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A real brew ha-ha

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — When the imposing brick building on the northeast corner of Fourth Avenue and Main Street was built, there was no such thing as asphalt in the downtown area.

Rain or melting snow would create its own brand of traffic jam downtown, making travel through the area a sloppy, mucky mess.

The long road to the opening of Gizzi’s Coffee Bar was not without its own slog through the muck for building owners Jon and Martha Stetz. But, as they say, all’s well that ends well.

“If we’d have known all (we would go through) a couple of weeks before we bought the building, we never would have bought the building,” Jon Stetz said last month, as he hurriedly prepared the space for occupancy in time for downtown’s Festival on Main.

Built about 115 years ago, the building saw many businesses operate under its tin ceiling, although the Stetzes are believed to be only the fourth set of owners. Its most recent tenant was Wildwood Music, which shut its doors two years ago.

The Stetzes bought the building with the intention of putting in a coffee shop that they would operate. They knew they had a fixer-upper on their hands. In the late 1960s, the building had been covered with less-than-flattering sheet-metal siding that was originally painted yellow. Over the years, the color eventually faded to white.

The building’s front entrance had been moved north from its original location, creating an ideal home for all the dirt and debris you would expect to be stirred up with a U.S. highway running just a few feet away.

The building has had two major fires over its lifetime, and the roof was all but shot.

Restoring the building to its circa-1890 appearance was always Jon Stetz’s goal, he said.

“We took nine dump truck loads of junk out of this building,” he said.

But in undoing the renovations that past owners had undertaken, the Stetzes and their contractor, Leo Pilkington, discovered a real gem of a building.

The sheet metal covering the original outside wall was removed, and Jon Stetz said it took a team of 25 guys from a masonry company in Denver about 12 hours to sandblast and clean the 100-plus-year-old brick.

The front entrance was moved back to its original location, and a column holding up a corner of the roof was re-installed.

On the inside, removing a suspended ceiling led to the discovery of the original hand-crafted tin ceiling. Actually, there were two tin ceilings — one put in when the building was built and another added a few years later.

“That was the original tin ceiling from the bank in 1905,” Jon Stetz said. “I’ve worked on it personally along with our painters.”

Tin that hasn’t been seen in 40 years now accents the huge new wrap-around windows that have been installed, and the interior brick walls have been restored.

At the back of the building, an addition built around 1905, Jon Stetz uncovered four panels of prism glass, the type used in lighthouses.

“We were able to salvage three panels out of the four,” he said.

After all of that — plus a new roof, electrical system, and heating and air conditioning system — the Stetzes said they had sunk about $100,000 of their own money into the building.

Seeking an additional $30,000 from the Longmont Downtown Development Authority led to the Stetzes’ first big headache of the project.

During a meeting in June, when the couple and Pilkington appeared before the LDDA board with their request for money for facade improvements, then-Chairman Richard Vick lost his temper.

Accounts of exactly what happened differ, but there is no dispute that there was yelling, and the Stetzes wrote a letter the next day to LDDA executive director Mary Murphy-Bessler, threatening to pull out of the entire project if they didn’t receive a written apology from Vick.

Vick refused, saying he didn’t have anything to apologize for, and was later removed from his place on the board by the Longmont City Council.

Meanwhile, Murphy-Bessler and some of her board members worked hard to keep the Stetzes’ project moving forward.

The second major headache for Jon and Martha Stetz came from the company whose franchise they were going to operate at 400 Main St. Only days away from their planned opening as Saxby’s Coffee, the board of directors of Saxby’s sent the Stetzes a letter saying that they would not be allowed to open their shop as a franchisee.

This, after a similar meltdown occurred with Capri Coffee, which was going to be the original name of the shop.

Lawsuits involving franchisees of Capri and the company’s former owner, Windsor-based businessman John Larson — later the founder of Saxby’s Coffee — had muddied things up to the point where the Stetzes sought to sever their relationship with Larson. To their relief, Larson agreed.

After everything they’d been through, the couple soured on the idea of running the coffee shop themselves — “not after all the brain damage,” Jon Stetz said.

So they began talking to everyone they could, letting them know they had a great location for someone to come in and run a coffee house. Equipment was already arriving; how were the Stetzes to pay for it?

Enter Brandon and Camrin Knudsen, who owned and operated Hava Java in Thornton.

“We went through about 30 people,” Jon Stetz said. “This young couple had the energy. ... They had what I call mojo.”

As Brandon Knudsen recalls: “A partner of his gave me a call and said he had the building for lease — it was really that simple.”

He said he and his wife had been looking to expand beyond just Hava Java, and Longmont — and the Stetzes’ building — looked like the perfect place.

The Knudsens struck a deal with the Stetzes, and Gizzi’s Coffee Bar was born.

“There’s really no meaning behind Gizzi’s other than it’s catchy,” Brandon Knudsen said.

Today, walking into the 1,700-square-foot space elicits feelings of what it must have looked like in the old days, with a high tin ceiling and expansive brick walls. The windows let in sunlight and the activity of Main Street. The racks are filled with pastries, muffins and, soon, slices of Lilly’s Cheesecakes.

A corner of the space next to a front window is cleared out on weekend nights for local artists to perform, and Brandon Knudsen said he’s trying to get “a Saturday morning thing” going with live music.

Business is brisk, he said last week as he took a break from waiting on customers.

“We’ve got a number of regulars already — it’s been really good,” he said.

Brandon Knudsen met his wife while the two were attending Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Ore. — a town that reminds them a lot of Longmont, he said. There, the couple learned the ins and outs of operating a successful coffee house.

For instance, the secret to a good espresso: “Every morning, you’ve got to fine-tune the machine,” Brandon Knudsen said. “The weather can change the coffee.”

The couple scoped out the market before agreeing to open Gizzi’s, and they figured that having other locally owned coffee shops downtown was actually an advantage, not a detriment.

“In the Northwest, there’s a coffee shop on every corner,” Brandon Knudsen said.

In Ashland, he said, there were two drive-throughs within 100 feet — “and both of them were making money hand over fist.”

As for Jon Stetz, he’s trying to rent out the newly restored 1,100-square-foot rear portion of the building, home over the years to a dentist, barber shop and real estate office, among other businesses.

Now that Gizzi’s is open, the Stetzes’ headaches of the past several months have turned into pride and joy in their building.

“It came out better than everybody thought, and we’re very happy with it,” Jon Stetz said. “And they’re doing well in the store, so everything worked out.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.