Pleasanton: Characterz Cafe reveals hi-tech celebrity makeover

Chance pit stop, HGTV designer Frank Fontana breathe new life into local coffee shop

Customers say they enjoy the recent remodel at Characterz Cafe by HGTV celebrity designer Frank Fontana. Some former fixtures like the large "Deadpool" promo sign are now gone but the cafe's funky vibe is still going strong. (Photo by Ryan J. Degan)

Whether it's a nifty new Batmobile, shiny costume redesign or adding a trusty sidekick, evolution is a part of any comic book character's trajectory. So the recent makeover at comic-themed Characterz Cafe and Coffee Roasterz on Sunol Boulevard was thematically appropriate.

"I think of it as a living, breathing thing, just as I do for comic books in general," co-owner Crystal Diamond said in an interview about the lively coffee shop's newly completed transformation.

Usually a sleek, understated aesthetic is the goal for most coffee shops, but Diamond and company prefer a look that's literally animated, from the wallpaper design featuring hundreds of black-and-white comic book panels down to the colorful business cards with the illustrated faces of Diamond, co-owner Michael Petrak and other employees on the backs.

A chance pit stop in late February sparked the dramatic remodel just a couple months before the shop down from Raley's in the Oak Hills Shopping Center celebrates its fourth anniversary.

Shawn Lange the president of Lab2Fab, a part of commercial kitchen supplier Middleby Corp. that sells high-end technology to improve restaurant operations stopped in Characterz and noticed Diamond juggling multiple duties behind the counter while also tending to her 1-year-old son, Logan Jedi, and immediately spotted a mutually beneficial opportunity.

"They were making everything in the microwave and toaster," Lange said. "It was slow and it was laborious, so I asked if she'd be interested in testing out some equipment."

Diamond was intrigued by Lange's "robot ovens" that use artificial intelligence to streamline food production and increase profits.

The two struck originally just a profit-sharing deal but that suddenly exploded into a Hollywood affair when HGTV celebrity designer Frank Fontana entered the picture.

Lange said that Fontana, who creates social media content for Middleby, heard about their plans and has been intrigued about using technological innovation to "really help the bottom line of Main Street America."

"Frank wants to take this concept and put it on TV," Lange added. "Over the last month we went from just doing a robot in the back to a full makeover."

Everything happened at breakneck speed, according to Diamond, who was caught off guard by the compact timeline. "I thought they were going to do renovations in April," she said. "Then they said they needed to start on the 9th (of March), but I thought it was almost impossible."

With "so much stuff in cupboards from 28 years previously," plus a huge 20-foot cabinet left by the former occupants, the short deadline to clear out the place added to the chaos.

"It was both therapeutic but emotionally hard," Diamond said of the cleanup. "That next morning, they gave me a call and asked if I could be there at 8:00. We played one last game at the shop and then that morning they came in and just started demolishing everything."

Diamond "worried about ruining people's routine" while they were shut down but everybody was supportive. "Nobody knew what was going on," she added. "It wasn't like we could really warn anybody, plus we didn't know how much we could talk about."

Whether the remodel is called "geek chic" or "Comic Con meets Starbucks," there's plenty to talk about since it wrapped.

The place with "all creatures welcome here" on its walls now sports new wallpaper, paneling, tables, chairs, couches, an upgraded food and drink menu, and appliances like a tankless JoeTap dispenser that pours nitro coffee and cold brew.

A ventless conveyor combi oven in the kitchen works with a payment pad upfront and self-assembles Characterz' renowned breakfast sandwiches while cashiers waits on customers. Meanwhile, a coffee-on-demand brewer guarantees a hot cup of joe any time of day (or game night).

There were only a few stipulations from Diamond on the remodel; a table bought by a customer for playing games on stayed, and a large metal rack was brought in and stuffed with the cafe's collection of board games. The giant "Deadpool" promo sign that loomed in the front of the room was raffled off at the reveal party March 24, and some signature pieces like the arcade games are now gone, giving the place a much more open feeling.

"It was so amazing to see how much space there was," Diamond said. "But it was weird to see it hollowed out."

During that hectic weekend near the end of March, Diamond also dealt with a family medical emergency and threw a birthday party for her son before capping it all off with the remodel reveal party that was attended by an estimated 200 people.

Public reception to the new facade has been largely positive; Pleasanton resident Robert Rodriguez said he likes riding his electric skateboard over occasionally and brought along two colleagues this week for a meeting. The new atmosphere has made him consider holding some classes at the cafe.

"Pleasanton needs something like this," Rodriguez said. "I do meetups for computer science teachers, I can definitely see having them here."

Colleague Noah Canton was filled with joy when he first walked inside. "It's fun; I've got a pretty large vintage toy collection," he said that includes characters from "Star Wars" and "Transformers". "It's a comfortable, nice environment that makes me feel joy and nostalgia."

Nothing like Characterz exists back in Taiwan, where Chiruei Tsai lives when he isn't overseas working on his post-doctorate research. "All the Comic Con things are so familiar, all the heroes and everything, and even the board games are familiar to me," Tsai said. "I've seen them before in Taiwan. We have a cafe that allows people to play board games but I don't think we have something with comic figures."

Even with some of the dramatic changes, the cafe's roots still linger and ensure that its quirkiness will remain a staple feature. "I can see bits of my family, friends and community in it," Diamond said. "And it all started because somebody had to go to the bathroom."

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4 people like this
Posted by Kerrie
a resident of Dublin
on Apr 4, 2019 at 11:50 am

Congratulations Crystal! I'm so happy for you! I'll be by this week to check it out. ~Kerrie

6 people like this
Posted by Jeff Durban
a resident of Del Prado
on Apr 7, 2019 at 3:34 pm

Jeff Durban is a registered user.

Characterz Cafe truly embodies Pleasanton's Community of Character both in name as well as in spirit. I have found it a place I can grab a great cup of coffee on my way to work, stop in on a weekend morning to have a superb breakfast sandwich, and bring my family down on a Friday night for Family Game Night. It feels like the extension of my home. I'm always greeted during the week by the Coffee Mafia, long-time Pleasanton residents who gather every morning to share coffee and discuss life's events. Mike and Crystal and all the other characterz are like family to me.

Characterz truly does have character.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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