Remembering Nick Sandro with a ‘Love Fest’

By Kevin Ausmus | Special to the Courier

When Nick Sandro came to California from his hometown Chicago in 1978, he just wanted to help his cousin sell mopeds. But one day, while visiting Claremont, he fell in love with the quaint Village, thought it held enormous potential for a cultural transformation, and instinctively knew what the city needed: a shot of espresso.

Nick’s Cafe debuted in 1979 in a small alcove inside the former Village Theater building, helping to usher in a new era for the laid back City of Trees with a jolt of authentic Italian-style coffees — cappuccino, macchiato, cafe latte — drinks that fueled a new generation of musicians and artists in a burgeoning Village scene.

Many of those same musicians and artists will come together Sunday, June 23 at the Garner House to pay tribute to Sandro, who died in March, during the 4 to 8 p.m. “Nick Sandro Love Fest.”

“Over the years, Nick and I would often reflect on how well Claremont treated us,” said Linda Biscardi, a longtime friend of Sandro’s and co-founder of La Piccoletta restaurant, which also opened in 1979. “There was a receptive, loyal audience here. I don’t think our success could have happened in any other place.”

Sandro brought with him no small amount of Chicago swagger and musical influence, forming close connections with local musicians, including the late multi-instrumentalist Chris Darrow, who invited Sandro to join his band Los Guys as a harmony singer; a role, notes Sandro’s longtime friend J.P. Plunier, that suited him perfectly.

“Nick grew up listening to Chicago doo wop groups and bands like the Chi-Lites,” Plunier said. “Nick knew how to put voices together. He was like that. Nick could see the value of things, like charging a dollar for a cappuccino and letting his customers sit at a table and listen to music or chat with friends, or even do nothing for an hour. When Nick started his cafe, no one else was doing that. It was revolutionary.”

How revolutionary? Longtime customer Janet Teres Larick grew up on espresso made by her Italian grandmother. When she heard authentic Italian coffee was being brewed in the Village, she got on her three-speed Huffy bicycle and rode all the way from Chino Hills to Claremont for a taste.

“There was always a man playing the piano,” Larick said. “Sometimes there was someone reading poetry, and there were art shows. I had found a sanctuary that felt good to me, which led me to finally move to Claremont, my forever community, thanks to Nick.”



Nick’s established itself as a music hub when Sandro invited the 12th St. Mini Band — an eclectic, bluesy jug band led by Claremont College professors — to jam on the patio, which proved to be wildly popular with a new generation of Claremont youth. Nick’s, with its young servers and caffeinated vibe, was ground zero for the nascent 1980s Claremont music scene.

Among the Mini Band’s early admirers was musician and author John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. “The first time Nick served me a cappuccino, I would have been about 12 years old,” Darnielle wrote in a Facebook post. “[Nick’s was] a place where, when you show up, your shoulders relax a little, and the familiarity and comfort of the setting, of the regular company there and the newcomers who become regulars, makes for you sort of a second home.”

The emphasis on music accelerated when Nick’s moved to the alley between First and Second streets, next door to La Piccoletta. The new space was large enough for live performances, and the spacious patio served as a cultural nexus for more than a decade.

The new spot hosted early performances by a young folk singer named Jewel, who drove up from San Diego to play Nick’s open mic. David Byrne scouted Geggy Tah there before signing the dance/pop band to his Luaka Bop record label.

But most famously, Nick’s also hosted a young, unsigned Ben Harper, whose relationship with Sandro was always about more than music. They were introduced by Harper’s grandfather, Charles Chase, who founded the Folk Music Center with his wife Dorothy in 1958. Chase was a World War II veteran and fought in Europe, where he developed a taste for strong coffee. He became fast friends with Sandro, who impressed Chase so much he told his young grandson, “This man is going to be an important member of this community.”

“Nick’s life read like a book, being equal parts Hemingway, Joyce, Franzen and a little bit of Fante,” Harper said. “Nick had an amazing voice and was an excellent guitar player. He knew what musicians needed, whether it was a gig or just a creative outlet where we could be ourselves, uninhibited. Nick brought Claremont into a new era of cultural relevance and had such a positive impact on so many people. I will always cherish our time together.”

The free and open to the public “Nick Sandro Love Fest” runs from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday, June 23 at the Garner House, 840 N. Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont, CA 91711. More information is available at, search “Nick Sandro.” Organizers are looking for volunteers. Email for more info.


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