When owner Carole Janks first opened her coffee shop along the main drag of a then-bustling Pacific Beach district 21 years ago, she was up against some serious competition.
“We were starting at the same time Starbucks was opening, and I felt at the time, that Starbucks was going to be huge competition,” she said. “They were opening all over the place and I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something besides coffee.’”
Over the next several years, Zanzibar evolved into a full-fledged restaurant, serving up premium quality made-from-scratch dishes that her customers kept coming back to savor.
“The food side of the business just expanded over time,” Janks said. “It wasn’t the initial goal to be a restaurant, but people loved what we did with the food. We went after the really high-end natural type of foods, and the more we did that, the food business increased.”
After a long struggle to obtain a permit for an alcoholic-beverage license, she was also able to add beer and wine to the menu just a few years ago.
“We’ve evolved over the years,” she said. “We’ve always been an art gallery for people who want to show art and we used to have live music. We’re constantly trying to do better, improve, keep up with things.”
From the beginning, Janks said she wanted to make sure the café was a haven for everyone in the community, regardless of background.
“My goal was to have a place that was really comfortable for anybody — it didn’t matter if you were young, old, religious, non-religious, any color, whatever,” Janks said. “It was the type of space where it didn’t matter if you were 90 or you were 20, you could still feel good, have a good time and just feel comfortable.”
Unlike some coffee shops and restaurants that cater to a specific customer base the full gamut of customers could be seen on any given day within Zanzibar’s walls.
She credits much of that global appeal to her tight-knit family of employees, some of whom have been working for Janks for upward of 12 to 15 years.
“I think that was what was appealing to a lot of people. It was just a cool space to be in. It had nothing to do with the space, but it was just the feel we created, and that has a lot to do with the people I hired,” she said. “Zanzibar employees today and in the past were such a family, and I think that comes across in the feel and the vibe — that it’s almost a family atmosphere.”
In Zanzibar fashion, many of Janks’ beloved employees from past and present gathered at their favorite coffee shop on its final day to join Janks in a last hoorah and to bid adieu to a longtime staple in the Pacific Beach community.
“It’s been a really amazing neighborhood experience,” she said. “There are people who come in here that have been coming here every day of their life for 20 years. It really became an institution in PB, and in a lot of ways, for me, that’s the saddest part, because I have other places, but I just know if I had a place I went to every day of my life for 20 years, I would be devastated.”
Over the past decade or so, Pacific Beach has become a different place than it was when Janks first opened, she said.
“It didn’t matter what night of the week or what day, the streets were always packed and there were lines out the door all the time. In those days, there was nowhere else to go than PB,” she said. “It’s a ghost town now during the week.”
Over the years, the building suffered from standard wear and tear, and Janks had high hopes of taking care of some renovations to her kitchen, repairing a leaking ceiling and replacing an old awning, among other minor repairs. But when her 15-year lease expired and her rent was increased by several thousand dollars a month several years ago, Janks’ dreams for renovation — or even running a financially viable business — were shattered.
“I can’t invest money in a space that I don’t have a lease, and I wasn’t going to sign a lease that was for such an exorbitant amount of money,” she said. “It was great while it lasted, but the last six years since our rent has gone up has been very difficult for us. It’s not that it isn’t a good business — it’s a great business — but nobody can survive with this kind of rent.”
Finally, this year, Janks decided it was time to cut her losses.
“Business is unbelievably difficult for so many people right now that you really want to try to make things as easy as possible for yourself,” she said. “Everybody has to work so hard for so much less today, and to have to deal with such negative stuff that I’ve had to deal with, I just don’t want to do it anymore.”
What exactly the future holds for Janks and her Zanzibar franchise is unknown; however, she will likely weather any storm that comes her way with grace as she continues to move forward.
“I just want to take a year and concentrate on my catering and wholesale business,” she said. “Just concentrate on what I’ve got.”
Zanzibar café in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter and on UCSD’s campus remain open and thriving. Although Janks said a relocation is not out of the question — possibly in North County — her only focus now is on moving into her new offices and commissary and remodeling her downtown café, which is opening up a new side patio this month.
“I’ve given a third of my life to this place,” she said. “We’ve always run a really good operation, but this building is falling apart. It’s just time to move on and move to a place that has more positive things for us.”