Erin Westgate describes her downtown Phoenix coffeehouse as an extension of her living room. A quaint house nestled in the coverage of trees.
Songbird Coffee and Tea House, near McKinley and Third streets, welcomes guests with a circle of lawn chairs, picnic tables and a green porch swing.
The shop has been in business for six years, marking its latest anniversary on June 23. Starting out in a warehouse just a block and a half from where it’s now, the local favorite has endured many changes over the years.
When Songbird first opened, it served mainly as a creative destination for artists, writers and graphic designers. The flourishing Phoenix arts district now has new neighbors: high-rise apartments and sprawling office buildings.
“When we first opened, this area was a lot emptier than it is now,” Westgate said. “It was this district where everybody was working really hard to make it and doing their own thing. This was the area to figure it all out… It was neat to be in the messiness of things.”
Westgate, 36, says she enjoys seeing the dirt lots filling up, but is pained to witness the once artist-driven neighborhoods starting to shift. Just recently, Short Leash Hot Dogs announced it’s leaving Roosevelt Row after five years and relocating to Melrose District.
“It’s fun to have more opportunities around and see more people moving down here, but at the same time (downtown Phoenix) is changing.” Westgate said. “I hope it stays the arts district and not just a show. This area has so much soul, and I hope it stays.”
Through Songbird, her passion for gathering all walks of life in an intimate space is evident. Single tables align green velvet cushions, a bar top rims the front windows. Almost every spot requires this feel of shared space.
“I love introducing people. I wanted a place where people come to figure things out,” she said. “To be in the arts district where artists are trying to do their own thing… sit down, slow down and have a conversation with the person next to you.”
The community she serves is as important as where she gets her product from. Tea, coffee and gluten-free pastries are sourced from local vendors.
“It’s imperative that I have the ability to meet and talk to the people I work with face to face,” she said. “They’re invested in the same area, which means they know better what our customers want.”
Coffee: ‘It’s an art’
Westgate was inspired to open her own coffee house after working as a barista for a coffee shop in California, her home state.
“I worked at the Café Bar and I loved getting to make good things that started a conversation for someone.” she said. “Coffee is not just espresso, it’s an art. And I was able to meet so many good people … that changed my life dramatically.”
The former barista moved to Phoenix in 2010 and opened Songbird two years later. Since the shop’s opening, she has handled a steady process of rolling with the punches and navigating her way through change.
“This is such a transitional neighborhood and that’s probably the hardest part,” she said.
“I was kind of naïve in the beginning to think that if I provided good service and a good product, everything would just workout,” she said. “I didn’t really think about the fact there will be people who don’t care about me succeeding or who really don’t want me to.”
When Songbird first opened six years ago, Westgate had a partner. Three years later, she became the sole owner.
Loyal customers, employees drive her passion
She leans on the support of her neighbors, employees and loyal customers to keep the beans brewing and coffee pouring.
When Songbird first opened, Westgate was not only an owner, she also was the sold barista and cashier. Soon, she realized she needed to hire some help to keep up with the demand.
“Hiring the first person was actually pretty painful,” she said. “It was like leaving the baby with a babysitter for the first time.”
Since then, her employees have become like family. She has had a low turnover rate, developing a special connection with her staff.
Songbird will offer 30 percent drinks all day on July 23. The coffee house also has started recycling and will be encouraging patrons to bring their own mugs.
Songbird Coffee and Tea House
Where: 812 N. Third St., Phoenix.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Details: 602-374-4192, songbirdcoffeehouse.com.