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T Q&A

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What is it with Tucson and the year 1984? A lot of Tucson institutions were born that year: the Weekly, Lute Olson's tenure at the UA and Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea. Bentley's opened its doors on Feb. 3, 1984--a whole 19 days before we first hit the streets. The venerable hangout, although it has moved locations a couple of times over the years, now sits basically where it started, at 1730 E. Speedway Blvd., just off the UA campus. The Weekly recently sat down with owner Jo Ann Schneider, 50, who helped start Bentley's two decades ago, giving up her job working with special-education kids to do so.

It's 1984. You're 30 years old. What makes you decide to open a coffee shop?

To be perfectly honest, I thought it would be an easy way to make a living--I was naïve and stupid, maybe. I had been hanging out in these coffee shops in Cleveland, Ohio, and I thought, "Shit, I can do this." In my mind, I thought opening my own business would be easier than teaching for a living.

What kind of struggles did you have?

I had never worked in the restaurant business before, and I didn't know what I was doing. I had a business partner when we began--her name was Bentley, hence the name of the place. Sometimes, I still think I don't know what I am doing. I had no idea how to tackle the task of running a small business. I didn't know what it really involved. I was hopeful, but incredibly naïve. The day the store opened, that's when I realized, "Oh no; what have I gotten myself into?" I was terrified. We had borrowed money from my partner's mom--we'd borrowed her life savings--and I feared losing the money of this woman who had put all her faith in her daughter. So we dug in. About three months after we opened, we had a full house. It was amazing. It's still amazing.

What did you do to turn things around?

I never left the place. We came in at 6 in the morning and worked until 4 in the afternoon. Then, I'd go home and rest until about 7, when I came back and worked until either midnight or 3 a.m. Then, I'd come back the next morning and do it again. We figured we were worked 120 hours per week for the first year; then, it started getting a little easier. We hired more people. We were really the first community coffee house; we had poetry readings and art on the walls. It almost developed a life of its own.

What's the biggest mistake you made over the years?

That's hard to say; I could list about 100 of them. But I'd say the biggest was that we expanded way too quickly, and opened up a second location (downtown); that was a huge mistake. Also, we've never owned our own building; we've always rented. I have a great landlord now, but I just didn't get the business aspect. I got the customer-service aspect. ... It's a family here, and that's been nurtured, but I made a lot of mistakes.

I am sure a lot of strange, weird things have happened over the years. What's the weirdest?

There are a lot of them. But one of the weirdest things was when we were at Geronimo Plaza (at University Boulevard and Euclid Avenue). We had a wonderful outside patio, but there was a pigeon problem. In response to the problem, our landlord decided to poison the pigeons--on our roof. Well, in the middle of the lunch rush, while people were enjoying their food and sitting in the grass enjoying their coffee, pigeons started falling from the sky, dead or dying. That was bad. It was like something out of The Birds. Then we had to deal with the animal-rights people. ... A lot of bizarre things have happened, but they help make us who we are.

What do you see in the future for yourself?

I can't imagine my future without this place. I love it; nothing has really changed. I am probably not as frantic as I used to be about making this work, but this is my future. Bentley's has touched a lot of people's lives. Plus, I don't think anyone would hire me.

How about the future of the coffee shop?

I don't know. I hope to continue creating an atmosphere, creating a comfortable place to be. All the new ideas that happen here, they usually come from people younger and more creative than I, to be perfectly honest. I feel that I just provide a vehicle for these people.

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