The little café that could
Thanks a Latté, the best thing to happen to downtown Biggs in decades, is up for auction
The brightest spot in the two-block-long stretch that constitutes downtown Biggs is a little coffee house and café called Friths’ Thanks a Latté. It’s the only place in town to grab a bite to eat, unless you count the pizza joint out on Highway 99, a mile away. More important, it’s the community’s only real gathering spot, the social center where the people of Biggs—pop. 1,700—meet and greet their friends and neighbors.
That’s why folks have been worried since its owners, Roger and Mary Frith, announced they’re selling the place.
“It’s breaking our hearts,” Tony Albiston, pastor of the Biggs United Methodist Church, said Monday (Feb. 23). He was in Thanks a Latté having lunch with his wife, Kathy, and was more than happy to talk about the Friths and their café.
“We see everybody here,” he said. “It’s just a great place to hang out. Roger and Mary are absolutely wonderful. And the food is delicious. But we understand why they’re selling.”
Another customer, Sharon Angle, works at the credit union downtown and eats at Thanks a Latté “almost every day.” She appreciates how much care the Friths took in creating the café, which was just an empty shell before they rebuilt it entirely. “It’s really homey and nice to come here,” she said.
Then she added, almost conspiratorially, “They have the best meatloaf sandwich. If you like meatloaf, you’ll love it.”
There was once another café in downtown Biggs, Angle said. “It was pretty good, but it’s been gone at least 25 years. There’s been no place to have lunch or breakfast until now. And the Friths are really good people, really exceptional.”
The Friths opened Thanks a Latté three years ago after retiring from their careers—his in Roseville, where he worked for the multinational electronics corporation NEC, and hers in Sacramento, where she worked for the California Department of Forestry.
Mary Frith was born in Biggs, and though her family moved to Fair Oaks when she was 7, she often returned to visit relatives in her hometown. After she and Roger married in 1965 and started a family, they continued to visit Biggs, and Roger soon came to share Mary’s affection for the small, friendly farm town 25 miles south of Chico.
Anticipating retirement, they relocated to Biggs eight years ago, and Roger quickly became involved in civic affairs. In 2004 he ran successfully for City Council; his fellow council members immediately selected him to be vice mayor. He ran for re-election in 2008 and is now the town’s mayor.
For five years, the Friths commuted to work each day in their hybrid Honda Civic, going first to Roseville, then to Sacramento. Their youngest son, also a member of the family carpool, then continued on to his job in south Sacramento. Every evening they reversed the process.
The Friths started building the restaurant even before they retired, working early mornings, evenings and weekends over a period of 15 months to convert an old downtown storefront (the brick building dates officially to 1915, the first year records were kept, but actually was built in the 19th century, Roger said) into a modern restaurant with hardwood flooring, an up-to-date kitchen and attractive, high-quality wooden tables and chairs. There’s also a banquet room in back, behind the kitchen, that gets plenty of use.
The couple work the café together—she in the kitchen, he out front taking orders and handling the register—7 a.m. to 7 p.m., closed Sundays. The café is as much a labor of love as a business venture, they say; thus the name, which is meant to express their gratitude to the Biggs community. “It’s not about money,” Mary Frith explained. After decades spent working for NEC and the state, “we’re sitting pretty with our retirement.”
When the lunch rush ended at about 1:30, the Friths were able to sit down for an interview. They’re an outgoing and apparently very happy couple who have the easy way of being together found in long, loving marriages.
Mary said she originally wanted to open a gift shop, but she quickly realized that what folks wanted was a place to eat. Neither of them had ever owned a business, much less a restaurant. The sum total of their experience was that “we ate out a lot,” Mary said.
Roger, for his part, was motivated by something a Chico economic-development expert once said to him: that nobody would ever invest in downtown Biggs. Roger was determined to prove him wrong.
When Thanks a Latté opened, the Friths quickly saw that they’d made the right decision. The community took to the new café, and folks told them how happy they were that it was there.
“That’s what really pleased us, watching people who hadn’t talked in years coming in and seeing each other and renewing their friendships,” Roger said.
The banquet room also gave local organizations—the Lions, the Biggs Women’s Club, Little Leagues, the Feather River Model Airplane Club—a place to meet. Asked whether it was well used, Mary replied, “Oh my gosh, it’s always booked.” Besides the scheduled meetings, there are family reunions, “lots of birthday parties,” political fund-raisers, visiting speakers, school district gatherings—all kinds of occasions.
The restaurant is profitable, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue to prosper.
So why are the Friths selling?
Well, for one, they never intended to operate the café for more than three years, Mary said. Their goal was to create it and then pass it on.
Lately, though, that goal has become more urgent because of the health problems of a close relative. Mary explained that her sister’s husband died a year and a half ago, and three months later, the sister’s teenaged son was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, an auto-immune disorder that causes bone marrow to produce insufficient amounts of blood cells.
The boy is terribly sick, his mother is trying to care for him while still grieving for her husband, and Mary wants to be available for her sister, something she can’t do if she’s working in the café six days a week.
The couple had it for sale for a while but got no takers, so now it’s up for auction through Bidwell Properties. The bidding period ends March 20, after which the Friths will select what they consider the best bid.
Money, they said, won’t be the only criterion. They’re hoping to find “somebody who will carry on the spirit of the café,” as Mary put it. It’s safe to say the people of Biggs share that hope.