Outside it's chilly and misting, but inside the brick-walled Old Town Coffee and Chocolates, it's cozy. The steamer and the knock of a portafilter drown the low music for a moment and the barista behind the Plexiglas coos at the dog of a regular, scolding it lightly for putting its paws on the counter. In the next room, the red ribbon atop a Christmas tree brushes the ceiling.
After nearly 20 years as a caffeine pitstop, meeting place, music venue, study spot and community hub, Old Town Coffee and Chocolates is for sale. Owners Cathy Kunker and Gail Mentink are retiring, and asking $360,000 for the entire operation, which includes the Old Town shop and the Henderson Center location, the wholesale coffee business and all the recipes, from coffee drinks to baked goods and soup, to the fudge and the perennial Easter-time Bunny Balls.
Mentink says she and Kunkler met working office jobs at the pulp mill "under constant threat of things closing down" when they started talking about starting their own business, something they'd have more control over. And control is what they got when they bought the former Humboldt Bay Coffee spot from John Hall in 2002, adding chocolates and doubling the café's footprint by expanding into the office space next door. In 2005, the pair bought roasting equipment, including the afterburner that cuts the smoke and particles released into the air, and started roasting their own beans, a move Kunkler says made a vast difference in the cost of running a café. In 2016, they bought the former Vellutini's Bakery in Henderson Center, but for the bread ovens and wholesale business.
"I was not a specialty coffee drinker, I had a learning curve ... and then immediately fell in love with it," says Mentink, who recalls being stumped by a customer's order the first day she and Kunkler were on their own at the espresso machine. "I didn't have a clue how to make it." Luckily, the fellow was happy to take a complimentary drip coffee instead.
Along with the coffee, both women say Old Town Coffee and Chocolates' role as a social hub — as evidenced by the posted flyers and Little Free Library — has been a joy. "We've had everything here from funerals to weddings," Kunkler says. The latter took place in the side room during café hours. "We were careful with the grinder while they were saying their vows."
Kunkler says, "We see just about everybody. It really does cross all demographics." The broad range of patrons has shown her "that you can have different appearances, views and still really enjoy and like each other. ... It really helps you to have a bigger view of the world in some ways."
That includes some more colorful characters, like the man who used to walk his turkey and chickens around town. Once, she says, his rather large turkey was blocking the doorway when EMTs came for someone in the café who'd had a seizure, prompting a barista to tell him he had to get the bird out of there. That night, she got an anxious email from the bird owner, asking if his turkey was truly no longer welcome. "I thought, only in Humboldt," she says, laughing. "It's hard to leave something like this; I'm gonna be so bored."
When COVID-19 and its attending shelter in place hit Humboldt, the café closed for eight weeks. "It was the first time in all these years that we had been closed and I was worried," says Kunkler, who found her worry quelled, if not erased, by support around the community. She recalls John Dalby, president and CEO of Redwood Capitol Bank, calling her at home to order $2,000 worth of gift cards to be used when the business reopened. "It really wasn't about the money; it was the gesture," she says. She was moved, too, when a regular customer came in with an envelope with $100 for each employee. "They were so touched."
Kunkler says the pandemic-era barriers and masks have curtailed the usual banter a bit, but the feel of the place is starting to come back along with the regulars and small events, and even open mic nights are on the horizon. According to Mentink, the business is "pretty much back to where we were. I feel good about that. I wouldn't have wanted to walk away with it struggling." Now it even boasts covered outdoor seating built by Kunkler's husband, Buck Zumwalt.
"Cathy and I – she's probably the best friend I could have. People told me, 'Oh, partnerships, be careful,' but it has been one of the greatest blessings in my life." Leaving that behind, Mentink says, "It's a very bittersweet decision." But she and her husband, Danny, have 17 grandchildren between them that they'll be spending more time with. That and "more yoga," she says with a deep sigh.
"It's been a wonderful business and a wonderful life — our kids have all grown up here," says Kunkler, who notes family members were involved at every step, building, developing the coffees and working the counter. "It's hard to let go in some ways but it's time for another chapter." For her and her husband, that means doing some traveling together.
Mentink echoes Kunkler's feelings about moving on, as much as they'll both miss their employees and customers. Mentink chuckles and says she joked with her son the other night, "It's gonna be rough paying for coffee in the future."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.