roasters when the pandemic hit in March 2020, and was laid off shortly after. With more than 20 years of experience working in the coffee industry, including 10 years in Los Angeles doing consulting work, training and brandings, he decided it was time to start his own business.
“I felt more and more that I wanted to do my own thing. When the lockdown came, something struck me that this is my opportunity. I’ve got nothing but time to work on a business model,” says Alaniz.
He already had the name picked out. A lifelong conspiracy enthusiast, Alaniz felt that naming his new business “Coffee Conspiracy” spoke to who he is. Plus, he points out that since “conspiracy theories” was one of the top-ranking Google search terms in 2020, it was very fitting for the times. Alaniz frequently throws up a triangle hand gesture in photos, meant to signify a pyramid as a nod to the Freemasons, a secret society with its own collection of conspiracy theories and myths. “I entertain these ideas, but it’s all just for fun for me,” says Alaniz. “Obviously, I’m not a complete nut.”
Instead of offering his own roast, Alaniz highlights select coffees from around the U.S. This “multi-roast concept” is gaining steam in the coffee world, says Alaniz, and he thought it would be a good way to support other roasters.
A coffee truck proved to be difficult to get permitted and prohibitively expensive, so Alaniz scoured the internet for other ideas. He found a company in Portland, Oregon, that made bicycle freezer boxes for ice cream. “I thought, wow, with the beach backdrop, and the weather we have in Santa Cruz, that’s my home run right there.” He added taplines so he could pour cold-brewed coffee infused with nitrogen, and by August 2020 he was on the road.
Coffee Conspiracy had been operating for only a few weeks when the CZU Lightning Complex fire engulfed the Santa Cruz Mountains. Unable to operate due to falling ash, he decided to donate his unsold product to a local fire station.
The exhausted firefighters were very grateful.
“They were like, ‘Oh my God, thank you so much! When we’re out on the front line we get, like, Folgers instant coffee,’” recalls Alaniz. “Being a coffee person, that’s the worst news I’ve ever heard.”
He went back home and started making coffee. He would wake up at 4 a.m. to hand it off to firefighters as they were heading to the front lines. “I started getting photos sent to me with them pounding cold brew on the front lines, battling the fire,” says Alaniz. “I thought it was just so cool that I was kind of playing my part, helping the situation.”
He called on his coffee community to help support him in this effort, and through support from donors he was able to deliver 750 bottles of cold brew coffee to front-line workers. It was an extremely gratifying experience for Alaniz, and after it was over, he was back on the bike.
The birth of Bread Boy
Parked about a block away from Alaniz, Lance Ebert pipes cannoli from behind a white Vespa. Before passing them to eager hands, he dips the crisp, golden treats in traditional chocolate chips or crushed pistachios, or playful toppings like Fruity Pebbles breakfast cereal and pumpkin spice almond nougat. He also sells fat loaves of fluffy focaccia, covered in toppings like homemade tomato pesto or olive tapenade and caramelized onions.
Soon after the pandemic began, Ebert was laid off from his job as a sous-chef at a local restaurant, a position he had held for four years. The restaurant, which Ebert declined to name, stopped taking his calls. Several months into his unemployment and slowly going stir-crazy, he saw Alaniz, whom he knew from Verve, riding his new coffee bike around the neighborhood. Seeing his friend Eddie ride past as a newly minted entrepreneur inspired Ebert to finally start his own business as well, something he had wanted to do for years.
“With Bread Boy, I wanted to bring sunshine into the dark place I was in. I was to bring smiles and joy to people in my community,” says Ebert. He set off to start a mobile bakery for the neighborhood, but had some setbacks: “I had no money, no anything. I had my home kitchen and my equipment.”
A passionate baker, Ebert began perfecting his bread recipes, but after spending some time producing sourdough loaves for his neighbors, he decided to streamline. “I needed to bring it back home,” he says. “My family is Genovese. I’m just going to do old-school Genovese focaccia and I’m gonna do cannoli.”
His road to entrepreneurship hit some green lights. He scored a vintage bakers oven, “a 1942 Wedgewood Franciscan,” on Craigslist, and cleaned it up. His girlfriend’s sister gave him a halfway working Vespa and he got that up and running, too. He also saw how successful Coffee Conspiracy was becoming, and how happy his bread was making his neighbors, and he decided to go for it.
“I was looking for avenues to do it correctly, and not so rogue and underground, but when I look back on who I am — skateboarder, punk rocker, cook. I was like, let’s just do it.”
But there were some snags.
For five months, word of Ebert’s cannoli and focaccia spread while he waited for permits to be approved. Then, in July, Ebert saw a familiar face in line from his days working at local restaurants: the Santa Cruz County health inspector. The agency graciously allowed Ebert to take care of his remaining customers before shutting him down.
“The day after I got busted, my LLC came in,” says Ebert. “Then my insurance papers came in. I was taking steps to make the bakery legitimate. But within that is so much red tape and so many hoops, as any business owner knows, especially for food. It’s a nightmare. And with what I’m doing it’s even crazier.”
Ebert returned to East Cliff in September after completing the permitting and licensing process, and says he would like to see the path to business ownership for non-brick-and-mortar food businesses like his to be easier, especially in the wake of the pandemic and the many changes and challenges it brought to the dining industry. “The collapse of the industry brought us all to these new avenues of finding out what works and what doesn’t,” he says.
He would like to see a local public area where non-brick-and-mortar businesses like his can set up shop regularly. He cites Portland’s food-cart pods and food-truck parks in Austin, Texas, as successful examples that draw happy customers as well as revenue to the business owners and the city.
“People want this, and it’s not available. It doesn’t make sense. There’s always going to be food vendors around, and they’re not going anywhere,” Ebert says. “To have a local host facility that’s run by the county creates jobs and money for the city. The more I expand, the more I can create jobs.”
Alaniz, though, says that if such a location did exist, he doubts Coffee Conspiracy would move there. “I’ve been set up here every day for a year now. It really feels like I’ve become a part of the community. I’ve gotten overwhelming support. I’ve become a part of people’s day, a meet-up spot after people go surfing,” he says. “I’ve looked at other spots, but there’s so many people that rely on me for coffee that it feels like home now. I don’t think I need to go anywhere else.”
Alaniz is focusing his efforts on launching his own single-origin coffee line. “The bike was always meant to be the starting point for the brand. Now I’m entering the sourcing and roasting industry,” he says. He has hired a head roaster, and is going to continue to focus on sourcing micro, nano and experimental lots from farmers all over the world: “Some of the coffees I’m offering, the farmers literally grew one burlap sack.”
A brick-and-mortar spot is not in his future, he says with certainty. “I’ve run enough coffee shops to know that it seems like a hassle, and we all saw what happened during the pandemic when they were shut down and unable to operate,” says Alaniz. Instead, he’s working on building an e-commerce platform, which will include a subscription service.
Visitors will still be able to find him out on East Cliff. Says Alaniz, “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had serving coffee.”
Ebert is thrilled and humbled with the support S.C. Bread Boy has gotten from the community. He would like to do more private and public events, like the Midtown Fridays block party he’ll be attending on Oct. 29. While a brick-and-mortar might be in his future, he’s not sure it’s necessary: “There is always a time in place for fine-dining settings and I love having that intimate meal, and the emotions connected to it, but you can find those products and techniques and attention to detail on a Vespa.”