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Flying Star was transformative

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Flying Star chain of cafes is in chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Its January 2015 filing said the company had debt of more than $6.2 million.

What follows is not an obituary. This is a fan letter. Flying Star and its owners, Jean and Mark Bernstein, have made Albuquerque a better city.

The first Flying Star Cafe was called Double Rainbow when it opened in 1987. It was a narrow shop on Central in Nob Hill. A display case ran along one wall. A couple of tables and chairs were on the opposite wall.

It was like nothing Albuquerque had ever seen before. The pastries were rich and delicious. The coffee was a deep black. The few tables were coveted. On nights a symphony or a theater performance was scheduled at Popejoy Hall the line ran out the door and down the street.

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Eventually a space next door opened up and the cafe was able to install more tables and chairs. People would linger over a newspaper or savor a conversation. To go to Double Rainbow required patience because no one was hurried out. In that, it emulated the coffee house scene in Vienna, where people will spend an entire morning with a newspaper or a friend. Double Rainbow was a civilized place where coffee and pastry were an accompaniment to a lifestyle.

When more space became available at the Nob Hill location the cafe finally got big enough to seat most of the customers most of the time.

A trademark conflict forced Double Rainbow to change its name to Flying Star, but the name caught on, and the customers kept coming.

At some point, Jean and Mark Bernstein embarked on a strategy to grow their business, with new locations and an expanded menu. It was not an easy decision, they told me in a 2004 interview for the Journal.

“We wanted to create a good place to hang out and that served really good food,” Jean Bernstein said. “We kind of had a little mission.” There comes a time in the life of a business, she said, when you have to decide if you want to make the cappuccino and roll out pie crust or if you want to manage the people who do. If you are content to manage the people, the business can be allowed to grow.

Mark Bernstein said he thought that to open their company’s second location on Juan Tabo in 1995 would mean simply replicating the Nob Hill store, with its own bakery and kitchen and cooks. The cost of that redundancy killed profits, so the Bernsteins quickly learned to consolidate some kitchen and business operations and management.

Everything about the business changed as Flying Star added stores, including the technology used to cook the food, shipping, ordering, invoicing, training, hiring and quality assurance, the Bernsteins said.

Some customers did complain that prices were higher than the food warranted. There was certainly cheaper coffee around. But for a certain demographic, Flying Star became the place to meet. You’d see study groups from the university at the Nob Hill store and politicians conspiring downtown. Hikers, bicyclists and bookstore browsers haunted the Rio Grande store. Communities found each other at Flying Star.

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The Flying Star cafes transformed some neighborhoods. The Nob Hill store became enough of a destination that other shops appealing to the Flying Star demographic were able to thrive in what had been a transitional stretch of Central Avenue. The Bernsteins took over the old Southern Union Gas Company building downtown that had been designed by John Gaw Meem. The store became a neighborhood hangout. The Rio Grande store anchored a cute new shopping district in the North Valley, including the iconic Bookworks store. Flying Star was one of the early tenants in Santa Fe’s reviving railyard district.

The Bernsteins’ stores brought some architectural excitement to the dreadful sameness of Menaul, Paseo del Norte and Juan Tabo.

Growth did not come cheap. Infill Solutions put $3.5 million into the downtown building before leasing it to Flying Star. And far from the simple, narrow Double Tree shop, the stores were beautiful and big. The downtown store was 9,960 square feet, the Bernalillo location 7,500 square feet.

Jean Bernstein told the Journal last year the bankruptcy filing was a business decision that would help the company close non-performing stores. Competition for the coffee house crowd has become tougher, Bernstein said. Last time I looked, there were four good coffee houses within walking distance of Flying Star’s now-closed downtown location. As of now, the company has closed its Santa Fe, downtown and Bernalillo Flying Star cafes.

I don’t mean to nominate the Bernsteins for sainthood. Bankruptcy makes a mess. Employees lose jobs. Creditors lose money. The Bernsteins’ business mistakes have hurt more than Flying Star.

Still, watching the Bernsteins navigate chapter 11, I find myself grateful for the American way of bankruptcy. Our nation loves its entrepreneurs, so when they stumble our system tries to help them get back on their feet again, so they can keep innovating and transforming our country. May this be the Bernsteins’ experience, too.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or wquigley@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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