If you're gonna innovate something the world has never seen, there's probably gonna be a pretty good story behind how you got there. This is ours.
THE SHORT VERSION:
Don and Carissa Niemyer were always interested in minimalism. They accidentally became really good at it when they moved "temporarily" into 99 square feet of living space with their two kids and ended up staying there for almost 4 years. A year of that was spent traveling the nation, visiting over 200 great coffee shops in 45 states, getting inspiration, and dreaming about their next coffee move. These experiences culminated in the idea to create a Tiny House Coffee Shop. After searching around for others who had done this and finding nothing, they decided to do it anyway, becoming the first people in the world that they know of to build a Tiny House Coffee Shop where customers come inside. It's sitting in Downtown Colorado Spring's Acacia Park right this very minute, serving up great coffee in a simple yet elegant environment. And the Niemyers are having the time of their lives.
THE LONG[ER] VERSION:
Like every good story, it all started with coffee. And like every great one, it all started as a love story.
In 2002 Don Niemyer walked into a coffee shop in the Deep Ellum district of Dallas, TX. He was visiting from Colorado Springs and some of his friends were playing music at this shop. It happened to be Halloween night, and his barista was dressed as a saucy little hippie. Over the next couple days Don and the hippie chick, named Carissa, spent a little time together. At the end of that weekend Don asked Carissa if he could call her when he got back to Colorado. She inexplicably gave him her number, and seven months later they were married.
COMMUNITY IS KEY
Community was always central to the new couple. Carissa loved her work in the coffee shop, and Don had just bailed from the corporate non-profit world in search of a way to spend his days that was less administrative and more hands-on. He had taken a job at Starbucks to learn how to talk to people again, and they spent the early days of their marriage dreaming about how they were going to spend their lives being involved in a day to day basis in the lives of their people. The answer - like the one to so many great questions in life - was coffee.
In 2006, with a one year old daughter and another on the way, they left Colorado Springs armed with a business plan to build more community around coffee in one of the nation's finest coffee meccas: Portland, Oregon. They bought their first little kiosk and dove deep, learning from anyone who would give them the time of day, attending every training offered, and working daily to perfect their craft. Along the way they bought two more shops, were featured in a book about coffee called Caffeinated PDX, and began judging barista competitions around the nation. But, as kids do, theirs were growing up. They were missing a lot of family reunions, weddings, and the influence of the "gray hairs" on their growing family. So they decided to move back to Colorado and continue in coffee with....something. Consulting? Origin trips? They weren't sure. The idea of opening just "another shop" seemed boring at this point. So the idea for an exploration trip was born. "We'll be traveling from Oregon to Colorado anyway," they figured, "So why not take a little extra time to explore the national coffee scene along the way? Maybe we'll get some inspiration for our next move." They reasoned that, with a little money in their pockets from the sale of the shops, and unburdened by debt (they had long since agreed that car payments and credit cards were not for them) they would have the freedom to travel for a few weeks, maybe even months! They'd just need the perfect vehicle for such a trip. Don suggested a VW Vanagon, which sounded super cool for about 5 minutes until he remembered that he had two daughters. Carissa took that idea a step further and discovered the VW Rialta.
THE PERFECT MACHINE FOR THE JOB
The Rialta was a collaboration between Volkswagen and Winnebago. Small enough to drive like a car, but big enough to sleep four, with a fridge, toilet, and shower. It was perfect! Through Carissa's relentless Craiglist searching they got their hands on a used Rialta, and it was guh-lorious! They were already kind of flirting with minimalism, and once they spent the night in the Rialta on the street in front of their house they were convinced they could live in it. They had sold two of their shops, and the other was on the market. It was April already, and they needed to be ready to hit the road when that third shop sold, so the put all their worldly possessions in a yard sale (like I said, they didn't have much so the whole pile went for just over $800) and moved into the Rialta, which they found hilarious. They were having so much fun, dropping their kids off at school and running their businesses (Carissa had become a Birth Doula somewhere in there and was helping moms deliver beautiful little babies all over Portland), pretending to be a normal family, then at night slipping into quiet little neighborhoods and sleeping [illegally] on the street. But for reasons we won't get into here but which would be very interesting if we did because they include the neighbors of their coffee shop barricading the drive through, they had to take their shop off the market and wait another year to sell it. And this is how the Niemyers accidentally became extreme minimalists. They lived in that little 100 square feet space on the streets of Portland for 2 years, and accidentally became quite the experts at minimal living. They discovered that minimalism was solving many problems for them automatically. They were spending more time with their kids, reading more books, camping a LOT more, spending more time outdoors, and saving TONS of money! Win-win-win-win-and WIN.
THE NATIONAL COFFEE CRAWL
Well, eventually that last shop did sell and they took off on their national excursion. They ended up visiting 45 states, went to over 200 coffee shops, talked with everyone who would take a minute, did some consulting along the way, judged a few barista competitions here and there, reported on the experience for Barista Magazine, and kind of loosely home schooled their two girls, who were now ages 8 & 10. They were still looking for inspiration and found it in two mutually exclusive categories. They loved walking into these big, beautiful, lavishly designed shops with great equipment, custom woodwork, and great design. Shops like Sightglass in San Francisco, Barista Parlor in Nashville, or Palace in Amarillo. On the other hand, they were really attracted to many of the simple operations they saw, too. Minimal footprint shops with small staff and simple menus. Tandem in Portland, Maine, Not Just Coffee in Charlotte, Single Origin in Los Angeles, or Sterling in Portland, OR. This little puzzle nagged at them until they discovered the Tiny House movement. These folks had become experts at both, creating beautiful spaces with great design and excellent craftsmanship, but with minimal footprints and great simplicity. This was the idea! They'd create a Tiny House coffee shop! As Don described this concept to Carissa's father one day, he passionately described his vision for the whole thing: How they wanted to tell the stories of some of the great people and coffees they had discovered on their trip around the nation; How he thought many people would be interested in hearing the story of how the one-of-a-kind shop came to be; And how every person that walked in the door would have their own story to tell, and he was excited about hearing those too! It seemed the only thing they hadn't thought of was what to name their new enterprise. "It sounds to me like you need to name it Story", Carissa's dad pointed out. So that's exactly what they did.
BUILDING A DREAM
The Tiny House idea was exactly the answer to their desire for excellent coffee and legendary customer service, but with a low enough overhead that they could afford to do just coffee and not be distracted by making sandwiches and smoothies or selling time shares and magazine subscriptions on the side. They were excited to see who else had thought of this amazing idea so they could learn from them, but in their searching on the googler found exactly nothing. It wasn't uncommon to discover coffee shops set in Tiny Houses, but no one they found had the audacity (or perhaps experience of living tiny for so long) to envision the entire coffee operation in one end with enough space for customers in there too. But not to be dissuaded, they plunged forward. Armed with their passion, expertise and ignorance they began creating the world's first Tiny House Coffee Shop where customers come inside.
It was at this point that, recognizing their limitations, they got some help. Some old friends from Portland had relocated to Colorado Springs, and they all became partners in creating the vision. Brandon was an expert problem-solver, which played out in everything from web design to construction. Kelly was a fantastic artist and graphic designer. Carissa was super excited about the coffees, and Don was the visionary practitioner. They pieced together the plans in Colorado Springs, then headed back to Portland, Oregon for the build. Carissa could continue working as an overnight postpartum doula there while Don built the shop during the day. He had resources available there, most notable of which was an old friend, Justin, who had formerly been a General Contractor and had a garage full of great tools, plus the expertise to guide the project. After building for about three months there, Don's dad, Chuck, came out from his ranch in OK with the truck that you envisioned when I said "ranch in OK" and pulled the structure back to Colorado Springs. It was parked at Brandon and Kelly's house, where they continued the finish work and were joined by another friend who helped with the interior design. Robin Pasley (www.robinpasleydesigns.com) took Don's ideas about the end goals for the interior (clean, bright, minimalistic design) and created the beautiful interior that has been written about in several national magazines, including being named "Most Beautiful Coffee Shop in Colorado" by none other than Architectural Digest Magazine.
SO YOU BUILT IT. NOW WHAT?
As the ace team was putting the finishing touches on the shop, Don began poking around town to see where he could park the thing. They always knew they wanted a permanent location, preferably in the downtown area. One day he had secured a meeting with a developing company that runs a lot of the downtown properties, and things were looking promising! But on the way out of that meeting he was introduced to a girl named Sarah who worked for an organization called The Downtown Partnership. The purpose of this organization is basically to make downtown super cool so people will want to live and work there. So when she learned about the Tiny Coffee House, she was instantly interested. They exchanged cards, and soon thereafter Sarah called Don with what she described as a fantastic but short term opportunity. She explained that every year they worked in partnership with the Parks Department to install a full sized ice skating rink in downtown's Acacia Park. Don knew of this park because he had worked at the Starbucks adjacent to it 13 years prior. It was just a short term opportunity, but he thought it would be a great way to introduce his concept to the City of Colorado Springs, so they pulled the shop down next to the rink, plugged in, and opened for business on November 13, 2015.
FROM TEMPORARY TO PERMANENT
The Story Coffee team spent the next 3 months testing the limits of their creation. Because of their location in Acacia Park, they were right in the middle of many holiday events. The Christmas Parade. Downtown's Small Business Saturday. And the lighting of the holiday Christmas tree. On these days, the odd little shop in the middle of the park was nearly overwhelmed, but it performed marvelously, funneling lines in one door and out the other, just like it was designed to do! Between these events and over 15,000 ice skaters that year, they had a pretty good business going. They were sharing the "stories" of coffees and people they had encountered on their national coffee crawl, trying to honor those artisans by presenting their coffees as elegantly as possible. But it was all too good to last long, it seemed, as the ice skating rink closed in January and Story Coffee continued looking for a permanent home. Then they found out it actually was NOT too good to last, because the Parks Department called one day. They'd had pretty good feedback about the little shop being in the park, as it turned out. The shop met some of their goals related to making Acacia Park an attractive place for citizens to come enjoy a beautiful space with various amenities. Plus it helped make things safer, with extra eyes and ears looking around. So they asked if there was any interest in Story staying in the park, to which Don said they'd need to move to a more visible location, and everyone agreed that next to the historic band shell on Bijou Street would be perfect! So in March of 2016 the relocation was executed, a deck and a proper ADA ramp were installed, and Story Coffee celebrated its official grand opening in April of 2016.
THE DREAM CONTINUES
Since that time, the Story "story" has continued to unfold. Brandon and Kelly decided to move on from the partnership (they all learned they were better as friends than business partners) and Story Coffee Company became a roasting company in November of 2016, launching their own line of coffee that is being served in coffee shops, restaurants, and churches around the country now. Story enjoys the craftsmanship of some of the finest baristas in Colorado Springs, and is widely considered one of the finest shops in town. Because of their innovative model they are able to achieve this while keeping their operating costs minimal, which means they can offer great products at a good price, and still donate 5% of revenues - not profits, but every dollar spent - to helping feed the homeless in Colorado Springs (their goal for 2018 is $10,000). Don & Carissa now live just 3 blocks away from the shop in a 120 year old Victorian house, working to keep their life as simple as possible, and continue pursuing ways to be involved in their community, enjoy their family, and tell great stories. They also love hearing great stories, and hope you'll come by and share yours soon!