El Jefe

Grounds for Eviction

Smack in the middle of Broward County's construction megaboom, a red Porsche convertible pulls up to a ramshackle drive-in on a dazzlingly bright early morning. Blond, attractive, and obviously wealthy attorney Jill Friedman requests four pounds of freshly roasted coffee -- crème brûlée, maple pecan, brownie crunch, and vanilla nut.

Jon Robichaud pours a cup of hazelnut brew for another customer in a minivan. He hikes up the backpack that holds his son, Andrew, who's celebrating his first birthday today. Dressed in high-tops, shorts, and a ripped T-shirt, the 35-year-old, ponytailed Mainer walks with a hunch-shouldered gait into the open-air kitchen where he has worked for the past ten years. He grabs four brown bags of freshly roasted beans, heads back outside, and hands them down through the Porsche window, which is at knee level.

Then he delivers the news: A greedy landlord is evicting him. He's outta here in a month.

A Bank One portfolio manager named Skipper McAdams, who lives 1,000 miles away in Baton Rouge, has decided to sell the place out from under Expresso Coffee Co., the beloved joint that Robichaud and once-girlfriend (now just partner) Suzy Ludlow started. The asking price for this falling-down former Dairy Queen is a half million bucks. That's too much for Robichaud and Ludlow.

"I'm devastated," Friedman says, adding that she has been picking up coffee here once a week for the past five years. "Devastated. Where'll I go?"

You might expect Expresso, which is located at 1900 S. Andrews Ave., to thrive. It's just two miles south of downtown Fort Lauderdale, where construction of 2,100 high-end condo units worth hundreds of millions of dollars is transforming the skyline. And it's less than a mile north of the airport's $1.2 billion construction juggernaut.

But most of the condos won't open for a year. And property values are skyrocketing in the neighborhood. John Reed, a millionaire who kept down the rent for years, died a few years ago. Though he had no survivors, according to his obituary, the bank wants to earn some real money off the property. "Investment decisions are made based on how an asset performs or should be performing," says McAdams, who declines to say whom the money would benefit.

Expresso is unquestionably popular. About 400 cars visit the joint each day for a cup of java or a fresh pastry. Surgeons from Broward General Medical Center, which is a couple blocks away, roll by. So do several judges, who toil at the county courts, a mile north. Regulars are everything here. Though the business takes in a healthy $500 to $800 per day, Robichaud and Ludlow can't raise the $495,000 asking price.

Public record includes little about the property's background. An eccentric entrepreneur from Lexington, Kentucky, Reed bought the Dairy Queen decades ago, before Broward County kept computer records. Born at the turn of the century, Reed ran pari-mutuel betting departments in Kentucky and Cuba, according to ancient clips from the Lexington Leader. The only full-blown article describing him was published in 1978, when he gave $5,000 to the humane society.

Robichaud and Ludlow began running Expresso soon after arriving in Fort Lauderdale in 1992. They cracked a deal to rent the business -- then a year-old drive-through coffee shop -- for $600 a month at nearby Lester's Diner with former owner Laura Scoble. Reed remained the absentee landlord.

At the time, Robichaud and Ludlow were sleeping in their van. When they started selling coffee "roasted right here in Miami" -- actually, then it was Pompano Beach, and now it's North Miami -- they took a room in a "no-tell hotel," Ludlow remembers. "Thirty minutes and they wanted us to pay. We worked here for about a year before buying the business for $30,000. It was tough for a while." They incorporated with the name of a favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers album: "Mother's Milk Inc."

Pretty soon, volume doubled even though the yuppie coffee craze caught on slowly here. The coffee-shop owners broke up in 1996, but they continued to work together. Part of the reason they stayed afloat was the reasonable rent. Reed, who Robichaud says developed an affection for Expresso, upped the monthly fee to $700 per month but never went higher.

Lots of customers have been coming to the place for years. Wayne Huizenga Jr. was a regular until recently. So was Broward County Mayor Diana Wasserman-Rubin. There have been celebrities too. Kind of. Gene Hackman stopped by for a cup once. And somebody picked one up for Demi Moore when she was a filming a scene from Striptease at Broward General.

Then there have been 10 or 15 drop-bys from the county psych ward, which is up the street. "You can tell who they are," Robichaud comments. "They wear wristbands and two gowns, one for the front and one to cover their ass."

And there are the formerly incarcerated folks. They don't usually intimidate Ludlow. Though once: "I was alone here when a guy came up and said he was just out of jail," she recalls. "Then he said, 'I haven't had any in a long time' -- I was really scared until he said -- 'any Coca-Cola.'"

Hospital employees are hooked. Ronaldo Montmann, director of technical services at Broward General, often shows up twice a day. Robichaud prepares the requisite hazelnut with cream and two packets of Equal when he sees Montmann's car. Told of the shop's impending demise, the hospital administrator responds: "No way. I'm gonna quit my job."

But John DiPersio, a Coldwell Banker real-estate agent, says he has twice shown the property to prospective buyers. He has also fielded an offer of $350,000 from Robichaud and Ludlow, which he calls "subpar." Robichaud says experts have told him the place is worth $270,000. DiPersio and McAdams say it appraises much higher. "It's an extremely hot corridor," says the agent, pointing out that a new, space-age Publix is almost finished up the street, an office building is under construction just south of it, and owners of a vacant lot near Expresso are asking $1.6 million.

McAdams sent Expresso owners an e-mail December 31 that gave them until the end of February to leave. He is still negotiating with Robichaud and Ludlow and may allow them to remain until the place is sold.

C'mon, Skipper; let 'em stay. This whole thing reeks. And, folks, we're gonna see a lot more of it in coming years as downtown Fort Lauderdale, among the fastest-growing urban areas in the country, develops. Good independent businesses will be chased out in favor of high-bucks franchises like Starbucks, which has a much higher profile shop than Expresso at Federal Highway and Broward Boulevard.

Ludlow and Robichaud say they are looking for a new place. "We've been keeping it together with spit and tape for years," Robichaud says. "The building stinks." He thinks his clients will follow. "I can't go anywhere in town without people saying, 'There goes the coffee guy,'" he says. "I sure hope they'd come to a new place."

I wish McAdams and his bank would think less about money and more about neighborhood. I wish just being a local joint with a local clientele still meant something. I wish that I could get as good a cup o' joe somewhere else in America's Venice.

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse