Coffee stand success rides on location, location, location

Sydney Cutting juggles pouring shots and steaming milk during the morning shift at Chinook Coffee Co.

CHINOOK — Kathy Colvin has weathered staffing issues, the Great Recession and price hikes during her 13 years of giving travelers and the people of Chinook their daily caffeine blast.

Espresso stands were popping up all over 15 years ago, she said.

“We would go to Astoria to get espresso, so I thought, ‘Chinook could use one.’”

The plan developed from there.

She joined the espresso fray in 2003. A piece of property owned by the Port of Chinook checked all the key boxes for location, location, location.

Her husband, Les (EDC member Colvin’s Quality Inspections), built the shop on the leased property, and they opened the doors on May 1, in time for the busy summer season.

It’s right on U.S. Highway 101 and has plenty of space for vehicles, including the RVs and travelers with trailers the Colvins counted on.

There was at least one other espresso stand in Chinook at the time, but open hours were hit and miss.

“I had done waitress work for years, and your coffee has to be consistent, your hours have to be consistent and it doesn’t matter if you have one customer or a hundred: If you say you’re going to be open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., you stay open till 6 o’clock. The fastest way to lose business is, they don’t know when you’re open or closed.”

It has a commercial kitchen that Kathy uses to its fullest. She loves to bake. All the pastries are made fresh, giving Chinook Coffee Co. an edge.

“We just stand out from the other [stands],” she said. “At that time there were so many espresso stands; there aren’t quite as many now.”

That said, there is still plenty of competition.

To further hold onto the market she started offering breakfast sandwiches a few years ago, then added lunch sandwiches in 2015. The homemade meatloaf, Italian club, Greek gyro and roast beef are popular. They’re made to order.

“Adding the lunches has helped fill in.”

As with many Chinook businesses, the Buoy 10 fishing season gives the bottom line a healthy spike. August 2015 was the busiest month in the company’s history.

“Having the breakfast sandwiches and the lunch sandwiches to go was an amazing thing to do.”

This year hasn’t been as gracious.

“It all depends on the fishing,” she said. “It also depends on the weather. People come to the coast if it’s hot inland. If the Portland people come, they come this way, so we get them coming in and going out.”

It was a mild summer, so this year has been less impressive — so far.

There was a learning curve to the business in the early days.

“We had a lot of ideas when we first opened that didn’t work out.”

They expected to be busy selling coffee by the Thermosful. That didn’t happen right away.

“It started out pretty slow,” she said. “It has grown now.”

It took time for people to change habits.

The Lewis & Clark bicentennial events in 2004 helped get things going. Some of those history-loving visitors returned to the Peninsula in the following years.

“We’ve made so many friends that we’ve met over the years,” she said.

Many come to the stand for a smoothie, or Brain Freeze. They’re made with ice cream.

“That’s probably our signature drink.”

Staffing has been an issue. The first five years Chinook Coffee was open high school students were eager for a part-time job. They don’t apply any more.

Kathy said it’s challenging to find employees with a good work ethic and can handle the pressure of the job. Sometimes the cars line both sides of the building for service.

“You just try to train them really good and teach them to be really fast,” she said. “And have nerves of steel and not to faint when they see cars lined up around the sides.”

Like most Peninsula businesses, Chinook Coffee gets the wintertime blues. Colvin said the local customer base gets them through.

“The locals truly support us,” she said.

Colvin has some regular groups that stop by the stand.

“They visit and have a cup of coffee.”

But even the annual winter slow down can’t compare to the havoc wreaked by the economic downturn.

“It was tough; it was very, very tough,” she said. “I worked it with one other person.”

Colvin cut back staffing and operated it bare-bones.

“I worked way more than I ever wanted to,” she said. “But we made it through. I couldn’t have done it without that local base because the summer people just didn’t come. There wasn’t much of a cushion going into the winter.”

Luckily the stand had five good years before the economic storm hit. The building was paid off, leaving operating expenses the big issue.

When the worst of the recession passed, Colvin began to think about more staffing and her own quality of life issues.

Her manager for the past five years, Dani Wullger, has made a big difference to the business.

“She pretty much does the day to day with the employees.”

Her competency and enthusiasm for the job have taken a lot of the pressure off Colvin.

“I will definitely work shifts,” she said. “I don’t want a 10-hour shift; I don’t want an eight-hour shift.”

She tries to be at the stand three or four days a week now.

“It’s nice to have somebody that is so trustworthy that you can walk away and know that it’s going to be just fine,” she said. “She’s going to take care of it like it’s her own.”

Like all business owners, Colvin must contend with sudden price shifts in ingredients. Milk has increased. Earlier this year the price of eggs shot up from about $15 for 15 dozen to $48 for a few months. That wreaks havoc with the business.

“We can’t just raise the price of our breakfast sandwich to compensate that,” she said. “You just eat it and hope the price goes back down.”

In the past 13 years a 25-pound sack of flour has gone from $4 to $12. The coffee syrups were less than $3 in 2003; they’re now at $4.29 a bottle.

The price of butter fluctuates more than anything.

“One day you can go out it’s $1.98 a pound; the next day it’s $3.08 a pound,” she said. “The profit margin just gets smaller and smaller.”

Ingredients costs aren’t the only challenge. Colvin had to replace her original espresso machine in 2015. Before that, she replaced a refrigerator. Now the ice machine is ready for retirement.

Colvin originally planned to operate the business for a few years then sell before the recession derailed things.

“It’s hard for me to do it, because I was going to go once around then out; now I’m buying all this new equipment,” she said. “It’s just the cost of doing business.”

Still, with a solid manager on her side, local support and a steady stream of tourists from around the globe, Colvin doesn’t complain.

Besides, “we’ve met some really nice people through here.”

INFO BOX:

Owners: Kathy & Les Colvin

Name: Chinook Coffee Co.

Location: Chinook, Wash.

Established: May 1, 2003

Number of employees: three

Key product: Coffee, pastries, sandwiches

Key demographic: Travelers, locals

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