By Ken Williams | Editor
Coffee and flower shops coexist under one roof
Armed with a biology degree, Jennifer “Jen” Byard took her first career step by becoming an autopsy assistant for a medical examiner. “The real CSI,” she said. “It was pretty interesting.” But the Gen-Xer’s career would wind down a twisting path, including 15 years in the nonprofit world, before the 44-year-old wife and mother of three boys decided upon her latest business venture.
Natalie Gill, a 28 year old from Normal Heights, was born and raised in the Bay Area. She danced at the San Francisco Ballet until she was 16, when she realized that she didn’t want to do that for the rest of her life. After studying psychology at UC San Diego, she worked for a while in neuroscience and “studied the brains of rats” at a lab at Scripps. That didn’t appeal to her either. “I realized that I was dissatisfied with my career choices,” she said.
Two women from two different generations came together last year to share a vision of operating two individually owned businesses under the same roof. Shared spaces is a big trend in today’s business world.
Almost a month ago, Byard opened her Communal Coffee shop and Gill debuted her Native Poppy flower shop in a one-story building, located on the southwest corner of University Avenue and Texas Street in North Park, which formerly housed a store that sold lamps and lighting fixtures. The busy intersection — and its long traffic light — guarantees high visibility to the two new businesses.
Byard was born and raised in Olympia, Washington, then moved to Seattle in the 1980s when her mom opened a coffee shop. She returned to her hometown to attend St. Martin’s College.
Now living in South Park, Byard and her husband have three boys, ages 13, 11 and 8. She has been part of the McKinley Elementary School family, and for many years was involved in fundraising through the school’s annual SoNo Fest and Chili Cook-Off.
She and her husband worked for many years for Young Life, a nondenominational Christian nonprofit that serves students from middle school through college. Her husband still works there, she said.
Since leaving the nonprofit world, Byard said she has been a “stay-at-home mom” and has a son with Down syndrome. But as her boys got older, she ached to embrace her entrepreneurial spirit. She began producing the biannual Makers Arcade fair Downtown and started the Urban Craft Camp for adults.
Last year, Byard began thinking about “creating a space that was welcoming, like your living room, but with a communal aspect,” she said, adding that she wanted a shared space for two separate businesses that could co-exist. She happened to be friends with Paul Hunyady — their children went to school together at McKinley — who was operating his office in the building in front of his North Park Nursery, located on Texas Street just south of University Avenue. Their idea was to have two shops to share the 1,000-square-foot building and create a synergy that would benefit all the businesses on the property, including the nursery and Urban Plantation.
Once the idea was locked down, Byard searched for another business that would fit in well with a coffee shop. That led her to Gill, who for the past two years has operated a floral shop out of her home.
The next step was to refurbish the old store, and Byard decided to serve as the contractor — a role she has never undertaken before. The place was gutted. All the plumbing had to be replaced. She learned that dealing with the city was time-consuming and daunting.
“It was a full rebuild,” she said. “It took six months from the start of the lease to our soft opening on May 7.”
Architecturally, Byard describes the building as a “Mid-Century base.” Utilizing her hobby as a designer, she chose “bohemian” as a secondary theme. Think white as the primary color, including cabinetry, exposed rafters and the tile backsplash.
So much for having a soft opening on Mother’s Day weekend. “We had a line down the block,” she said. “But I’m not really that surprised. There are no coffee shops for a mile-long stretch of University between Hillcrest and North Park.”
San Diego Uptown News visited on a recent Monday afternoon, and the place was packed. People were lined up to order coffee and tea. Customers chose flower arrangements or bought gifts. Folks introduced their friends to other customers. Some intently worked on their laptops or iPads, ignoring the hustle and bustle around them. Others enjoyed the shade under a large canopy on the outdoor patio shared by all the businesses on-site.
Communal Coffee is currently open from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., but Byard expects to expand those hours after she obtains a beer and wine license and adds more food to the menu. She has a tiny kitchen space, so she is limited on what she can put on the menu.
Things are going so well that Byard has already had to hire more baristas.
The coffee shop is already a hit with the locals, many of whom walk there. That’s a good thing, since there are only four parking spots on the property, but plenty of street parking in the vicinity. The No. 10 and No. 7 buses also stop nearby. There’s a bike rack outside, too.
Byard has noticed visitors from Orange County, L.A. and as far away as Montreal. The French Canadians told her that they had heard about her business via Instagram, which one recent weekend named Communal Coffee as the No. 1 place to visit for coffee in San Diego.
“The craft coffee community of San Diego has really supported us,” Byard said. “We don’t view each other as competition; we support each other.”
Communal Coffee is featuring craft coffee from Sightglass in San Francisco. “They are a great roaster,” Byard said. “Their roasts are medium and floral. I also loved how the company is run. We have a lot of people who have moved here from the Bay Area who are very familiar with their coffee.”
Bryard notes that she gave Seattle’s legendary coffee brands a shot at being featured on the menu. “I gave Seattle a chance,” she said. “But Seattle’s roasts are darker and less flavorful.”
Sightglass also offered “excellent training,” she said. “My girls are trained about the finer points of coffee — and tea.”
Yes, to date, Bryard has only hired women as baristas although a man was interviewing the day Uptown News was there. “It just happened that way,” she said, smiling.
Natalie Gill wasn’t sure she wanted to give up her freedom to join a brick-and-mortar business operation. After all, she was working from home where she could create a bouquet of flowers while lounging around in her pajamas, she said. “And I didn’t have to clean up at night if I was too tired,” she said, laughing.
“Jen approached me because she wanted to work with another vendor, and I immediately thought it would be tough,” Gill said. “But Jen is so awesome, she runs great companies, so it just made so much sense.”
When Gill and Byard looked at the location, they both were immediately hooked on its potential.
“We had one meeting with Paul and then we signed the lease,” Gill said. “It happened really quickly.”
Since then, Gill has gone from a home business to entrepreneur and has already hired four employees.
“It’s been pretty nuts,” she said. “But I am so pumped up about it.”
She is not fretting about the long hours or hard work.
“After working 48 straight hours and going home with my hands bleeding, I am still so happy to be coming to work every day,” she said.
Native Poppy is more than a flower shop, offering gift items that can accompany a bouquet for special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, baby showers, weddings and house-warmings.
“My shop is pretty packed right now,” Gill said.
She offers customers “flowers by bike” service within five miles to communities such as Little Italy, East Village, Downtown and the entire Uptown News readership area.
“I also have a subscription service,” she said. “It can be weekly, monthly or seasonally — four times a year for the major holidays.”
Her favorite flowers include King Protea, Japanese anemone, “fried egg” peony and Chocolate Cosmos.
“I love flowers so much,” Gill continued. “I get so excited talking about flowers. It’s great having a job that allows me to talk about something that I’m passionate about.”
Ironically, Gill never expected to end up in this profession. When she was soul-searching and trying to find a career that matched her passions in life, she created a long checklist of things a job had to offer, such as flexible hours, artistic, hands-on work, project-based, and connecting her to nature.
“I said to myself, ‘You know, that’s not possible,’’’ she said of her job description checklist. “But then I came across florist, and I found that appealing.”
For the past two years, Gill has worked independently from home, and has had time to reflect on how she ended up as a florist.
“Now, retrospectively, looking at old photos on my phone, I can see photos of my mom and my grandmother working in their gardens. There is a natural feel for working with flowers. It was such a perfect fit!”
The only thing she doesn’t like about her shop is the lack of good lighting, but she is doing something about that by adding skylights. She and Byard plan to enhance the exterior, to create more curb appeal by making the building “more inviting.”
Gill thinks her concept will be so successful that she is already dreaming of opening other flower shops.
“Life is really long,” she said. “I have too many ideas! My interests are wide and varied. I’m sure I will want to branch out in the future.”
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at email@example.com or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.