Motor Oil Industrial Coffees
In December 1990, a small coffee shop near the intersection of Selby and Lexington Avenues in St. Paul, Minnesota first opened its doors to the public. It would entertain its owners, friends, and collaborators until it closed in March 1994.
The following collection of interviews about Motor Oil is an excerpt from Erik Farseth's Wipe Away My Eyes: Underground Culture and Politics 1979-1999, "a social history of the post-punk underground, illustrated with original woodcuts and collage art." (Reprinted with permission from the author.)
- In The Beginning
- The Vision Thing
- Too Much Smoke, Too Little Sleep
- Culture and Commerce, Music and Zines
- Alternative Art
- Renovation, Renewal, Retreat
"The Motor Oil Industrial Coffeeshop / Speedboat Gallery at 1166 Selby Ave. in St, Paul. Motor Oil's got great 50 cent coffee (coffee only, no cappuccino or espresso), music you'd never hear in other cafés (Germs, Gang of Four, Tom Waits, Throbbing Gristle), a huge fanzine library, a better selection of records than most record stores, and best of all no pretentious snotty attitudes at all."
— Aaron Cometbus, 1992
"Speedboat was kinda odd, na? I love Motor Oil though—couldn't stop eating."
— Allison Germs, Bratmobile, 1992
"It is hard to describe what was so special about Motor Oil to someone who was never there. Aaron Cometbus once said that he knew of only one other place like Motor Oil in the entire country—sort of—and that was in Dallas, Texas. Bands came through on regular basis. So did plenty of ordinary people who lived just off Selby Avenue—like the old man from the Lex-Ham Neighborhood Association. No one batted an eye. Whereas the Hard Times/Urban Peasant was always abrasive and in-your-face and very rough around the edges, Motor Oil was cool in a very understated sort of way . . . much like the graphics on the sides of their collection of old vintage oil cans.
"Given that it was located above the Twin Cities leading punk venue, Motor Oil was almost shocking in its lack of pretension. It was a place where you could always find the latest issue of Dishwasher or Maximum Rocknroll on the magazine rack, yet it never came off as being exclusive or self-righteous.
"Motor Oil was more than just a coffee shop. Motor Oil was a genuine community."
— Erik Farseth, 2000
Motor Oil was one of those incredible, brief places where location, regulars, owners, politics, music, and art all combined to create a completely unique space. A coffee shop, set on an unimportant intersection on a neighborhood arterial road, two blocks from a high school (where I was a senior when it opened), in the midst of a racially diverse neighborhood and connected to an alternative art gallery.
I'm not even sure the first time I went there, but I started going back pretty regularly during my last semester in high school—usually early in the morning when I should have been in physics class—and then every day come summer. There were any number of reasons why I liked the place. Cheap coffee. Cool, stripped down aesthetics. Art. Good music—a lot of which I'd never heard before. Bartenders who didn't look down on me as a teenager. And to a point, it was my own place, a spot that I'd found myself without friends bringing me there and telling me how cool it was. A retreat.
I had graduated from St. Olaf College and had moved to St. Paul. I was working in a restaurant in downtown St. Paul called Fitzgerald's. I had a bachelor of arts in Mathematics and English, but I had no desire to pursue either one right away . . . I had quite a bit of experience in the restaurant industry. So naturally I got a job as a cook.
A couple of years after that, my younger brother Andy moved in with me from Nebraska and I introduced him to some friends who were running Speedboat Gallery: Scott Dolan and Paul Dickinson . . . I hung out at Speedboat occasionally because it was a couple blocks from my house. So I introduced Andy to Scott and Paul, and he fell in love with the ethos of the place. And one night Andy reminded me that years ago I had said I wanted to open a coffee shop. And since I didn't have anything else going on at the time, I thought it was a project worth pursuing. At the time, Speedboat had two storefronts. Andy and I proposed to Paul and Scott that we take over one of those storefronts—the art lounge—and that we turn it into a coffee shop. And they liked the idea.
So we had been working on this for about a month or so, figuring out the health code requirements . . . and there was this guy that kept bugging us whenever we'd go to Speedboat, saying "What's taking you so long?" And it was hard to explain what was involved . . . eventually we got so tired of him asking, we decided to ask him to be a partner to us, so he could know how much work it really was . . . His name was John Pucci. I had probably met him three times in my life. But he agreed, and he became a great partner and a great friend, and I don't think we could have done it without him.
We were just standing around talking and the idea came up. John was really excited about it. He seemed to be the one person who kept pushing us to pursue the idea.
It was Craig's idea. He was a friend of a friend . . . I overheard him talking to someone about the idea. I started throwing all these ideas at him. We got into a five-hour conversation about all these ideas. At the end he asked me to be a partner with him. "Give me a day to think about it," I said. I was a custodian at the time. I'd just graduated. Grad school was about the only thing I was thinking about, and [Craig's idea] sounded cool. And then six months later we had a coffee shop.
Even with John it took another six months to open up . . . during this whole time we were all working outside jobs. My main source of financing was my Discover card. I had a fifteen hundred dollar credit limit, and I used it judiciously.
We had to do a lot of remodeling type-of-stuff. Making sure that the existing plumbing and wiring were up to code. We charged everything on Visa and Discover cards. I was making OK money as a custodian. It didn't cost a lot for me to live.
We had more resources than money. I guess that kind of forces you to be resourceful.
We went to a lot of auctions, scavenged dumpsters, [took advantage of] the jobs we had at the time . . .
I'm sure that everybody has some period in their life that they think of as the golden years. I know it's been true for every restaurant that I've worked at. You've got all the people you need, and the resources to make things happen. Motor Oil remains a golden moment for me. For three-and-a-half years I ran this coffee shop with my brother and my good friend John. And our aspirations were limited only by our imaginations and our credit cards. There was a time in my life when I learned that if you want to make something happen, you simply have to start doing it. Later I learned that you can also try to convince someone else to start doing it. But that's not nearly as much fun and the results are a lot more mixed.
So we opened the coffee shop in 1991, and of course we had no money for advertising. And wouldn't have known what to do with advertising anyway, because we were never looking towards the mainstream clientele that would be swayed by that . . . John was in charge of our graphics. Flyering was the main form of advertising. And it was nice to have the rock shows still going in the basement, because that gave us something fresh for the advertising. If we had a show coming up, customers had to be there on that night. One of my favorite non-rock show ads that we did was one we called "16A to St. Paul." John took a bus schedule for the 16A (city bus) which ran right by our door, and he just blew it up with Motor Oil on the time table at 1166 Selby Avenue. It took us about a month to realize that John had put the wrong time table on the flyer. So you couldn't actually use it to get to Selby!
Being on a bus line was one of my criteria for a coffee shop. The sort of atmosphere I was trying to create depended on a bus going by outside at regular intervals. A place where time didn't matter so much. Where you'd stop in and get clues that time was passing by . . . So while I was there working behind the bar, I wasn't thinking about it in terms of minutes, but about three bus cycles.
We wanted to create a place where we wanted to hang out. Which ultimately was part of our undoing. The coffee shop was full most of the day, especially during the last couple of years. Eventually, I learned that you don't judge the health of a coffee shop by how many people are sitting inside, but by how many "to-go" cups you're going through.
We knew we wanted a cheap cup of coffee.
When I was at St. Olaf, I probably spent four to six hours a day in the Cage, which was the coffee shop in the Student Center. And in the Cage, you had twenty-five cent cups of coffee with nickel refills. And this was not good coffee! It was your basic institutional coffee. What I came to know as "the Lutheran blend," where when the coffee cup is full, you can still see to the bottom. (I'm not from Minnesota originally, and I'm not Lutheran, so this was all new to me.)
So when we opened up Motor Oil, the nickel refill was an important part of the atmosphere. Nickel refills seem like a better deal than free refills, because free refills you take for granted. But nickel refills are pretty damn cheap! Of course we were serving fancy coffee. And when we finally got around to figuring out food costs, each cup was costing us about seven cents. So if someone came in and got ten refills, it was costing us eighty-four cents. So it was a sad day when we finally gave that up and had to raise prices to seventy-five cents a cup with refills for a quarter.
We also had an ethos of no foo foo coffee. We didn't have espresso. No cappuccino. I remember Ed Dunn [owner of the Dunn Bros. Coffee chain] coming in and asking for an espresso. And I said that we didn't make espresso. He asked "Does that concern you?" And I said, ""No. Does it concern you?" Because at the time we seemed to be doing OK not selling foo foo coffee. Of course, we were still working our other jobs forty hours a week.
It was deliberate. We opened in reaction to a lot of other coffee shops. In part we opened because we hated the alternatives.
And then changed in reaction to our pocketbooks.
We were trying to broaden our appeal. We were turning a lot of people away.
We were barraged by business people.
These guys wanted to come in with tape measures and calculators. Measuring the gallery to see how big it is.
A friend of a friend critiqued the placement of equipment and use of the space—these really annoying business things. I didn't get into it for the business aspect. Aesthetics, comfort, diversity, constant change. For me [business] was never a motivating factor. That just gets annoying . . . If you want to have a crappy little thing just like everyone else's, fine. But that's boring.
Again, I think that we set out to create a coffee shop that we would like to be a part of. So that first six months when we were planning, and talking, and creating, we kept coming back to what would we like to do. We wanted a coffee shop that had cheap coffee, but good coffee. So we did. And we attracted a clientele that wanted that as well. We had to create Motor Oil, because Motor Oil did not exist. Had there already been a coffee shop that we liked to go to, there would have been no need to do this. And we probably wouldn't have considered it.
We were all lonely, and we wanted to create a place where our friends would come and visit us. That was one reason why we had a bar for people to come and sit at. It was a high bar—the idea was that we would be standing, people sitting would be at the same height and we could talk to them.
We wanted a place where we could smoke like fiends, all day long. And so we had this one ridiculous table as the non-smoking section . . . which we strictly enforced. Especially between the hours of nine a.m. and three p.m. when we had a lot of truants from Central High who could completely take up the entire coffee shop.
We wanted a place where we could all hang out. We all smoked—we liked smoke. Originally, there was one table that was non-smoking. It was more of a token gesture to keep the Health Department off our backs. And then we realized that not everyone shared our fondness for it.
For the first year and a half, we had sort of a "fuck 'em" attitude towards the customers. Not the best attitude.
It sort of evolved into a kinder, gentler, fuck 'em.
Later on, when we decided that perhaps we were smoking a bit too much, there would only be one or two tables designated as smoking up until four in the afternoon. After four we had a more liberal smoking policy.
When we first opened we would fall asleep . . .
. . . But this time someone came in.
At least three people came in. Some came back.
I was playing a Blondie record—"Call Me"—and I fell asleep at the bar . . . It had been skipping for over an hour. And no one woke me up.
If we had planned this as performance art, it would have been hailed as a work of genius.
The sound of the door closing would jolt you awake.
In the beginning we were open from seven thirty a.m. until midnight, six days a week. And we had no advertising to let people know that we were there. Those first few weeks had a lot of down time. We were also dog-tired from working our other jobs.
About six months after we opened, someone came in and said that they had been there right after we had first opened, but had walked out and hadn't returned. The scene that they described was of a brightly lit coffee shop (before the renovation we only had florescent lights) and there was no one in the café at the time, save for one person at the bar with his head down between his elbows, snoring. And over the speakers was some Devo song that was skipping. Because we didn't have a CD player, just a turntable. This person came in, looked around for about ten to fifteen seconds, and felt sorry for whoever it was behind the counter and didn't wake him up. But they didn't come back for another six months.
For the next two years, I heard the exact same story from five different people—none of whom knew each other.
When I graduated from Central High School, there was an all night graduation party at the school. They let us out at seven a.m., and I immediately headed for Motor Oil, which at that time opened up at seven. Craig was working the bar, and a woman who was student teaching at Central was sitting at one table. They were dozing when I came in. They both woke up, Craig poured me coffee, and they both promptly fell asleep again. Then I followed suit. I don't think they kept the seven a.m. opening time much longer.
We had decided to have a belated grand opening night on January 27th, 1991. And through John's connections we got Arcwelder to play in the basement. I'm sure that we put up a lot of flyers about it. But two days before the show, it got announced on the one alternative radio station [104.1 FM which later turned into a country station.] They announced it three or four times. And that night, we must have had four to five hundred people come through the door! The place was wall-to wall people. We had a selection of nine different coffees, and we would usually select two to brew every day. That night we had all nine types going at one time, all stored in Stanley thermos bottles. We went through our entire stock. Made more money than we could have ever imagined, which was probably three hundred dollars in sales. And I saw friends that I hadn't run across in years . . . some of whom I haven't seen since.
We attracted a very loyal clientele because we didn't see them as customers really. We saw them as "friends" or "people we didn't care for." John was more open about letting them know which group they fell into. Treat people like friends, and treat them well, and they'll come back. Treat people like customers, and they'll act like customers. When you think of a place like the Hard Times, there are definitely "Hard Times people," where you don't even think of them as regulars, they are a part of the environment. That's what we had: an ever-changing environment based on the art that we had on the walls, the music we were listening to, the people at the tables. You don't get that at a Starbucks . . . And you wouldn't want to hang out with the people there anyway. Motor Oil was a place where friendships were formed that went way beyond the exchange of coffee orders.
The regulars: God, you know, I don't even remember anymore! There was Jeff Skene, Julian from Babysplit, the girlfriends of Craig, Andy, and John, the scary mailman guy, the guys who ran Two Stroke Studio, various zinesters, artists, high school students, neighborhood people . . .
Later, of course, there was the "Is Mike here?" episode in which this crazy guy came in looking for—uh—Mike.
Before I started hanging out at Motor Oil, I had listened to some punk, like the Dead Kennedys, the Sex Pistols—your basic teenaged punk beginnings. But it was Motor Oil and Speedboat that connected me with that music and culture. A lot of bands that figured big in my life, I either heard on the stereo at Motor Oil, or in the basement at Speedboat.
We were a destination spot. By which I mean we weren't convenient to anyone. Except for the last few years, where people actually moved to the neighborhood because of it. In some ways, the changes that people saw in Motor Oil were the changes that we as owners had been going through. At first we wanted chocolate donuts every day of the week, and so we had the chocolate donuts every day of the week. Eventually, we realized that the pastry order was costing us more than we were actually bringing in. Our desires changed, we didn't want chocolate donuts every day. We wanted chocolate donuts on Fridays. And instead of getting the bear claws and long johns, we simply got three dozen donuts every Friday. That wasn't a response to customer demand.
I liked cheesecake on a stick when we had that. It was ahead of its time. Too gourmet for people.
I believe that Speedboat originally had a zine library as part of the art lounge, and we continued that. They were trying to promote "alternative culture" in all its forms. And I'm pretty sure that we started selling zines because we had found a really good rack on which to put them. It was a great rack that was perfect for our needs! And we had goals of becoming a zine distributor. That never happened. But we did have a very large selection.
It seemed like there was more work after that to keep it from getting trashed.
Andy was really the driving force. He had been doing his own zine called Donut Frenzy, and had connections. If someone was traveling from out of town, we would simply buy them outright. Aaron Cometbus would usually come to town once a year, and we would buy zines from him. Having five copies of Cometbus 23 was a real coup! As far as I know, no one else in town was selling zines when we first opened. Now I think they sell them at the Hungry Mind.
In conjunction with the zines, we were also selling seven-inch records, which was the brainchild of John Pucci. John was in a band, and was making his own seven-inches, and at the time he was working at the TCI (Twin City Imports) warehouse, which was only about six blocks away.
I worked in shipping at a record distributor—Twin City Imports . . . a great source for seven-inches and magazines.
Jeff Skene was also running his own label, and he lived right across the street. Chris Johnson from was running his label Big Money Inc., and he consigned his records to us.
Bands would come to town, we would buy seven-inches off of them. We would give them in-store credit. And eventually we had a really nice selection. People would come all the way from Minneapolis to check out our seven-inches and zines. This one woman did all of her Christmas shopping at Motor Oil. She bought $130 worth of merchandise—and at the time, $400 was a good day at Motor Oil. She bought quite a few t-shirts, as well.
We decided really early on to do limited-run t-shirts. The decision was made because we could only print a few shirts at a time, at first.
Our first batch of t-shirts were hand printed for us at Macalester College in Ruthann's print shop. Ruthann [Godollei] had come into Motor Oil a couple of times. One of her former students, Tim Gartman, was running a print studio around the corner called Two Stroke Studio. Those connections allowed us to do the first run of t-shirts. We had maybe thirty shirts. When that stock ran out, we had enough money to go to Zimmerman's to print more shirts. Bart Longacre was working there at the time, and I'm pretty sure that he threw in some extra shirts. He became one of my best friends eventually.
We changed the logo slightly, and many of the same people who had bought the original t-shirt bought the second one as well. We realized that you can actually sell a Motor Oil shirt to the same person four or five times in a row. We looked forward to the time when the current batch of t-shirts would run out, so we could design a new shirt. What color would it be this time? Would it have a breast pocket or not? One year we also did sweatshirts by pre-order. [As well as aprons.] There's probably only fifteen to thirty sweatshirts in existence, but I have two of them.
Speedboat was already doing the art thing, and they were doing it very well. I knew nothing about art at the time. Certainly nothing about "alternative art." So I didn't really realize what was special about Speeedboat at the time: art that wasn't created specifically for sale. But at Motor Oil we had hanging art on our walls as well. We were never in competition with Speedboat for art or artists. Which is one reason why it all worked. We tried to have an opening once in Motor Oil for the art, and it was such a pain in the ass, that we decided to leave the openings to the gallery, just as they left the coffee to us.
Given that, we had some great shows. Two of my favorites were both by zine artists. One was by Dishwasher Pete, who Andy had been corresponding with. Pete had a goal of washing dishes in each of the fifty states. One of his guiding principals was "if you're sick of the job, you should quit." And of course he was constantly taking jobs that he would soon get sick of! He also had a collection of Macaroni and Cheese boxes. At least three hundred of them, all of them the same size, with suspiciously the same ingredients. But many regional variations. So Dishwasher Pete came through town . . . He took a stint at washing dishes at Motor Oil, and hung his mac and cheese on the walls.
Another great show was by Mr. Mike. The show that he did for us was at least five hundred paper airplanes . . . not folded paper airplanes, but two-piece constructions, the first being the fuselage, with a slit through the window, and stiff paper wings stuck through the slit. These hung from the ceiling. Paperclipped to each one was one of his zines. Fortunately, we didn't have the show until after we had renovated with ceiling fans. The ceiling was constantly moving! Which could have been nauseating. And perhaps it even was for some people. But it was an effect that I can still see if I close my eyes.
Erik J. Cruelty:
Mr. Mike had done an installation of his cartoon art that managed to incorporate almost every available surface. There were poster-sized panels on the walls, and a bunch of mobiles hanging from the ceiling. But the coolest thing was when you went into the rest room, he had rigged it up so that there were copies of Rump Comics suspended from the ceiling attached to a system of miniature pulleys and counter-weights. So you could sit down on the toilet, and pull down any one of three different mini-comics, and it would hang there right at eye-level while you read it.
This was all taking place in the midst of the Motor Oil Second Anniversary party: two bands / two bucks. That was also the same day that the photographer from Details Magazine showed up—'cause they were doing an article on "hot clubs across America." It was a zoo! The photographer left as soon as Arcwelder started plugging in their equipment. I guess he just couldn't take it. Too much rock 'n' roll.
So this all going on at once: there's tons of people there who've never been to the Speedboat before, all the regulars are making fun of the guys from Details, and Mr. Mike is sitting at a table in the middle of the gallery with a stack of his comics holding up a sign that says "ask me about my rump"!
This was also just after the bombing of the World Trade Center, and people were still pretty upset about that. One of the comics that Mr. Mike had done for the art show was a picture of The Fonz from "Happy Days" talking about blowing up the World Trade building . . . "AYYYY!" It was pretty ballsy! I always wondered what some of the older customers thought about that.
I did a two foot-by-three foot version of that comic for their second anniversary (it was my first anniversary). And this woman walked in—she was from the Lexington Community Center which was on the corner—and she was Henry Winkler's cousin! She came in just laughing, and thought it was hilarious! So I gave her a copy of the comic book to give to him, because Henry Winkler was the only person that I ever wrote fan mail to as a kid. I wrote him like three letters, and he never wrote me back. Nothing.
We were all unabashedly liberal, and wouldn't take any grief from someone who disagreed with our point of view. If we disagreed with someone, we certainly let them know. There was no point in doing this thing for really no money and then having to put up with crap. And that included conversations of crap. Since we set this thing up as a place where we would exchange conversations with people. I felt a personal obligation to promote my politics, as well as to assess them as time went on. Its interesting that as we were opening up, President Bush was gearing-up for the Gulf War. The first four months that we were open, America was engaged in war. We thought it sucked. And we let people know.
Motor Oil was fortunate in that Speedboat had broke the ground for us in that neighborhood at least two years before we arrived. They were already doing rock shows and had smoothed-out any concerns with the immediate neighbors and the landlord. If anything, Motor Oil added respectability to what Speedboat was doing because we could be seen as a "legitimate" business.
It was a great neighborhood! When I've tried to imagine creating Motor Oil from scratch someplace else, I find it difficult to believe that it could be done without a lot more tension and conflict. We were fortunate that Ted Benson [of the local Community Council] was on our side. He also helped us adopt and air of legitimacy. He didn't come to many rock shows. But he was glad that we were doing them.
Relations with the neighborhood [were] generally pretty good.
The biggest problem was with rock shows getting out of hand: public drunkenness. The coffee shop makes the whole thing more accessible and opens it up to the neighborhood.
For a brief period, the café also experimented with having Lex-Ham (Lexington and Hamline) Neighborhood nights that were geared towards more of the older people in the neighborhood who might not appreciate The Germs or The Minutemen.
The idea was that on one day we would play tamer music and try to be more welcoming to the neighborhood. For the first few weeks, a couple groups of people showed up. But the idea never really took off.
I'd rather Motor Oil just be what it [was], and that shouldn't be threatening. It [was] a different kind of coffee shop . . . I like the idea of trying to be accommodating and accessible but at the same time I [didn't] want to change it.
People respected the space, as a whole. There were always individuals who probably didn't feel comfortable being accepted for what they were. And who had to dump their shit on the scene. You'll find that in any alternative setting that attracts an individual who is trying to stand out. One problem with the term "alternative" is that it is always defined oppositionally. How can you be a punk when all of your friends are punks? When the coffee shop owners think you're OK . . . when everything that you read is stuff that you can agree with? That's a real question. A lot of people are able to handle that. But some can't.
I just happened to be hanging out at Motor Oil on the night of the Hellkrusher show. All of these drunken crusties came upstairs and started stumbling around. I remember this one guy was trying to pour himself a glass of water . . . The glass was completely full—to the point of overflowing—but the guy was too drunk to realize that, so he just kept pouring it all over the floor.
Something kept banging against the side of the building. So I look outside, and a couple of punks in Class War hats were throwing rocks at the windows! They were wearing baseball caps with the Nike logo, only instead of "Nike" it said "Class War: Just Do It!"—and here they were throwing rocks at the windows of Motor Oil.
So then John had go outside and yell at them.
I always found it ironic that in the environment that we created, in which free expression was encouraged, some people still found it necessary to put graffiti in our bathroom. It seems like a stupid thing to be concerned about as a coffee shop owner—certainly the Hard Times has dealt with it by doing absolutely nothing!
For the most part, our punk friends and customers understood that we were also trying to appeal to a more mainstream clientele that might be offended by obscenities or even just simple tagging of a bathroom. Most of our punk friends / customers respected the freedoms that Motor Oil offered them. For the most part, nothing got out of hand. On the few occasions when it did, it was the other customers—and not us as owners—that stepped up and dealt with the situation.
We didn't set up Motor Oil as a money making proposition. And Motor Oil obliged. After a while, economic reality set in. And we came to terms with our own physical limits.
We always made enough money to meet our basic needs. But after that it was a bit sketchy. The majority of it was outside income.
So we closed down for three months. It was excruciatingly long. Using what we had learned, we actually got some financing. Ted Benson, who was president of the Lex-Ham Community Council, lived in the neighborhood and believed in what we were doing. Somehow it came up that we were looking to remodel. I'm pretty sure that he just offered out of the blue to loan us three thousand dollars. It was done without any sort of contract . . . never wrote it down. The other source of revenue was a loan from John's father, who also loaned us three thousand dollars, and with that we took out the drop-ceiling and installed ceiling fans. Which was essential, because we all smoked. And even though everyone who came in there smoked, the smoke was unbearable!
We also bought more equipment for the kitchen, including this massive cooler, a ten-gallon tilting steam kettle, and a very low temperature toaster oven. From my experience in the restaurants I'd been working in, I knew how to run a [minimalist] kitchen. I knew how to craft a menu that would be varied and fun—both for us to prepare and for the customers to consume—while relying on very few pieces of equipment. We didn't have a grill, we didn't have an oven. We didn't have stove top range. But with a ten gallon steam kettle, we were able to make three soups a day, without any sort of large exhaust fan which we could not afford.
We created a menu with seven different sandwiches, mostly vegetarian. The most popular being the #3, which was roasted red pepper—made fresh daily in our kitchen—with cream cheese and sliced red onion. And the roasted garlic, fresh spinach, and melted gouda cheese sandwich. With our toaster oven, we could roast maybe six red peppers at a time. And twelve heads of garlic. So we would have to do that three to four times a day before the lunch rush. And we'd also use the toaster oven to bake brownies and chocolate chip cookies.
We eventually added a two page menu that had an incredible variety of fresh ingredients that you couldn't find anywhere else . . . The menu took six to ten months to actually develop.
We re-opened with a (very small) espresso machine, with higher prices, some new china, and the directive to actually make some money. And it worked! We were able to pay off our loans in about a year. And we were able to start drawing some salaries on a monthly basis.
The last six months we actually had an employee named Mark Nemeth, who was on five nights a week. But even though it was making money, we all worked outside jobs to the bitter end. When it became apparent that the coffee shop simply wasn't going to provide us with a livelihood, we closed.
We had all met girlfriends through Motor Oil. Relationships were stable. We had made a lot of friends. In many ways, we had met all the goals that we had set for ourselves. If we had made the goal of making this a viable business that would sustain us for years to come, we would have made some different decisions from the beginning.
We've often said that had we started off Motor Oil the way that we ended it, and if we had known from the beginning what we knew at the end, it would have been a much different operation, and it might still be there today. But if we had known all that, it's very likely we never would have set out to do this in the first place.
Original source: http://www.angelfire.com/punk2/walktheplank/motoroil.html
Erik Farseth also published an additional set of oral histories about Speedboat Art Gallery.