January 1 marks 30 years since proprietor Shannon Hartman opened neighborhood institution Priscilla’s Gourmet Coffee, Tea and Gifts. Hartman was only 23 years old and fresh out of college when she bought the original Priscilla’s in 1987. She says she had fallen in love with afternoon tea during a college summer exchange program to Cambridge. After graduating from UCLA, she was in her favorite London tea shop during a trip with her dad when he asked her if she had thought about opening her own such store. As fate would have it, shortly after that trip, Hartman’s dad spotted a small coffee shop for sale on the corner of West Riverside and North Rose Street (where the Garry Marshall Theatre stands today). Hartman purchased the business with her small nest egg and opened for business on January 1, 1988.
Although she had not run a business before, self-described worker bee Hartman was able to harness the expertise of family and friends in areas like bookkeeping, hiring personnel and other daily aspects of running the business, with help from then boyfriend (later husband and business partner) Mark. But what drove Priscilla’s success was Hartman’s passion for her product and engaging personality. She says, “I think what I brought to it is that I’m a people person — and I loved coffee too — so it was an easy sell for me, selling what you love.”
Business was brisk, and after a few years she was looking at expansion. With newcomer Starbucks also vying for a location in Toluca Lake, Hartman declined a buyout offer and moved quickly to lease a larger location — opening a second Priscilla’s in July 1993 just one block east of the original store. “I didn’t want to let go of the little shop and had diehard customers who loved that location,” says Hartman, but while doing the books on January 13, 1994, she realized she was going to have to close it: “Financially, it did not make sense.” Just four days later, the Northridge earthquake hit and severely damaged the original store. “It was red-tagged, and they had to bulldoze it,” Hartman says. “It was like in a weird way, everything fell into place … It broke my heart, but at the same time, it kind of released me.”
Concentrating on her main store, Hartman tried not to worry about the competition, invested in quality products and equipment, and focused on her strengths — most notably, her ability to connect with her customers and staff and create a community. The store has always employed students, aspiring actors, writers and others who come to Los Angeles to follow a dream, and Priscilla’s has become a source of friendships and security for many of them. Hartman laughs, noting a transition from the time when she was a peer of her employees to now, when she is more like a mom. “I love that,” she says. “I feel like I’ve always watched out for them, but they also kind of take care of me, too.”
Hartman feels fortunate to have made her niche in Toluca Lake. “I love where I live in Studio City, but when I drive to Priscilla’s and get here, there’s this openness,” she says. “It’s very hometown, but there’s a sophistication, too. You can sit outside, look out onto Riverside Drive and just relax.”
She adds, “I’m in a business where you’re going to come in because you want something to pick you up or something warm to drink. I’m lucky to do something that makes people happy.”