Flyin’ High Above the Rest

By Andrea Steedman

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Posted September 12, 2013 in Feature Story

(WEB)coverLifting the Standard for Coffee in Riverside

If you live in Riverside County and you love coffee, you probably drink it at home or end up driving a lot. While in Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego you can hardly turn a corner without tripping over an independent coffee house, Riverside County has a depressing dearth. This can get frustrating if you love the coffee house atmosphere—and Steffen Sommers and his business partner Allen Andra really love coffee houses.

Sommers said his love affair with coffee began as a child, glamorizing the coffee his parents loved. Then he discovered coffee houses: “I loved the feel and the community aspect, hanging out with my friends drinking cappuccinos.” One of his favorite was Keen in Newport Beach, and it was there that he met Allen Andra, also a devotee of the unique vibe coffee houses offered. When it was time to go to college, Sommers knew what he wanted to do: he says, “I based most of my college classes around opening a coffee shop.” This may not seem like the most realistic goal to some, but one step inside Lift, which recently opened in Riverside, and all doubts disappear.

Sommers studied engineering, and Andra built a construction company, among other businesses. The respective interests from each of the owners’ truly shows in the beautiful interior of Lift, from the floor to ceiling there are details that set it apart as one-of-a-kind. Reclaimed and recycled wood, airplane parts, and a Howard Hughes style that screams for adoration and attention, Lift’s unique and beautiful atmosphere gives Riverside hipsters and coffee connoisseurs alike a place to unite. This sense of what a coffee house “should be” may have originated in their OC youth, but it became informed by trips to Coffee havens like San Francisco, Montreal, New York, Seattle and even Italy. “The inspiration came from all these places, but we added our own touch” Sommers says, noting that it was after a trip to San Francisco that he and Andra finally decided to take the plunge and finally open a business together.

This partnership seems to be a strong one, based on years of friendship and each of them brings a lot to the table. Although Sommers is knowledgeable about business planning, Andra complements Sommers with his entrepreneur-attitude, “Alan owns a couple of other businesses, so he has more tangible, experience-based knowledge.”

Lift is described by the coffee-expert Sommers as a “third-wave” coffee shop. This term refers to the current trend of treating coffee as a gourmet, artisanal product (similar to micro-brewed craft beer, or independent winery-produced wine.) Sommers explains, “The bean is roasted to whatever level it will be best at, from there they can be used in whatever way—drip, espresso, etc. Third wave coffee is about creating an experience by the cup that is fresh and personal.” Those are great words to describe the experience at Lift, Steffen Sommers recalls how some coffee novices wander in, not sure what to order, and are “instant converts.”

So what will you find when you walk into Lift? No matter what your passion is, be it brewed coffee, espresso beverages, or artisan teas—you will be happy. Sommers personally likes a variety of custom caffeinated options, “brewed coffee in the morning, but espresso beverages in the afternoon.” Lift specializes in both, as well as its signature and rare expertise in cold-brewing—which will entice all your senses as it sits in a giant tower behind the counter, slowly dripping sticky-sweet coffee concentrate into beautiful, towering glassware. Cold brewed coffee is a bit sweeter than regular coffee, due to its lower acidity. Because the coffee beans in cold-press coffee never come into contact with heated water, the process of leaching flavor from the beans produces a different chemical profile from conventional brewing methods. Lift also has an amazing selection of specialty teas and they carry gourmet pastries from Crème de la Crème; they offer special Sidecar donuts or Treatness cinnamon rolls on Saturdays, as well as new seasonal pastries to satisfy those that crave novelty.

The decor of the Riverside specialty coffee house is a hipster’s paradise, but it really gets its inspiration from planes. The logo involves a propeller from what looks like a vintage plane, and throughout the interior of the space there are details that also reference planes and the reclamation of a time long forgotten. Peruse through one of the many coffee connoisseur magazines readily available while you sit in chairs made from pilot’s seats. With old fashioned vintage Edison light bulbs, chalkboard menus, a custom high rafter-ceiling, vintage-looking wooden tables and a bar made from a chromed-out plane wing—this place is beautiful. Their main wall even has their logo burned into the reclaimed wood. The baristas—all adorable and fashionable young dudes—give great customer service and are so knowledgeable and talented, they would make anybody swoon hard.

The story of Lift hasn’t been easy, though—Sommers and Andra had children born two days apart, shortly before the opening of Lift, and as Sommers correctly sums it up, “we both have Lift, our other ventures, and babies at home—so we basically have three full time jobs each.” Both men had a passion to create a coffee house like the ones they loved, in their home of Riverside, but it has been a lot of hard work. “We both care about it so much,” Steffen Sommers says, “we want it to be the best it can be, but it’s a ton of work.” Furthermore, so far the business trends have been unpredictable, and the average customer has been diverse. “It has been really mixed—a lot of 20-year-olds and hipsters, but also families and older people.” Sommers has been surprised by the range, although he says 18-30 has been the most common age group to visit Lift since it opened. This will likely sky-rocket soon, with the start of the school year at the nearby University of California, Riverside.

In Riverside, there won’t be much competition from other independent coffee houses, so they addressed the real competition Lift will face: chain coffee houses. Sommers explained Lift’s advantages in their primed location, “for some people, convenience is a top priority when getting coffee, rather than quality and flavor, those people are the hardest to win over. Lift has two main strengths—first, really great coffee, so good that many of our customers are starting to drink their coffee black for the first time, enjoying the natural flavor notes the coffees possess when roasted and brewed to perfection, and second, a really nice community, a great place to spend some time.”

Although Steffen Sommers and Allen Andra could have opened their coffee house somewhere else and have had a built-in market, they have made Riverside their homes, they are raising their kids here—and they wanted their type of coffee house here. “We both felt Riverside was ready for a good coffee shop, we wanted it to be the type of place we love, where we would want to hang out.”

What’s in the future for Lift? Already they constantly keep it fresh with rotating beans: new fresh and exciting coffee all the time. They are also looking towards opening a more prominent roasting plant, where people could buy beans directly. Another thing in the works is a mobile coffee cart, which should be up and running by mid-September. “We want to be at events on campus, or community events like the lighting ceremony at the Mission Inn.”

Riverside has a huge student population, and ever-growing populations of connoisseurs of all kinds, not the least of all are coffee junkies. Already, the business is doing well, even though as Sommers noted, “we did very little advertising, pretty much we just used social media and word of mouth.” With Lift’s high-quality drinks, delicious pastries, and fresh, comfortable atmosphere, it looks like the sky’s the limit.

Lift Coffee Roasters, 3590 Central Ave., Ste 101, Riverside, www.liftcoffeeroasters.com.


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