CLEARWATER — Matt Behms' job is more than just selling food, though he spends his days serving salads, sandwiches, hot coffee and ice cream.
As the owner of the Cafe at the Clearwater Library in the Main Library downtown, he says a lot of his time is spent chatting with people and listening to their problems.
But now Behms wants someone else to take over the operation. The trouble is, city leaders aren't sure they want to find a replacement. With three owners in the past four years, the cafe has lacked continuity, they say. So Clearwater officials are thinking about doing away with the cafe and installing snack machines.
That makes Behms, a 24-year-old University of Florida graduate, cringe.
"There's been a huge outcry from the patrons to keep the cafe," said Behms, who has circulated a petition and collected more than 100 signatures. "People come here, (and) they talk to me like a bartender sometimes. You can't talk to a vending machine."
Behms, who says he invested $35,000 in the small cafe, wants to sell the business to Aaron Beny, a 36-year-old New York transplant who moved to Clearwater last July.
Beny, who is willing to pay the $25,000 price, has submitted a proposal to the city detailing how he would run the cafe and what he would add to the overall operation.
Beny said he would change the name to Coachman Perk Cafe and expand business hours to coincide with the library's. He'd like to host Monopoly and chess matches. He also suggested speed dating, but said, "It's more of a New York thing, and Clearwater may not be ready for it."
When told that the cafe's future may be in jeopardy, Jessica and Ken George, Clearwater residents and cafe regulars, said they were upset.
Jessica George, 78, said vending machines are "impersonal," and the city should bring in a new owner. Her husband of 51 years agreed.
"The cafe's a nice perk with nice surroundings, and you don't have to bring your lunch," he said, adding that's what he would do before dropping coins into a vending machine.
Beny, who says he successfully ran several cafes in New York, has designed a Web site (www.coachmanperk.com) that details his proposal.
When Clearwater opened the $20.2-million library on Osceola Avenue in 2004, officials hoped the cafe would lure visitors for lunch and to check out the community bulletin boards.
Located in the west terrace with 60-foot-tall ceilings, the cafe's atrium also has wireless Internet access.
Behms says he gets about 100 customers a day and makes a profit, but he wants to move to the east coast to be closer to his family and possibly start a business there. He has another year on his contract but wants to leave soon.
Clearwater officials have mixed views about the cafe's future.
Library director Barbara Pickell said the cafe's past owners met with varying degrees of success, so when Behms signed on about a year ago, city officials decided "that was the last change the city would make.
"We just don't feel there is a real future for a stable operation to continue there," she said.
She acknowledged that there's a trend toward opening cafes in libraries — Largo's library has one — but said the vending machines and Internet access would be enough to bring in visitors.
The city charges Behms $400 a month in rent and 3 percent of his sales once he reaches $3,000 a month, which Pickell says has happened only a few times.
City Manager Bill Horne said "it's not good for business" to have a high turnover in ownership. He wants a three-year commitment. He said he was initially skeptical about a proposed sale but is willing to listen.
The City Council will probably not get involved in the issue unless the administration opts to go with Beny or another owner.
Council member George Cretekos said he "supports the cafe but (also) wants continuity in ownership."
And Vice Mayor John Doran said "if there's no hue and cry from the library patrons to keep it," then he doesn't expect it to stay.
Mike Donila can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.