By Mike Biddison
August is National Coffee Month, and coffee purveyors all over the country will be touting the joys and benefits of the brew that Americans favor over all other beverages. Here in Merced, the independently owned Coffee Bandits will continue as usual this month making their customers happy with locally sourced fresh coffee.
National Coffee Month is not a holiday sanctioned by congress, but simply a recognition of the beverage’s importance in the United States, where it has been noted that half of all American adults sip the drink every day. A vast majority of the nation’s households begin their day putting on the coffee pot, or alternatively, waiting in line at one of thousands of coffee shops across the country.
While there are more than a dozen coffee shops in Merced, Coffee Bandits stands out as an example of a more traditional coffeehouse, where people meet for business or to socialize, and as a gathering place where poets and artists can share their works. “We’re community and arts focused, always have been,” says Melissa Eisner, owner of Coffee Bandits, who explains “I come from Santa Cruz, where there were many of these kinds of artistic spaces, and I missed that a lot.” Eisner says she just needed to bring a little bit of Santa Cruz to Merced. Eisner migrated to Merced from Santa Cruz with her husband, who went into a PhD program at UC Merced.
2021 marks Coffee Bandits’ 10th year doing business in downtown Merced, next to the Art Kamangar Center on Main Street. Eisner and a partner opened the coffeehouse way back then, but Eisner says her partner had an opportunity to move to Hawaii early on, and grabbed it. So it has been only Eisner tending the business and staff over the past few years.
Employees number between seven up to a dozen, at times. With such a small staff, they are like a family. When someone leaves, they are often difficult to replace, but Eisner says they have no trouble finding people who want to work, unlike many food service places who have experienced worker shortages recently because of the pandemic.
Just staying open and keeping the business viable through the pandemic was a challenge, but it has been that way all along, Eisner maintains. Staying open the past ten years has been a lot of work. When Coffee Bandits first opened, Starbuck’s customers who drifted in had to adjust expectations to accept the different ambiance. Now, regulars include local business people working remotely, as well as students working on laptops as an alternative to studying at home—while taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi.
“At the end of the pandemic, it’s hard to say what sort of art scene will remain anymore. But there is a lot of reforging of relationships and creating new relationships—we’ve been talking to local artists and musicians and we’re starting up our open mic nights again. It’s a little bit of the wild west right now,” Eisner says, “but we’re striving to be a location that harbors the local art scene here in Merced.”
In addition to coffee, Coffee Bandits features its vegan pastries, using no butter, milk, or eggs. “The recipes have been worked out over the years, and are quite popular.” The coffee is roasted locally by San Juaquin Coffee Roasters and shipped fresh to Coffee Bandits and a few other area coffee shops.
As for that name, originally Coffee Bandits had been thought of as an homage to Joaquin Murrieta, a famous local bandit known as the Robin Hood of El Dorado, and others. “But recently,” Eisner says “we’re more leaning into a raccoon bandit vibe,” a tribute to the critters seen occasionally wandering around the downtown area at night.
Mike Biddison is a Times contributor and a novelist living in Merced. Learn more about his books at: redmistgirl.com.