It’s been a decade since Coffeebar first opened its doors as a bootstrapped, wing-and-a-prayer back alley cafe in Truckee, California.
Since then, we’ve grown into a restaurant group with eight locations that span the Sierra to the Bay. Those ten years have been filled with adventures, memories and life lessons, and over the next few months I’d like to share some of those with you—our highest highs and our lowest lows.
As Emerson said, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” It’s why we chose the road less traveled. Ralph Waldo knew what he was talking about.
I grew up in Winter Park, Colorado, a ski racer from age 7 to 25. Competitive skiing gave me the chance to leave my little hometown in the Rockies and travel the world, and it was in Italy that I began a passionate love affair with coffee. But it wasn’t just the amazing espresso—it was the Italian cafe experience that stole my heart.
And if I’m being honest, it was the gelato. In some cities, there were two to three gelato stands per block, most of them just a hole-in-the-wall with a huge gelato case in the doorway, and a few willing scoopers. Devouring one scoop after another, I think I spent most of my savings account. (That mind-blowing discovery was brought home for me a couple of decades later when my son Zephyr, not even two years old, exclaimed breathlessly, “Papa! Oh my God—gelato!”)
I still managed to fit some ski racing in here and there, but in 1998 I started my first coffee company, importing espresso from a small family company outside of Torino.
My love for the cafe scene had pulled me all in. I was taken with their welcoming professionalism, something that you didn’t get from coffee houses in the US.
There was no coffee snobbery in Italy—no fixed-gear-unicycle-riding, waxed-moustache-sporting baristas barely willing to glance your way. Instead, there was a welcome and ease that I knew I wanted to replicate back home. In Italy, the daily rituals of coffee, food, beer, and wine showed that a cafe experience could be a source of inclusivity, not a game of one-upmanship with a too-cool-for-school barista.
By 2010, I’d been back in the states for years—and in the coffee business most of my adult life. I’d owned a medium-size wholesale company and opened 15 different cafes in Boulder and Denver, Colorado, some for myself and others for friends and employers. Yet I still dreamed of recreating that Italian cafe experience that had felt so right to my DNA: a welcoming, morning-to-evening, cappuccino-to-songs hangout, one where my hard-working, hard-playing, outdoor-loving friends would feel totally at home.
The dream might have remained just that, if not for a redhead, a swami and a lion.
There’s nothing like a broken heart to kick start a life-changing journey. I was running a small group of tea cafes in 2009, recovering from a painful breakup with said redhead. I wasn’t very good at disguising my emotional state, and one of my regular customers, sensing I needed a major reboot, invited me to attend a three-week yoga retreat in India. I didn’t know a downward dog from dhaal—but I did know mountains. The yoga retreat was in the foothills of the Himalayas, an alluring destination for my untethered heart.
Two events on that trip made an indelible impression. The first was the trek to the sacred source of the Ganges, at 13,000 feet. After an 18 kilometer hike we reached the headwaters, and I stole away for some soul-searching. Rock-hopping to the center of the glacier-fed river, I found a boulder to sit on. As the water rushed around me, sweeping down to the plains and out to sea, I was struck by a powerful sensation that my old life was being washed down the valley with it.
I still had no idea what would replace that old life. Stumbling and groping our way back into the village that night, long after darkness fell, seemed like a fitting metaphor.
Other retreat participants had consulted with a local swami, sitting on the dirt floor of his modest jewelry shop to receive psychic readings. They returned to the ashram to compare stories—some were excited, others skeptical. But it was one of those “Why not?” moments, and I decided to go, too.
The swami, a regal-looking man, didn’t beat around the bush. Almost immediately after I sat down, he looked me in the eye and announced,
“You are a great leader. You need to make your own brand, and you need to move away from where you live now to do it.”
I’d expected something vague, flowery, and open to interpretation. This felt like marching orders. The next “Why not?” moment quickly followed: I returned to Boulder, quit my job, and stuffed my life into a storage container.
But not long before I left Colorado, I had an overwhelming dream. In it, I confronted an enormous lion, glowing in vivid hues of glowing red, gold and blue. As he let out a deafening roar, I discovered that I had the body, skills and tools of a Masai warrior (who knew?) and that I also gripped a spear in each hand. Before the lion could attack me, I dispatched the creature by plunging one of the spears into his wide-open mouth and the second into his heart.
It was an incredibly powerful experience, a memory that’s nearly as vivid today. I wasn’t surprised to learn, soon after, that killing a lion in a dream symbolizes conquering your fears. The brilliant beast had shown up to prove something to me: that even though I’d always been afraid to leave my home state, pursue my vision, and start my business, I was already equipped with those skills—whether I realized it or not.
This Technicolor lion came to epitomize two things I wanted in my new venture, and my new life: heart and balance. Years later he became the symbol of Coffeebar, where he’s affectionately known as Giuseppe (yes, as in “Joe”. All coffee geeks are Italians at their core). Giuseppe is more than a mascot; he’s the embodiment of everything we believe in. He inspires our quest for quality, fun and sprezzatura—the art of making something difficult seem effortless. Giuseppe is present in every cup of coffee, every fresh-baked pastry, and every interaction with our guests.
In February 2010, feeling lion-hearted, I pulled out of Boulder and headed west, to Truckee, a town I’d loved since my ski racing days and where I still had good friends. At that moment, Truckee was just a way station to me. I dropped off my things, turned south and made a beeline for Los Angeles, convinced that the City of Angels would be the birthplace of Coffeebar. (After all, wasn’t LA the place you were supposed to go to achieve your dreams?) I had $10,000 in my pocket and a fierce determination to bring my vision to fruition.
After months of research into five seemingly promising locations in Venice, Santa Monica and West Hollywood, I was almost out of money—and no closer to opening my first store. As anyone who’s ever been tapped on the shoulder by a Vision knows, they’re tricky things. One minute they hand you a blueprint, the next they’re shrugging their shoulders and muttering, “Did I tell you to do that?”
I’d already dismantled my life in Colorado, so I had no choice but to head back to Truckee. I returned to the Sierra with my tail between my legs, bewildered and discouraged. Everything had seemed so clear just a few months before. I hoped that a little spring skiing would lift my sagging spirits.
As I processed my LA crash-and-burn out loud, my friend Ephraim mentioned that there was an old coffee spot on Jibboom Street that might be vacant. It was another “Why Not?” moment. I got on my bike and rode to downtown Truckee to check it out. Pulling up onto the vacant patio, I peered into the window. And I knew at that moment this was the Place.
Next week: A Cafe Grows in Truckee: Coffeebar, Version 1.0
By Greg Buchheister