Trying to keep a mountain town coffee bar running in the midst of the pandemic is a crushing challenge—but the comfort of coffee and community can keep you going.
photos courtesy Karina Luscher
Living in these mountains is paradise, but not in that kind of dreamy, out-of-a-TV-series way. In the winter it’s f-ing windy up here. Like, kid you not, blow the doors off your car if it’s parked the wrong way or launch your trampoline onto your neighbor’s property or gusts so strong they take the only cell tower town has and snap it in half. That kind of paradise. Nederland is a paradise with challenges.
In the summer, the weather gets more idyllic and as a community we all seem to calm and breathe a little deeper. We come out of the woodwork and reconnect, share our stories from the winter season. Our streets blow up with dust and the gutters fill with gravel leftover from winter plowing. The tree pollen flies in May and it forces some of us to hide out for weeks until it passes. Warmer weather means more traffic through the town and tourists driving the wrong way down one-way streets so often that it’s a favorite pastime to keep count.
Despite all its rough spots, my paradise is a deep breath that brings my shoulders away from my ears. It is a place that I long to be because of how it makes me feel. It is a small town where I know most of the people in line at the Post Office and the Mountain People’s co-op. It’s a safe yet somewhat wild place to raise kids and have a lifestyle that keeps me mostly outside. I can gather with my family around the fire pit and sing along with an ’80s playlist and roast marshmallows or hop on my bike and access the trails out my door. I have trusted that this lifestyle will keep me grounded and sane, so starting a business here seemed a the best way to invest in that home.
Salto Coffee Works has been a hub for the surrounding area residents and visitors alike, providing a welcoming vibe to gather and commiserate. We provide craft-roasted coffee and a café menu with beer and wine on tap. May 5 will mark our eighth year of being in business. It has been a roller coaster of a ride and an insane amount of hard work.
We survived the floods of 2013, the fires of 2016, the canyon closures of 2019 and 2020, and and now we are surviving the Covid-19 pandemic.
Like most in this industry, our tables have literally and figuratively been turned upside down, stacked along with the chairs in the empty corners of our beautiful gathering space. The expansive patio and fire pit was a place for bands to play live music. Now it serves as just as a waiting place for to-go customers. There’s ample room outside to comply with the six-foot rule, for our guests to pick up their orders from our makeshift service window. But this once vibrant and bustling center for our community to gather, my business, for the time being, is a much quieter, bizarre version of what it should be.
With the pandemic hitting us hard, I am asking my staff to do so much: Take a pay cut, reduce hours, pick up the slack from the holes left by employees we couldn’t continue to pay, do laundry to offset the cost of linen service… I am asking them to stick with it, hold on and trust that it is all going to be ok. The reality that I work through every day is that I don’t know if it is all going to be ok.
The uncertainty of what lies ahead can be paralyzing at times. Searing stress of the unknown courses through my body and manifests randomly throughout my days and nights. The unexpected chills (no, it’s not COVID-19), sharp stabbing pains in my neck and shoulders that make me move more like a robot than a human, the restless sleep and the dreams of trying to cross an eight-lane highway as if I am playing a bad game of Frogger are all now becoming the “new normal.”
Being a small business owner has always been taxing, but the current landscape catapults once manageable stress levels into the stratosphere. How will my business look when the cloud cover clears? What strategic changes should I make now to ensure success in the future when I don’t really know what the future looks like? How can I provide for the community that relies on Salto’s services while protecting job security and profitable balance sheets?
I know well enough to seek ways to calm myself down so that hopefully the negative impacts of fight or flight don’t take hold. I find calm in the ritual that inspired me to start Salto. I turn the roaster on to begin my weekly dance of crafting small-batch coffee. Coffee provides solace in these upside down times— for me, for our customers, for our staff, and for our community. The sound of the roasting drum spinning, the swish of green beans getting gently tossed around, making their way slowly toward the magical change of color and sweet aroma of the sugars starting to emerge all provide a break from the daily stresses.
The heat of my Diedrich roaster warms me like a dear friend would do with a simple hug. It makes me feel like it’s all going to be alright. At the precise right time, I release the perfectly brown beans into the cooling tray. It never fails me. At this moment, I always welcome them into their new state of being and say, “Hello, beautiful.”
I get to soak in the creative when I am roasting. I get to realize the fruits of my efforts through those who seek my coffee from near and far. I am able to provide warmth and routine during a time when we all need it the most. Having someone tell me they just had the best cappuccino they have ever had or to be emailed with a request to send 10 bags of Salto Blend to Boulder because they can’t live without it right now, lights me up and smoothes out the stress bumps in my body.
Customers coming by specifically to let us know how much they love us and want us to be around when COVID-19 subsides feels so good. And taking inventory of what feels good and right is the only way to survive these crazy moments. I see my staff making sacrifices, staying positive and creative. Collectively we are coming up with new protocols that change almost daily to keep us compliant, crafting new menus that utilize all the ingredients we have in-house, and keeping the smiles on our faces under our masks (handmade by one of our loyal customers). I am blown away, brought to the verge of tears, and I am filled with so much gratitude because I was right to trust in this lifestyle and this business and this community.
The feel-good-trust-this-will-all-work-out vibe hasn’t just emerged because of the banding-together-because-we-are-in-a-crisis-together, it is always here. The streets may be empty right now. The dirt is still getting kicked up by strong spring winds. There’s an uncomfortable and awkward distance between friends, co-workers, and community members, but we will come out the other side and it will all be okay. The challenges of living up here are precisely why I live up here. The challenges that are a part of running a business are exactly why I chose to start my business. Even now, the rewards are still deeper than I ever could have imagined.
Karina Luscher is the co-owner of Salto Coffee Works (saltocoffeeworks.com) in Nederland, Colorado, and the former editor of Women’s Adventure magazine.