Guest column: The power of the Roaring Fork Valley’s coffee shop culture

Jonathan Phillips
Guest columnist
Owner of Colorado Drifters, New Castle, Kayla Hemelt, finishes a delicious pour on a breve latte. Active in their community since 2021, Drifters sources their beans locally from Bonfire Coffee Company.
Jonathan Phillips/Courtesy photo

There’s something about walking into a cozy locally owned coffee shop on a brisk fall day, ordering a hot cup of joe and driving the chill away. While the sun sometimes struggles to shine outside, the warm conversations, vibrant music and friendly baristas welcome you into a world you would, otherwise, miss by staying at home on the couch surfing the net.

Growing up in a small southeastern Wyoming town, Laramie, instilled in me a forever love for local coffee shops. A place called Coal Creek, where decadent smells greet you, the roomy interior invites you to melt into velvet furniture, dishes shake as the trains roar past and brownies are a meal. As a daily writer, coffee shop culture runs in my blood for life.  

Nothing against the drive-through, on-the-go purveyors of caffeine; they meet important socio-economic needs of our towns, but they don’t feed the soul the same way handcrafted drinks nourish those, the sometimes, empty parts of our life. In the RFV, the second you walk in to one of the “mom and pop” coffee shops, you’re aware that you’re amongst those who are in it to win it and that’s good company to keep. It’s a humble fortitude that says: we’re not going away, we’ve got what it takes and we’ll weather any storm. In the Roaring Fork Valley, there’s a certain mountain magic in the air, on the walls and evidenced in the employees; one that coffee franchises just can’t match. 

It’s a local chip on the shoulder, a little more pride in a latte, perhaps, but, without doubt, a more “down home” feeling. There’s something that will always be a bit impersonal about the global coffee conglomerations that local shops are able to reach through. They remind you that you’re not just a consumer, they don’t just want your (star) bucks, and, above all, they care about building strong local communities, the backbone of our future here. 

The paragraphs that follow are a few thoughts on why locally owned coffee shops are an artery for the RFV, a vital vein connecting us and bringing us together in a way that can never be replaced:

  • A place where travelers congregate, meet locals and plan trips. 

Local coffee shops are both a landing spot and a runway for any and all passerby. The amount of people living in vans full and part-time in the RFV is increasing. For some, by choice, for others, the housing crisis makes a van the most reasonable alternative, short of moving out of paradise. Surviving financially in the valley is a stretch for many, which makes these morning coffee gathering places so essential to continued valley growth.

Any day of the week, seeing camper-style travel vans peppering the side streets of downtown Rifle is the norm. Some vans have curtains drawn, some have open doors, but they’re all there for one thing: to recharge. Rifle is a place where many travelers touch down for a few hours — use the library, re-fill on information, supplies, stretch their legs, study the map — and that’s a good thing. As travelers and locals mingle, coffee shops become a place where the transmission of vital information occurs. 

As I type this paragraph, someone sitting next to me at Whistle Pig Coffee Stop & Cafe, Rifle, remarks, “Is there anywhere in Rifle to buy a T-Shirt that says Rifle?”

“The museum,” I say.

“Where’s that?”, they respond. “What about the Rifle Falls, I hear there’s a waterfall near here. How far? Is it worth visiting?”

In a world where Google and Yelp reign supreme in the reviews category, scrolling through them can be tedious, spotty, inaccurate and frustrating. There’s nothing better than getting real, accurate and up-to-date trail, tourist, or river flow information from locals. Technology can’t compete. Local coffee shops will continue to be paramount for tourist communities to thrive. After all, what makes traveling truly rewarding isn’t just the sights you see, but the people you meet along the way.

  • A place for locals to slow down, catch up with friends and read the news. 

Communities grow when we commit time to them and in a digital world where everything is socially calculated, preplanned and polished, isn’t it splendid to open yourself up to the possibility of meeting someone new or bumping into an old friend/acquaintance? Local coffee shops support and encourage the lost art of accidentally socializing. Long-term, digital relationships are a terrible substitute for real life relationships and being out with others gives you the opportunity to celebrate all the awkwardness that comes with face-to-face communication. The inconvenience of shopping local is actually its greatest beauty because everyone is unique and, lost in the scroll and plugged into the machine, we forget that sometimes. 

Yes, the lines are long. Yes, sometimes they run out of key ingredients for the day. But, so what? Local coffee shops afford you the opportunity to be involved in a social hub where, in the name of friendliness and personal growth, our busy pace of life can be set aside. A resting point, not a rushing point. A table inside a physical building, taking in the sights, smells, tastes and a place to relish the nuance of the present instead of hurrying onto the next thing. Time spent logging off and tuning into the otherness that brings our life meaning. A welcome digital reprieve, filled with eye-contact and an active attempt at listening. A place where humanity is celebrated and restored, if even just a little bit. A brick and mortar coffee shop is, truly, like no other place on earth. 

  • A place for writers/remote workers to nurture the very important human contact they need. 

Isolation and loneliness are the two most common emotions associated with working remotely. Debilitating at times, its a challenge to ask for help and even just being around people for short amounts of time can boost your mood, your productivity and keep you pushing forward through the drudge. Working around others helps virtual independent contractors to be aware that they don’t exist alone.

Brick and mortar coffee shops offer remote workers/writers the opportunity to enjoy the buzz of socializing without being pulled away from their work. For those who need silence and lack of distraction to work, public libraries fit the bill nicely, but for those who don’t mind, or even prefer, a little chatter in the background, sit-down coffee shops are bread and butter.

Being around others, even when everyone remains a complete stranger, can pull your day out of the burning dumpster fire before it becomes an inferno. It reminds you: yes, there’s joy in the world. People still say good morning, shake hands, eat, drink, hug, and laugh.

Coffee shops are a place where meaningful connections occur and if you’re suffering in some way, it’s revitalizing to see love in action. Of course, the question always remains: how long can you stay? Free Wi-Fi, a comfy couch, and a bottomless cup make it tempting to prolong your visit, but, on a crowded day, sometimes your seat may better be served relinquished to a newcomer. No matter, there’s a fresh brewed cup waiting with your name on it, tomorrow. 

Brick and mortar coffee shops are the hub of an important wheel in the RFV and they need you to keep visiting them, lest they vanish from existence forever and become only a fading memory. These important places are a wonderful venue that connect, reconnect, and supply us with the lifeblood we all so desperately need: each other. I know you can order ahead and drive-thru, but should you?

Supporting your local coffee shop is easy, the recipe, foolproof: be a part of your community. Go, drive, park, walk, order something (even if it’s small), smile, tip, sit, enjoy, catch up on the town news and then come back again and again. The payoff for you is more clear than spring runoff: strange faces become familiar, awkwardness recedes and one day you find yourself with a new group of real life friends. Wow. Coffee is always better with friends, even if you haven’t met them yet. 

Jonathan Phillips has lived in Rifle for nearly 10 years.

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