Editor’s note: Don Niemyer and his wife, Carissa, operated Speedboat Coffee in Portland, Ore., until not too long ago when he and his family decided to make a big change: not only were they relocating to Fort Collins, Colorado, but they were going to take their sweet time doing it—literally. Don, his wife, and their two daughters ages 7 and 8, decided to leave Portland in their Volkswagon Rialta RV to travel around the country visiting cafes. My old pal Chrissy Hoag, who had gotten to know Don when she was in wholesale at Stumptown Coffee, put me and Don in touch originally, and we’ve been chatting about Don writing a column for the Barista Magazine Blog for a while. We got serious about it in May when he emailed saying he was ready to get rolling with it. He wrote, “Over the past year, we actually DID move into an RV just to be prepared for the trip, but haven’t gotten around to leaving town yet. We decided to go ahead and do a portion of our trip starting in June, and do the rest whenever the shop sells. In the meantime, if you happen to have an idea of how this type of trip could be used to create a story for BMAG I’d love to talk about it. I’ve been thinking of collecting “best practices” or maybe doing a “state of the nation” kind of approach or maybe coming at it from the standpoint of highlighting some lesser known folks who are out there doing great work, which might be encouraging to readers… I’ve been blogging a little to kind of experiment with finding an approach at two sites, if you care to check them out: www.rialtacoffeetour.wordpress.com, www.pdxcoffeeconsultants.wordpress.com.”
So I told Don to go for it—this is exactly the kind of story we love featuring at Barista Magazine: real stories from the field about people who love coffee so much they want to explore it in an entirely unique way.
Here is the first installment of Don’s column which we decided to call simply, Rialta Coffee Tour. Don will be exploring different themes as he continues to write for us, so check back often to see what he and his family have been up to on this most killer cafe tour of the United States!
RIALTA COFFEE TOUR
By Don Niemyer
It was 10 p.m. on the streets of San Francisco as I circled the block, cautiously, looking this way and that but trying not to look like I was looking this way and that. It was plenty dark, and I was looking for a place for my family to stay the night. We don’t do hotels. We rarely do host homes. We were looking for a place on the street. You see, my wife, two daughters (ages 7 and 8), and I have lived in a 21-ft VW Rialta RV for over a year. (For a tour of Don’s family’s van, see the video at the bottom of this blog post)
We moved into it for a variety of reasons—simplicity, minimalism, saving money—but the idea that drove the whole conversation was coffee. We had been working in coffee in Portland, Ore., for the past five years and had tried to soak up every benefit possible from living in one of the world’s great coffee cities. Now we were planning to relocate to Fort Collins, Colo., but had started dreaming about traveling around the nation in between our here and our there, checking out coffee culture and seeing what trends and innovations are happening in America’s great coffee shops.
So on that dark night in June, on the streets of San Francisco, we were wild with excitement about beginning our coffee adventure. We had driven down from Portland, with an itinerary that would take us all the way south on the West Coast, then over to the Midwest, and we had a hot list of shops to stop into in the next couple of weeks. It was the beginning of a still-ongoing pursuit of discovery, and we are delighted to begin sharing some of our journey here on the Barista Magazine Blog! We’ll be reporting from time to time on some of the people and shops that are pushing the coffee conversation forward with excellence.
So without further adieu, let me share with you the first trend we noticed: Hospitality.
Admit it: For a while there it seems like our industry was increasingly populated with snotty, too-good-for-you, smarty pants baristas. But the tide is turning my friends! Arrogance is out, humility is in! Without exception, every shop we visited so far has exuded an understanding that we are in the people business. Sure, we’re making amazing coffee and pushing the boundaries of what this magic bean can do. But it is through the doorway of hospitality which consumers enter the parlor of awesome, and we passed through that doorway over and over again on our tour.
Take Handsome Coffee Roasters in Los Angeles as an example. If anyone has the right to play the arrogance card it’s these guys. Not only do they boast three specialty coffee industry hotshots, but one of them was the first American to ever win the World Barista Championship, and only the second person to win the United States Barista Championship twice. But not only do these guys have a case of competition trophies, they’re actually really, really nice! After being served a perfect cappuccino, my wife Carissa bumped the cup and sloshed some out onto the saucer. The barista immediately grabbed the whole thing back and insisted on making another. The barista clearly wanted our experience to be as good as it possibly could be, even if the mistake was made on our side of the counter.
And it’s not just the big names that are doing service right, either. At two start-ups, Front Coffee in San Francisco, Calif., and Evocation in Amarillo, Texas, we were treated to spontaneous tours of the roastery (OK, they were just small roasters in the next room, but still) and in each case were greeted warmly by someone who made us feel they were happy to see us upon entering the room. I usually ask in my least-demanding tone if the barista can tell me about their espresso, and at each of these shops the baristas almost exploded with excitement at the opportunity to gleefully geek out over the flavor profiles, origins, and characteristics of the day’s offering. Neighbors, those types of conversations can really make you feel like you might like to come back some time.
We had so many great experiences, I could never include them all here. But I can tell you what made them great: Over and over during our visits we experienced
- Warm greetings immediately upon entering the shop
- Attentive listening to our order first, then clarifications as needed
- Thorough, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable answers to any questions
- Inquiries as to how we were, how our day was going, or how we liked the drinks
- Taking any opportunity to go above and beyond, whether correcting a mistake (from either side of the counter), offering a taste of another drink for free, or remembering our name and saying goodbye
What a pleasure it was to walk into one shop after another and see baristas delivering great drinks with equally great service, attention to detail, and warmth of presence. But hospitality wasn’t the only trend we noticed. What happens in your shop when a customer orders an espresso? Well, the answer to that question varied quite a bit in our experience, ranging from “WHA?!?” to “WOW!”, and we’ll be sharing some of them with you, so stay tuned for the next report from the Rialta Coffee Tour.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Don and Carissa Niemyer have owned three different coffee shops in Portland, Ore., over the past 5 years. They are planning to relocate to Fort Collins, Colo., where they will continue in the coffee industry, but the opportunity to visit the nation’s finest coffeehouses on the way seemed too good to pass up. In preparation for this adventure they moved into a 99-square-foot VW Rialta RV, where they currently reside full time with their two daughters, and travel around pouncing on unsuspecting baristas when they can. Read more about their adventures at www.rialtacoffeetour.wordpress.com.