Longtime Geppetto's Cafe changes hands, founder to retire
By Lou Fancher
At a small breakfast and lunch establishment like Orinda's Geppetto's Caffe, everyone has a role.
That includes Sue Fitzsimons, who launched the now 32-year-old venture with her former business partner, Donna Fassio, in 1984. On May 30, she will retire.
The original Geppetto's opened in Lafayette on Lafayette Circle, before moving to Mount Diablo Boulevard in 1988.
"I was home with the kids," Fitzsimons says "I had no experience other than doing books for a friend's clothing business."
The cafe served dessert and coffee. Fitzsimons' husband James Fitzsimons says he suspects the two businesswomen opened Geppetto's just to avoid the drive to Berkeley to eat Vivoli's gelato.
"I was dubious, at best, when they opened," he says. "When they moved to Orinda, a much larger establishment, I didn't think it was money well spent."
But much to his amazement -- and to Fitzsimons,' who describes herself as "shy" -- the mother of two (sons Eric and Ryan) made it work with a perfect blend of a calm temperament and a fierce allegiance to "best quality" standards.
With his role restricted to mopping the floor every few weeks, Fitzsimons' husband says his wife didn't always turn the greater profit, but "she did everything in a classy way."
After Starbucks entered the scene in Lafayette, Fitzsimons peeled away from her partner -- leaving Fassio to run the Lafayette location they intended to close eventually -- and opened the Orinda restaurant in 1992.
Sure enough, a Starbucks arrived in close proximity within two years. Seeking to differentiate from the coffee competition, Fitzsimons said basic sandwiches -- turkey, tuna and egg salad -- were the first additions to the menu.
"We were also very affordable and we really haven't raised prices much," she says. "A cup of coffee doesn't have to be expensive. On the plus side, Starbucks educated people about cappuccino. But yes, we felt like we were being chased."
Over the 22 years the cafe has been in Orinda, the beautiful view -- across from the Orinda Golf Course -- and strict attention to cleanliness, food safety and reasonable prices have attracted a wide array of visitors. But what keeps customers coming back, has been the ambience.
"It's like a dry 'Cheers,' with no alcohol but all the regulars," said Jane Stanek, in reference to the TV bar where "everyone knows your name." "I go almost every day."
Stanek favors Geppetto's ancho chili breakfast burrito, double cappuccino, and an atmosphere where, if someone's missing for a day or two, people notice.
"About 12 years ago, a couple met there and later got married. They invited many customers to the wedding. It's the kind of neighborhood place you don't find anymore."
But you will find it, even after Fitzsimons tosses her last garden salad or tops off a final cup of joe. Peter Leou, who grew up in Lamorinda and whose father owns the Szechuan restaurant just steps away, is taking over Geppetto's in June.
"I plan to continue it as it is, but add hot breakfasts and weekend brunches once we get a kitchen remodel done," the 31-year-old Leou says. "I've been cooking all around the Bay Area for thirteen years and I love the location. The core of Geppetto's will always be the same."
And that pleases people like Mark Freeberg, an Orinda resident who says he's been stopping by for 15 years to grab a Chicken Monterey with melted Jack cheese and Guatemalan coffee that boosts his energy. "It makes me workout hard," Freeberg says. "I expect the new owners will want to succeed so I'll keep supporting it."