OAKHURST – At the Cool Bean Café, every cup of coffee and tea has a little story behind it.
Not only is the brew delicious and the blend delightful, owners Casey and Alyssa Lucas are mindful of farmers in emerging nations around the world, the people who grow the beans many local coffee lovers covet.The Cool Bean Café serves fine coffee and tea purchased under the practice of Fairtrade, a social movement which strives to ensure that producers around the globe are given better trading conditions in a market designed to promote sustainability.
“Alyssa and I both really believe in this concept of fairly traded coffee, and that is a model that ensures farmers get the fairest price for their beans,” explains Casey. “All of ours is certified by a third party as being fairly traded.”
In addition, all the products they offer are certified organic and certified shade grown. Shade grown is a term that refers to farming practices in alignment with standards set by rainforest advocates and others. Alyssa stresses the importance of global awareness when it comes to business practice.
“Coffee is a hugely traded commodity,” reminds Alyssa. “Casey and I just really wanted to have an emphasis on, ‘where is this product from? Who makes it and how did it get here?'”
Coffee is second only to petroleum in the world commodity market.
Asking questions and finding answers was intrinsic to their relationship, as the couple met as students at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. During college, the pair traveled to Peru.
“We saw what it was like in Peru and we saw a lot of poverty,” says Alyssa, of the South American country that produces a large part of the world’s coffee. “We had a connection with the people there.”
Meanwhile, back in California for their senior year of college, the newly engaged couple saw a lot of coffee shops. What began as a study habit led in a somewhat direct route to their future.
“We loved coffee shops, we would hang out on the weekends and study together,” Alyssa remembers. She was then pre-law. “We would go to two or three different coffee shops, because in San Luis Obispo, they have awesome independent coffee shops.”
Casey has the same memories of being in great cafes and absorbing the aromas and atmosphere.
“We kind of got a feel for what the cafe scene was like. We would joke about owning a coffee shop one day, ‘Oh we can do that when we’re older.’ Then, literally weeks after we graduated, it fell into our laps,” says Casey, who was raised in Oakhurst.
Alyssa and Casey graduated in 2009 and got married that August. The newlyweds were in search of work, and when the previous owners of the Cool Bean offered employment, they took the jobs. Then, they were tempted even more.
“We worked for them for a few weeks and they offered to sell it to us. It was kind of crazy,” recalls Casey.
“We knew we wanted to try working together,” Alyssa says, but the offer was intimidating. “Our parents were helping us decide and we had a few older mentors talking it through with us and really thinking about it, and we kind of just decided to go for it.”
Within a short time, Alyssa and Casey went from being unemployed college grads to coffee shop owners.
“We had some people approach us because they had financing and they thought we should do it,” Casey remembers. “So within about a month of them talking to us about it, the deal had gone through.”
Despite their positive attitude, the young entrepreneurs experienced problems immediately.
“We actually had some major equipment break down right off the bat, one of our biggest espresso machines,” Casey recounts. “At the time it felt like the worst thing we could be going through and it actually ended up being one of the best things.”
With a big payment on new equipment, the Lucas’ could no longer afford the luxury of employees, and after some gut-wrenching discussion, agreed they would have to start fresh and do all the work themselves and let their staff go.
“We made an agreement with each other that we had to just work until we had it paid off and that took about a year, but during that time we got to meet every single customer we had,” Casey laughs. “I feel like that was just the best thing we could have done, seeing people who were coming in time and time again, we got to know their names and everything; it’s really important.”
Great service is one of the biggest sellers on the detailed menu, lovingly hand-chalked above the counters at the Cool Bean.
“We put a big emphasis on customer service,” says Alyssa. “I think a lot of people come in and feel that it’s kind of like home, and we really like that. You can probably come in here and run into someone you know; it’s a small town cozy coffee shop feel.”
Now, after more than three years in business, the owners have hired back their valued employees and feel like the experience has been a good one, all around.
“I think this year is going to be a really good year for us to expand into the community and maybe hold a few more events here,” says Alyssa. Whatever they do, coffee and tea remain the focus of their efforts, and they’ve been able to answer those questions about who and where their product comes from.
The Lucas’ sole coffee roaster is Grounds For Change, a certified Fair Trade roaster based in the state of Washington. The ethical practices the couple believes in are central to the organization’s operation, too. One of their featured coffee brands is from Peru, near where they traveled in college.
“One of our favorites is this house coffee called ‘Café Femenino,’ a coffee bean grown only by women, in Peru, where there’s a high abuse rate of women,” Casey says. “They help micro-farming for women, to try and gain the respect of the men in the community and also drop the abuse rate. It’s working tremendously well and that’s one of the coffees that our roaster carries and puts his roast on.”
“When we found out that our roaster had coffee specifically from Peru, it kind of put a face to a place for us,” Alyssa says. “We thought, ‘Hey, we are going to be spending this money anyway, we want to make sure that the way we are spending it is helping these people not hurting them. In that community, we know we have a guarantee that some of that money is going back to those women in Peru.”
The brews and blends they serve at the Cool Bean have created a Mecca for local lovers of the bean and leaf, and travelers have been known to seek it out. While their coffee is Fair Trade, the tea is considered Direct Trade, an equitable practice in the global market.
“It’s so easy in these countries that are a little bit chaotic to get ripped off. Our tea is called direct trade and these companies will send their own people over to countries and just talk to them face to face, instead of relying on someone else to go meet them, which is a really cool thing that we feel really strong about supporting.”
Of equal importance to the story behind each cup of coffee and tea, is the flavor that lovers of the bean and leaf seek with such fervency that Cool Bean is busy much of the time. Every cup of coffee and tea is prepared by hand.
“We prepare coffee in a traditional way. We do everything from grinding the coffee, to packing it, to fully pouring the espresso shots, to preparing the milk ourselves and everything. That’s kind of what separates local coffee shops from big chains,” Casey reports.
Fresh bagels, muffins and sandwiches are part of the tasty mix at the Cool Bean, along with traditional Italian drinks and American styles, too.
“We try to pride ourselves on having espresso that is traditionally Italian espresso and a lot of foreigners really love our espresso because it’s really what they have at home,” says Casey.
Alyssa and Casey are joyful about where they’ve found themselves in their lives, today, and about what they do in Oakhurst and how their work here can affect people thousands of miles away. Still, both owners agree that it’s the one closest to them, that means the most.
“The best thing is being able to create something together with my husband, being able to share different parts of the day whether they are bad or good we are both in it together,” Alyssa says. “We really like creating an environment here, whether it’s painting our chalkboard doors together or finding new art for the wall or trying out a new drink together, I think that’s the most rewarding part.”
The Bean provides free wi-fi for its customers and an outdoor patio for those who prefer an alfresco experience.
The Cool Bean is open Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 40120 Highway 41, next to the Pizza Factory and McDonalds. Check the website at http://www.thebeanawaits.com