As I peered into the window of the shuttered Jibboom Street coffee shop in 2010, my spark of excitement reignited.
The following day I called the leasing agent. I knew in my heart that Truckee was not a consolation prize, but the place I was meant to start my company. “I’ve opened 15 coffee shops back in Colorado and I’m looking to do the same here in Truckee,” I told him. In addition to my cafe experience, I explained, I was a former ski racer from a small town and understood the ebb and flow of mountain life.
The space had been empty for a year, after the previous coffeehouse fell victim to the 2008 economic meltdown. Another cafe had failed before that. The landlord was understandably concerned about the viability of yet another coffee business, but I made a case for my Italian-cafe-inspired Coffeebar concept. He agreed to lease me the space.
I’d negotiated leases before and knew that my landlord-to-be would probably require more than a persuasive pitch—I’d have to show him that my venture was financially viable. And at that moment, I had just $100 left to my name. It was the ultimate fake-it-til-you-make-it moment. Luckily, They never asked to see my bank statement. In hindsight, the building owners may have been as desperate as I was.
It was go time! With no way to qualify for conventional financing, and with the clock ticking, I needed private money to get the business off the ground. I raised $100,000 in sixty days, securing loans from ten different investors, most of them friends and family. I put another $40,000 on my credit card. To say that I was nervous is an understatement.
With a shoestring budget to get a 2000-square-foot cafe off the ground, most of the remodel was DIY. For two months I was hands on, doing demo, painting, tiling bathrooms, and installing equipment with some locals that I’d met over the summer. I did catering gigs for Mark Estee to meet people in the industry and earn a few extra bucks.
We were getting close. After the shock of applying the first coat of bright green stain to the floors, a bold choice, I seized a few days of downtime and headed to Black Rock Desert to attend Burning Man for the first time. Burning Man reconnected me to a forgotten sense of childhood magic and wonder. I was surrounded by people who were passionate about the way they lived, and far less concerned with what they did for a living than who they were as human beings. You couldn’t buy anything, but you could trade—and hugs were legal tender.
Burning Man made me think hard about my new company’s culture. I wanted Coffeebar to be a place where a fair exchange of value would be at the heart of the business.
I wanted people to come in for a cup of coffee—or just for a smile and a friendly conversation. I realized that more than a business, the cafe would be a place where I could finally be me.
It turned out that getting our store built wasn’t the hardest part. It was finding people to work there. The day before we opened, I was still the only barista on the team, and desperate to find another one. But that very morning, Travis walked in the doors. He was an artist, he told me, and he claimed he could do latte art. The kicker? His last project had been painting a giant lion.
Mentally I shouted, “HIRED!” but kept my excitement in check, sending him unobserved behind the bar to make a cappuccino with some art on the top. A few minutes later, the drink appeared on my table, bearing a pretty decent “heart” design in the foam.
“You passed the test!” I told him. “You can start...well, now.”
The following day, October 11, 2010, we finally opened the doors of Coffeebar Truckee with a team of seven brave souls and myself. Roger Burns strolled in around 9:30am to buy our first official coffee and we were off to the races. That is to say, we were in business. Barely. I had just $10,000 left in the bank account to fund our operations, and we’d run $10,000 over on our construction budget.
The early months of Coffeebar Truckee were a blur. I was still in “whatever it takes” mode, and joked that I worked “half time”: just 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Despite the grueling schedule, I felt free for the first time in my life. I was 37, with years of experience under my belt; I was confident in my management abilities, but I sought feedback and maintained a humble attitude. I knew there was more to learn, and that excited me.
From the get-go, Coffeebar was a place that welcomed everyone with open arms, whether they were a Starbucks customer or a Bay Area hipster. I’d never wanted to be the sort of cooler-than-thou coffeehouse that dictated to people how to enjoy their coffee. I wanted to create a “YES” culture that expressed the spirit of hospitality I’d fallen in love with in Italy.
After working for forty days straight, I finally had my first day off. Though I was exhausted, it was still extremely difficult to let go and step away, even for 24 hours. I went to Oakland for a concert. It was my first official date with Monique, the woman who would become my wife.
While I was gone, the melting snow load on the roof of the building flooded the entire kitchen. Thankfully, Libby, our capable kitchen manager, didn’t have the heart to call me. She handled the disaster herself.
By the end of our first full year, I’d tallied just five days off--and missed one of the biggest winters on record in Tahoe. And it was all worth it.
Birthing the right kind of brand
I’d gone to business school and had even owned other café concepts, but until I opened Coffeebar Truckee, I didn’t know what it meant to own a “community café” I learned the true definition when one of our customers wrote me a letter, telling me that Coffeebar saved his life.
The father of two, he was in the throes of a devastating divorce and Coffeebar became his home away from home. He stopped in, at minimum, three to four times a day. A couple of those visits included an espresso or two. In his letter, he told me that those caffeine-and-conversation moments lifted him up enough to enable him to weather his personal storm. He not only remained a great customer but became an investor in our second location.
I quickly came to understand that people were just as likely to come in to see their Coffeebar friends as they were to get a cup of coffee. They dropped by for a hug or a short conversation. There was a lot of loving energy in the store, and people craved that energy—sometimes even more than the caffeine or the crepe.
I think it’s because I didn’t try to “edit” the way people used our cafes or manage the experiences they wanted to have there. Our customers educated us—showing us what they valued most about our business. It was eye-opening to witness them affirm our vision...and then expand on it. I’ve always said that Coffeebar runs more on heart and less on bottom line.
During our first three years, I made coffee almost daily, coming to know every single drink and what each customer wanted before they even walked in the door. I also knew who their kids were, what they studied in school, and what they were passionate about. We threw free parties just for fun, with live music and dancing on our patio. I cooked fresh pasta for family-style meals. We supported local non-profits like High Fives, a foundation started by a professional skier who’d overcome a life-changing injury, and the Truckee Humane Society, who held a pet adoption event in our parking lot following a month-long art show and fundraiser. We even had fancy, multi-course pop-up dinners with local chefs.
The town embraced our open-hearted, full-contact hospitality, and we became the epicenter of the downtown Truckee Community. We didn’t care if a guest was a janitor or a CEO: we treated everyone like a VIP, and our customers did all the marketing for us. That positive word of mouth became so powerful that in our ten year history we’ve only run two print ads.
Offering incredible access to skiing, boarding, climbing, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and soaring, Truckee was like Match.com for the adventurous soul. We provided the fuel to send folks out into the world ready to live their adventures. We invited them to come in, feel good, and head out believing that they could (often literally) scale mountains.
The future is melting
Thanks to our hospitality and excellent product quality, we became the go-to place in Tahoe for a cup of coffee. In 2011, the Truckee Chamber of Commerce named us the town’s “Best New Business.” As the good word was amplified by Google and Yelp, sales steadily grew. By the end of our third year, our little back-alley cafe had crested $1 million in annual revenue, putting it in the top 1% of all specialty coffee shops in the nation. We were not only sustaining a business in a small ski town, we were flourishing...until it all started melting away.
Truckee had been a wonderful birthplace for Coffeebar, but it was also uniquely vulnerable. We were affected by the usual dramatic seasonal cycles, but the seasons themselves were becoming less reliable. Three straight years of dwindling snowfall led to a shrinking supply of skiers, as well as potential Coffeebar employees. By the end of the very lean snow year during the 2012-13 season, I realized that I couldn’t have my family’s future be 100% reliant upon Tahoe snowfall. I started to look for an opportunity in Reno.
But our entrance there turned out to be nearly as bumpy as an eight-second ride at the famed Reno Rodeo.
Next week: Riding the Rocket
By Greg Buchheister