Sandbox Coffehouse
204 E. Thompson Blvd.  
$1- $8

Name one local business in the restaurant industry that has made it a mission to build community. Tough one, right? Well, Todd Ryzow, owner of Ventura’s Sandbox Coffeehouse, is living proof that it can be done.

“The cafe is about helping the community,” he says, “Its purpose is not to take, but to give.” Since opening a year ago, Sandbox has opened its doors to business meetings, church groups, and even hobbyists holding craft mixers. And, “If someone doesn’t have a dollar for a cup of coffee, that’s not a problem here,” he says.

Sandbox offers a laid-back vibe, making it a good match for a post-surf coffee or a casual lunch after a walk at the beach. Large outdoor seating offers new picnic tables, a sculptured bike rack and even a small kids’ table.

Inside, local artwork covers the walls, and for those accustomed to the modern finishes of your standard chain coffee shops, the space may feel a little rough. You’ll see a speaker left out from last Saturday’s live music tucked in one corner, maybe a keyboard from Thursday night’s open mic night sitting in another. There’s a tiny children’s piano, a child-size couch, and a basket of toys that offers my toddler endless entertainment. Yet, unfortunately, they don’t have highchairs.

Clearly this is not your cookie-cutter run-like-a-robot franchised coffeeshop. There’s no pumpkin spice latte here, and though I have been known to shed a tear when Starbucks runs out of its magical pumpkin spice syrup, I think this is a good thing. This is a locally owned business with a conscience, and Ryzow wants everyone (not just the folks with deep pockets) to be able to eat and drink here. Explaining the high markups in the coffee industry, he asks, “Why would I overcharge, just because I can? That’s not a good enough reason.” A small coffee here is $1 and the food items max out at $8.

Yet being a small business does bring with it some kinks. The chai latte I ordered on one visit was creamy but a little bland. The espresso drinks are only available with nonfat milk, which may be a turnoff to those purists who like a cappuccino with either two percent or whole milk. The cappuccino I ordered there was bitter and the hot chocolate a tad watery. Both would have benefited from a bit of extra fat in the milk.

Though Ryzow had hoped to carry locally roasted Beacon Coffee, he ended up going with Carribean Coffee Company, a business with whom he already had a relationship from his previous three coffeehouses. Of all the drinks I tried, the standouts were a hazelnut steamer and the Sandbox Blend — a blended mixture of espresso, vanilla, latte powder and ice topped with a swirl of whipped cream. You know these drinks; they are where milkshake meets coffee, a meal and a blast of caffeine all rolled into one. Sandbox also offers kombucha, a feisty fermented tea drink that it brews and bottles on a weekly basis.

When it comes to eats, the menu at Sandbox offers a small selection of items like bagels, bowls of granola and yogurt, sandwiches and salads. Though the breakfast sandwich is nothing remarkable (plain bagel with egg, cheese, tomato and red onion), the lunchtime sandwiches have a bit more oomph to them.

My personal favorites are the chicken salad, filled with crunchy pecans and sweet cranberries, and the tuna salad topped with sliced radicchio, red pepper and avocado. Both are served on whole grain bread and come with a side of carrot chips sprinkled with a secret spice blend. The Hobgoblin sandwich is a nice nod to Thanksgiving dinner with thick slices of turkey, but the added cranberry sauce is clearly from a can.

The Sofia salad is good choice — made with mixed greens, sliced baby cucumber, avocado, feta cheese and candied walnuts and finished with a balsamic dressing. It offers a nice presentation in a crisp white box, and the sweetness of the nuts and the freshness of the ingredients are the highpoint.

When it comes to running his business, Ryzow is someone who likes to take things slowly. He recently added beer and wine to his menu, but is taking his time making up his mind on his selection. “I’m going to listen to my customers and see what they want,” he said. Though the sweet treats like muffins, scones and cookies come from Siblings Bakery, he still hasn’t found a local baker for his bagels and bread. Until then, he is sourcing those from Costco.

Now back to that word community …. I have to say, it is pretty cool to see it in action. This is the kind of place where you’re likely to see customers high-fiving the barista as they arrive, and musicians patting one another on the back during open mic night. Though there may still be some kinks to work through, Ryzow has clearly tapped into a need in our community.