PENINSULA — In a struggling economy, designer coffee drinks are probably one of the first luxuries to go in a family’s budget. Peninsula coffee stands fight the trend by taking a variety of approaches to the downturn.

Co-owner Angela Derrey of Long Beach coffee stand The Great Escape confirmed, “Generally speaking, if something is going to get cut from the budget, it’s going to be coffee drinks. Our December sales for this year were lower than the previous nine years.”

“People have settled for smaller sizes of coffee.”

Kathy Colvin, owner of Chinook Coffee for eight years, echoed the same sentiment, “Unfortunately, yes, we have a seen a downturn in people buying coffee. Not as many customers are stopping by daily, and when they do stop, they’re buying a drip coffee instead of a latte.”

“But our food is still popular — we’ve haven’t seen a downturn in that,” she said. Chinook Coffee serves homemade scones, breakfast cookies, muffins and brownies.

“And we’re going to start serving our hot soups and homemade bread later this month,” Colvin said.

Mary Wilkins, owner of the Kiss of Mist coffee stand in Ocean Park, takes a humorous approach, “Well, January is always slow — everybody goes on a diet or a budget.”

“They’ll be back by Valentine’s Day,” she said.

Minimum wage and payroll costs increase

Coffee stands are getting hit with more than just a bad economy — the costs of doing business are going up. 

Diamond Espresso, in Long Beach, has been run for the past six years by owner-manager Jeff Woods and co-owned by Jim and Trina Goulter and Sue Anne Woods. 

“Yes, it’s been slow. People aren’t coming by every day like they used to,” said Woods. “But the biggest challenge for us is the taxes and payroll.”

Small businesses are getting hit with higher minimum-wage requirements, which also mean higher payroll taxes on wages. It could be a lethal combination at a time of continued belt-tightening. 

As of Jan. 1, the minimum wage increased from $8.55 to $8.67 an hour. This may not sound like much but add payroll taxes on top of that increase and it could have a dampening effect on small business employers at a time when they are already struggling to keep their businesses in the black.

At the same time, some coffee prices are going up as gas prices continue to rise, so the overall cost of doing business is increasing. Astoria roaster Columbia  River Coffee Roasters has held off raising per pound prices for months but finally will be instituting a wholesale price increase which could affect many local vendors. 

The small business coffee stand owners are implementing a variety of tactics to cope with rising costs in this shaky economic environment.

Customer service

Captain’s Coffee, named for one-time tugboat captain and owner Phil Martin and run by business partner Justin Campbell, prides itself on its approach to serving the customers. 

Captain’s Coffee, on the Peninsula’s north end near the Nahcotta post office, opened on Dec. 30, 2005, because, as Martin said, “I wanted a place to get a good cup of coffee.”

Barista Campbell serves Columbia River Coffee Roasters coffee. “They have a superior product and they helped train me,” he said. But the real change in how Captain’s Coffee does business came a couple years ago when, as Campbell said, “I shifted from being a coffee technician to being a people person.”

“Once you make service your point of view, it changes your whole attitude. You have to have a great product, but after that, it’s all about the people.”

Mary Wilkins, owner of the Kiss of Mist coffee stand in Ocean Park, seems to have the same approach to her job, “I love my regulars — they are so fabulous. They stop in on their way to work or after they drop the kids off at school.”

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” said Wilkins. “I work alone — this is my space — and I love my customers. They talk and cry and laugh with me. I’ve known some of them for eight years — they’ve seen me have two kids!”

Consistency and quality

Chinook Coffee’s Colvin, who serves Longbottom Coffee out of Hillsboro, Ore., says that another key to success is consistency.

“The customers need to know when they come here that no matter who is making their coffee it’s going to be a product that they like — it’s got to be good.”

“Wherever I am, I go to coffee stands because I want to know what my competition is doing,” said Colvin. “And if someone spends $4 on a cup of coffee — that’s a treat. It has to be right.”

“We never argue with a customer,” she added. “If it’s not right, we’ll make it again, no questions asked.”

The other thing Chinook Coffee is known for is its location and curb appeal. “Some people come by and say ‘We just had to stop because your building looks so cute.’ We want to make it easy for the widest range of customers to pull in.”

Colvin not only has a great location on the main highway to and from Astoria but a large enough space to accommodate all comers. “We can take an RV or motor home, motorcyclists or someone on a bicycle. And we’re eight miles from any other coffee stand — that helps too,” she said.

“First you need to give people a reason to stop, then you need to make them the best coffee drink you possibly can so they’ll come back.”

Colvin figures that in the winter about 80 percent of her traffic is locals and “it gets flipped in the summer months to what I call ‘tourist locals’ — but traffic is hard to predict. June and July were terrible for us but then we had an outstanding August and September.”

Chinook Coffee also has the advantage of handling walk-in customers as it has an interior space that is warm and welcoming.

Signature drinks and unique touches

Every coffee stand has a specialty, a little something that makes it unique in its market. Kiss of Mist, which serves Lewis and Clark Coffee Roasters products out of Vancouver, specializes in syrups and flavors.

“One of our signature drinks is the ‘Hot Blonde,’” said Wilkins. “It’s a little white chocolate with shortbread and brown cinnamon sugar syrups and we usually serve it as a 16 ounce double shot.”

And, no, it is not just a chick drink. “There are a lot of dudes who order this drink,” Wilkins said. Kiss of Mist opens at 6:30 a.m. and has row after row of syrups, probably over 100, as well as a special selection of sugar-free syrups.

Leanne Joseph, barista at Diamond coffee, which opens at an eye-popping 5:30 a.m., shared, “One of our specialty drinks is the Butterscotch Carmel Mocha, which you can order either with dark or white chocolate. We also serve three blended drinks — Oreo Cookie, Butterfinger and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, all made with real candy.”

Captain’s Coffee uses a special process called “Toddy,” a filtering procedure which takes the bitterness out of coffee and delivers a dense flavor to its iced drinks.

“Our Captain’s Special is a white chocolate mocha with caramel. It was suggested by a customer and we worked on the recipe until we got it right. I’ve never had anyone who ordered it not order it again,” Campbell said. 

Open Monday through Saturday at 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. on Sunday, Captain’s Coffee also serves a breakfast sandwich — egg, Tillamook cheddar cheese and a sausage patty on a Thomas English muffin for a budget friendly $3. “We also serve oat cakes with cranberries and almonds made by a local baker.” Captain’s Coffee also offers wi-fi, a wireless Internet connection, for its customers.

Chinook Coffee is famous for its Brain Freeze, a mocha made with real ice cream, “and we use Gosh That’s Good sugar-free powders for our mochas,” said Colvin. Great Escape’s claim to fame is its Beach Blaster, basically a frappuccino “and we serve home-made whipped cream,” said Derrey.

Community service

Woods has taken his sense of community service and blended it with his coffee business. Diamond Espresso, which serves Columbia River Coffee Roasters coffee and Taso teas, has started a delivery service using County Health Department clients.

“If you call in your two-drink minimum order 15 to 20 minutes before you want it, we’ll deliver it at no extra charge on Wednesday between 8:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. I’ve been working with Judy Jones at the Pacific County Health Department to provide this service with some of her clients.”

“Judy came to me and made this proposal so we decided to try it. One of her clients makes the deliveries, with Judy driving, and we pay him for his work.”

“We’re also trying our own delivery from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. the rest of the weekdays,” Woods added.

Many of the coffee drive-throughs also offer discounts. Diamond Espresso provides a 50-cent discount to Coast Guard employees and students. Several of the stands offer a “two stamp day” special and Kiss of Mist offers a discount to firefighters of 50 cents a cup.

What seems to be universal in the drive-through coffee business is the love of work exhibited by the various baristas, managers and owners.

As Derrey said about her job at the Great Escape, “I love my work — there is really no other job like it. You’re visiting with people all day long and drinking coffee with them.”

Campbell shared a similar story, “My job is about consistency and speed and making my customers happy. I work to hit that Nirvana spot. I’ve rethought just about everything about our business.”

“When you’re on a back road in a small town and the economy is tanking, you can’t do what everyone else is doing,” said Campbell. “I’m sort of a part-time visitors bureau too. People will stop and say, ‘How do I get off the island?’ so I give them a map or a brochure.”

“I see this as a platform to reach people. How you treat people is what we’re here for — I’m practicing that in my whole life — and I learned it in the coffee stand.”

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