salon Benders

Cal Bigari and Jessie Santiago stand in front of their business, Salon Benders, in the iconic Coffee Pot building.

Salon Benders's owners are calling the iconic Fourth Street Hot Cha Coffee Pot home — and say it was meant to be.

The shingle-style, Victorian-inspired jewel is best known for the giant percolator that sits on top of the building and its ornate leaded bay windows. The space has been through many transformations over time, yet still stands today, making a statement with its outside appearance.

This is just what the stylists at Salon Benders’ (sic) specialize in — using hair as a tool of expression, allowing changes on the outside to communicate with the world a bit about what is on the inside. They have a particular passion for unique looks and designs, focusing their work on the transgender community and their allies.

Cal Bigari and Jessie Santiago say they had a vision to create a salon and community space that could not only host high-end hair services, but also be a place that LGBTQIA+ people could lounge, connect, and have access to art, education and wellness.

Bigari and Santiago say they dreamed of transforming the little coffee pot into the salon that could bring their mission to life. And they did — opening the doors in September 2018. Ever since, the duo has been hosting community events, providing transgender education outreach to schools and businesses, and bringing what they hope to be a positive impact to the neighborhood.

As a transgender man, Cal shares why it’s important for him to have this space where allies could come and learn more about how to support the community:

“I didn’t transition to live in a bubble; I want my world to be big. There are so many people who want to support the queer and trans community, but aren’t sure where to start — and many queer and trans people who can’t be as visible as we are privileged to be. We’ve intentionally designed the space to make room for these conversations, and we’ve already seen the impact they’ve had.”

Bigari says he has always had a passion for community building and education, but often found organizations that put service first struggling to make ends meet. Santiago’s 16-year career as a teacher and stylist in prestigious salons positioned her to develop a space, as their website states, “that is as impeccable as the community it serves.” Together, they created a new model that turns a profit and uses its success to support community.

The Building's History

The Victorian-inspired home was built in 1910 at 957 E. Fourth St. In 1933, it was registered as “Koffee Pot” marking the use change from a private home to a restaurant.

The upper attic portion of the original house was left exposed on the interior of the restaurant, forming an exposed roof canopy in the entry area. At one point, the house was painted a rainbow pattern, and remnants of original paint still exist but are hidden in the attic directly underneath the roof-mounted spout.

The diminutive octagon-shaped building is one of the few remaining examples of "programmatic" or “themed” architecture, where the building itself serves a large-scale sign advertising the business. These were popular in the 1930s as a way to attract the attention of passing motorists.

The structure was called “Hot-Cha Café” from 1936 until 1960, when a tavern and pool hall took over, with the name shortened to “Hot-Cha” until the late ’70s.

Over the years, the building has served as a church classroom, barber shop, medical marijuana clinic and home to transients. It was designated as a landmark in 1991, but fell into disrepair. In 2014, the graffiti-ridden, broken windowed compound was purchased by the Long Beach Development LLC.

Eric Winkler and his father Marvin Winkler, principals in Long Beach Development, bought the iconic Hot Cha building and surrounding residential units about the time the property had been declared a public nuisance and hazard by the city. Their first order of business was stopping demolition.

Eric and Marvin enlisted the nonprofit We are the Next and executive director Katie Rispoli Keaotamai to help coordinate an authentic rehabilitation. The extended property was first used as a-time consuming AirBnB campus while a search for a partner for the Hot Cha building.

Next Steps

According to the Winklers, the rental agent showed the quirky property to many and there were multiple applicants to rent the space, but none were a good fit. The Winklers' vision was for an art gallery and a place to enjoy a really good cup of coffee.

The owners next decided to personally search for the right tenant. They went to the nearby Sea Birds restaurant for breakfast asking for suggestions. They were told to, “Call Cal.”

“The synergy was there the instant we met Cal and Jessie.” Eric Winkler said. “They had a solid business plan, they were involved and cared about the neighborhood, and we had a gut feeling that this was a match. They were definitely on top of their game.”

It was meant to be.

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