In casual conversation and interviews, pretty much every barista, café owner and specialty coffee roaster claims mutual respect. It’s almost as if these companies aren’t actually competing for caffeinated dollars. Still, with all the coffee-focused travel, it’s clear that coffee entrepreneurs are taking notes and applying lessons learned when they return home. Hell, there are even learnable lessons at home, and when companies start to open multiple coffee bars, they normally learn how to ratchet up operations for the second round. Two people that clearly weren’t satisfied with their starter café were Colby Barr and Ryan O’Donnovan, who co-founded Verve Coffee Roasters in 2007. Their first coffeehouse by the beach in east Santa Cruz, their latest location opened downtown just before Thanksgiving, and while the original remains charming, the aesthetics and experience at the new branch are much better.
Of course, Verve isn’t just stockpiling premium equipment. They need people to operate it, and they’ve managed to attract one of the more talented coffee staffs in the nation, including barista competition high-flyers like Chris Baca, Jared Truby, Sara Peterson and Jesse Crouse. None of those people were at the downtown cafe during our visit, but their influence was evident. A barista who’d only been working with Verve for a matter of weeks delivered a cappuccino that was photo-worthy, and they were able to coax up satisfying flavor as well. That’s clearly a byproduct of proper training.
The living wall is typical of Northern California and of a community as crunchy as Santa Cruz. Beyond the style, which is evident in the surroundings, they’re also cultivating substance, not only in the cup, but also on a plaque that reads “Behind the Curtain.” The de facto manifesto shares tidbits about the company like “VCR purchases coffees directly from producers,” “We hand roast our coffees daily, in small batches, using traditional, vintage German-made coffee roasters,” “Our coffee buyer and co-owner, Colby Barr, travels to origin 10-15 weeks each year to meet with our coffee producers, develop microlots, improve quality, learn, map and explore,” “We donate our coffee grounds to the UCSC student park for fertilizer,” and “We donate our burlap coffee sacks to local landscaping and earth works crews.”
Now the company’s got a showcase cafe to go with that coffee, which hints at other cafes that have impressed me over the years, including my home base of Intelligentsia Silver Lake and Four Barrel. Verve might be in a bohemian college town, but they’ve created a setting and experience that would hold up in larger cities.