Imagine that you started a business in Calistoga 25 years ago with a simple thought in mind. “A place for everyone,” Clive Richardson said, sitting beside his co-owner Eva King.
It would be a place with a row of community tables where friends could meet with a few “privacy spots” for reading or writing or checking email.
It would have a chalkboard wall where a kid could draw a fantasy world of brightly colored people and cars and other things. And it would have a toy chest too to keep little hands busy and where other magic/mischief could be safely imagined.
There would be the smell of freshly baked scones and muffins in the air, along with other tasty things ready to enjoy.
Coffee! Of course, there would be coffee. Coffee that is freshly roasted and brewed and filling the room with a caffeinated aura to inspire the senses and stimulate the palate.
Now open the doors and see what the local color of characters might bring. Add King’s warm smile, and a tincture of Richardson’s energetic humor. Now watch what happens, year after year, as the customers come and go and the town changes before your eyes. Watch it for a long, long time – 25 years of time – and then reflect how things have changed.
“Calistoga has changed but it’s been pretty good for us," said Richardson, who started the Calistoga Roastery 25 years ago this July 3. "There were some winters when you could roll a bowling ball down Lincoln Avenue and not hit a soul.”
But these days the Calistoga Roastery is one of the central community hubs of the town, and it has developed a secret national reputation that attracts and sustains customers through generations. Customers come – many from out of town visiting – and then return to the charm of this unique coffee shop.
“Scott Simon (of NPR) once worked writing on his book here,” Richardson said. “He said he had a bad back, so we set him up to write right at the window counter where he could stand.”
It’s the years of relationships, according to King, that have blossomed in the shop’s 25-year history that keep customers coming back.
For instance, up front, there’s the long "Table of Knowledge” where each morning a consistent group of regulars meets to discuss their views on everything from the weather to their current political dismays. When U.S. Representative Mike Thompson comes to Calistoga he has been known to stop by to listen.
Still it’s not always been easy seeing loyal customers who have come for years continue to age and die with the passing of time. And both Richardson and King paused at the memory of one special customer who one morning announced that she’d just been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
“But I still have time for coffee,” Richardson recalls her saying.
“We have employees now working behind the counter who came here as kids with their parents,” King said. King, who joined the business 20 years ago, and then became Richardson’s third business partner about 10 years ago, already had 17 years of managing and opening and training people for a food service chain in the Bay Area before moving to Calistoga. “It was too long of a commute,” she said.
A native Californian from Eureka, King found Calistoga to be a good place to raise her family, and the Roastery to be a good place to work. After she'd worked in the shop for 10 years, Richardson approached her to be his business partner.
“We make a good team,” King said. “People often think Clive is the sole owner, or that I’m a manager or that we’re married or things like that. But we balance each other out. Clive often tells people I’m his business wife,” she laughed. “So we’re like two people baking a pie. We create it together, and when it comes out of the oven people say ‘It’s beautiful! It’s delicious!’”
Richardson, who grew up in Goring-by-Sea in Sussex, England, had his own history of managing 36 coffee shops in the LA and San Francisco area before coming to Calistoga. But his start in coffee began in Australia where – according to Richardson – he learned that coffee shop business wasn’t just about a cuppa Joe.
The first morning after he started, he said, a regular customer, an old Italian gentleman, came in looking for his espresso. Richardson, thinking it would be a kindness to give the man a little extra, was surprised when the customer looked at it and threw it onto Richardson’s front in disgust. “That’s when I learned that coffee wasn’t just about coffee,” he said. “It’s about tradition, routine, a private moment, and respect.”
A little later Richardson said “We’re not about barista art. We don’t make little paintings in the hot milk and foam or things such as that. We’re about making a space for everyone. And of course the coffee itself.”
He pointed to the shelves of coffee bags lining the wall. “People don’t realize we rotate out these bags every week. Each bag contains coffee that was roasted no longer than one week ago. Because coffee has to be fresh. Really fresh. “