By Popular Demand: Sidecar Coffee Comes to College Hill
When Sidecar Coffee of Cedar Falls was ready to open for business this past November, Andy Fuchtman, manager and part owner, simply took a picture of the shop’s “open” sign and posted it on the shop’s Facebook page. After an hour and a half “it went completely bananas in here,” according to Fuchtman. No surprise to local residents -- the University of Northern Iowa had been without a neighborhood coffee shop on College Hill for a couple generations of college students. The shop appears to have met a demand. The College Hill Partnership conducted a survey of permanent neighborhood residents in 2012 asking residents what kind of retail and service providers they would like to see on College Hill. Approximately 80 percent of residents were interested in a coffee shop or café – the most popular response in the survey.
Sidecar Coffee Shop is a collaboration among Fuchtman; Jed Vander Zanden, the founder of Sidecar Coffee Roasters; and Brent Dahlstrom, a local property developer. Vander Zanden said the shop is built on the hedgehog concept: “Do one thing really well.” [For those of you scratching your heads, a hedgehog outsmarts a fox to avoid being eaten in an ancient Greek poem by doing one thing really well: rolling up in a ball. Said hedgehog has now inspired a major corporate business strategy, see http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-thehedgehog- concept.htm]
For Vander Zanden, the thing he does really well is roast coffee. He started roasting coffee at home several years ago and “was instantly blown away by how great the coffee was.” He learned the art of coffee roasting through experimentation, playing around with the variables of roasting times, temperatures and ramp rates (rate of temperature change). Eventually, he got pretty good at it and opened Sidecar Coffee Roasters in 2012. Vander Zanden said, “I bootstrapped the coffee roaster, started small and lean, bought a couple tables, started slowly growing the business piece by piece.” He rented space from Brent Dahlstrom in the Iowa Sport Supply building in downtown Cedar Falls. Sidecar Coffee took off, selling whole bean and ground coffee to businesses, retail establishments and individuals at the roasting site and at local farmers’ markets. Vander Zanden purchased an actual sidecar as a delivery vehicle with an eye for promoting the business as well, but customers were mostly too nice to let him deliver the coffee. Today it’s primarily an attraction for kids to climb on (while it’s parked) at farmers’ markets and other events where they sell coffee.
Vander Zanden had always thought about opening a coffee shop or a café, but it quickly it became clear to him that opening a café would be more than he could manage on his own. Dahlstrom had experience developing property in the Cedar Valley, and he and Vander Zanden started talking about opening a coffee shop together. Fuchtman, who managed another property for Dahlstrom, recalls receiving a phone call, “Brent called me and asked me if I like to drink coffee. I said I did.” He ended up as the third partner in the business. Fuchtman had no previous experience managing a coffee shop or working in the service industry. However, he had time to plan and an awareness that he needed to quickly develop an expertise as both a barista and someone who could actually manage a café. Fuchtman sought out a mentor in Brewed Café out of Cedar Rapids and spent every Sunday afternoon learning everything from making coffee drinks to the basics of setting up shop. At the same time, a friend at a local business allowed him to practice making espresso drinks on their recently purchased commercial coffee machine. “I got really lucky,” Fuchtman said. “I learned just enough that we didn’t completely drown when we first opened our doors.”
Along with traditional coffee drinks and beans, Sidecar sells pastries, sandwiches, and soups – all of which follow the hedgehog concept by finding things from producers and suppliers who do their one thing really well. Fuchtman brought together a staff and suppliers “who believe it’s worth it to get really good at one thing.” Cookies, bars and cakes are from Scratch, a Cedar Falls bakery with cupcakeries in Waterloo, Coralville and West Des Moines, and the scones, muffins and bread are made by Vicky Dunn, a pastry school graduate who recently founded the home-based C’est La Vie Bakery in Waterloo. Sidecar advertises, “almost no food or drink in our shop was produced more than five miles from our front door.” Even the shop’s oak tables were handmade with urban salvage by a woodworker originally from Cedar Falls.
The coffee and espresso drinks are made from beans that are roasted on-site and at the larger coffee roaster about a mile away in downtown Cedar Falls. Vander Zanden is committed to providing the best product available and re-educating coffee drinkers about the agricultural background of the commodity. He does roasting demonstrations in the shop and at the roaster each week and has turned a number of customers on to home roasting (he’ll even sell you green unroasted coffee).
“Coffee is an agricultural crop. Harvest it and it sits in a warehouse and dries,” Vander Zanden said. He’s starting to identify what will be harvested three months from now and and ordering it in advance to get really great coffees when they’re at their prime. For example, the Guatemalan coffee at its peak right now from Burundi might not be around in three months. Vander Zanden wants consumers to have the opportunity to experiment with really good coffees and determine the flavor profile that each person likes best.
In addition, traceability is important to Vander Zanden. “The beans I buy are traceable back to a farm,” he said. “It’s like a tomato – there are a million different kinds of coffee. The more information I can give people about the coffee, the better choices they can make.”