During the pandemic, a white-haired man pulled up to Taqueria Mi Tierra 2 on Freedom Boulevard and began to honk his horn, believing that a carhop would come out to take his order.
The man was remembering the days when the building was still the A&W drive-in, which served as a weekend cruising spot for teenagers to grab burgers and shakes.
“He was honking his horn for a long time, and I was wondering what was wrong,” said co-owner Fernando Muñoz. “So I walked out there and he ordered a milkshake.”
The halcyon days of that ‘50s-style burger joint are long gone, and the building’s time as a popular taqueria is also drawing to a close. Work crews will soon raze it to build a new drive-thru-only Starbucks, adding to Watsonville’s pantheon of seven of that multinational corporation’s locations.
The Watsonville Planning Commission voted 5-1 on Monday to approve the plan to demolish the 1,488-square-foot building at 1726 Freedom Blvd. and replace it with a drive-thru-only, 1,119-square-foot Starbucks. Commissioner Jenni Veitch-Olson dissented, and Commissioner Ed Acosta was absent.
The building on the 18,500-square-foot property was remodeled into a drive-thru in the 1980s. It fronts the shopping center which houses the vacant Kmart building, which is owned by a different entity.
Watsonville native Kim Vestal said she remembers hearing teenagers talk about cruising between A&W and the Regal gas station on lower Main Street near the Pajaro bridge.
“People would go to A&W before or after a movie at the Starlite Drive-in after the beach, or after a day at Pinto Lake, or after a day of shopping at Ford’s department store,” Vestal said. “The only other burger joints that I remember were Roy’s, Snow White and Fosters Freeze.”
According to plans submitted to the city by architectural firm GreenbergFarrow, the drive-thru Starbucks facility will include a walk-up window and a 200-square-foot patio area. There will be no indoor seating or a cafe such as other Starbucks locations.
Frank Coda of GreenbergFarrow said the small size of the property is the reason for the decision to build a drive-thru-only facility, and to allow enough space for queuing vehicles.
Efran and Secondina Muñoz own the property, and will continue to do so when Starbucks is built, Coda noted.
Commissioner Brando Sencion questioned if Taqueria Mi Tierra 2 was being “pushed out” in favor of the national chain.
The Muñoz’s son, Fernando, who co-owns the business, said it was a question they’ve been receiving constantly.
“We’re not getting pushed out,” he said. “It’s kind of a blessing, to be frank.”
Fernando Muñoz noted that the family’s other Taqueria Mi Tierra restaurant, also located on Freedom Boulevard, closes for a few days of the week due to staffing challenges that have been an issue since 2019.
By closing the second location, the staff will be moved over to the other restaurant at 1471 Freedom Blvd., allowing the business to increase its services, including adding more catering options, according to Munoz.
“In both locations, we’ve been running on fumes with staff,” he said.
Commissioner Daniel Dodge thanked Muñoz for clarifying the question that is circulating through the city.
“Your institution is beloved throughout the community, and a lot of people are asking me questions,” he said.
The new Starbucks would be the seventh such location in Watsonville. One location, next to Target in the Overlook Shopping Center, was recently relocated to the new development at the intersection of Main Street and Auto Center Drive.
Claudia Carrola-Cheng of Starbucks said the demand for Starbucks in Watsonville remains strong, so much so that the company is looking to add two to three more stores in the city over the next three years.
She added that nationally, 60% of Starbucks’ business comes from the drive-thrus, noting that the numbers are similar in Watsonville.
Veitch-Olson, however, questioned the benefits of adding another drive-thru in Watsonville, and was concerned that the city is currently undergoing an update to its General Plan that could drastically change its look over the following decades.
“That Kmart property area and surrounding shopping center is a prime redevelopment area,” she said. “One of the biggest questions for me is, do we want to potentially impact the future of development in that area by allowing a drive-thru Starbucks right here today?”