By Anni Caporuscio
Small Town Coffee, my quirky little brainchild, celebrates its 12th birthday Feb. 1. This means that I have owned and operated a small business for 12 whole years, and I have learned so many things that I never dreamed I’d know.
Small restaurant owners do the whole thing. For instance, I know how to do small plumbing repairs. I can also talk knowingly about different types of flour. I know how to do payroll taxes, as well as change the hinge on a refrigerator, and the prices of dairy products all over the island. I know the best security is not an alarm system, but to offer free coffee to the houseless gentleman who sleeps overnight on our bench. I know I love giving holiday cards to my 120 or so favorite customers, and I am charmed when I hear them say to each other, “see you tomorrow.”
What I really know and have experience with, though, is coffee. I have been a barista since the 1990s. I worked at coffee shops through college, after and since (right during the birth of the coffee shop scene; yes, I was that pretentious barista who messed around with the music before serving your coffee), but I never made coffee at the caliber that I’ve made it at Small Town.
At Small Town, I discovered a love of espresso: I drink a 6 oz. double Americano every morning, with the crema swirl of caramel colors on top and the espresso itself an expression of chocolates and the intoxicating smell of coffee translated into layered taste and warmth. I couldn’t even think about drinking espresso before: it was always burnt (roasted to a mythical darkness), over-extracted (run too long through the machine), or created by some college kid changing the CD. What makes it so different and delicious? Part of it is the bean. Part of it is the training of the barista. Part of it is the attention to detail to the bean by the barista. I’ve tried to bring all of this to Small Town.
In true form for modern media, let me tell you 10 things that maybe you didn’t know about Small Town Coffee.
- The red bus in Kojima Center is Small Town’s fourth location. First, in the Roxy building in Kapa‘a. Second, the blue building by the canal. Third, the red house in the Kaua‘i Products Fair.
- Among the many events held at Small Town’s various locations, which included Open Mic, a writing class, and a memorial service, we hosted a young Tulsi Gabbard during a grassroots coffee talk tour for her first campaign.
We started baking all vegan and gluten-free pastries when our original baker chose a vegan diet for health reasons. It tasted so good, we just stuck with it. We still do all our own daily baking, no, not in the bus, in our commercial kitchen.
- I liken my barista skills — and train others in this way — to Chevy Chase’s character in Caddy Shack. “Be the Bean….” I want not to calibrate machines and push buttons all day long, but to calibrate the humans to know their machines and their espresso. Then they will know if there are changes (like the weather or the water pressure) and how to change them, and maintain a perfect shot all day long.
- We make most of our own flavored coffee syrups. I feel it gives us an opportunity to know our product more and to be more culinarily creative. Also, sarsaparilla lends a sweet rooty complement to one of our signature drinks, the Sassy Espresso Soda: syrup, sparkling water, cream, and espresso on ice. Try also jasmine syrup, our homemade vegan caramel syrup, or blueberry.
- I hate cute names for coffee drinks. I think a menu should be small and Spartan because we’re in it for the quality, and not to be cute.
To work at Small Town, one must write an essay that is then reviewed by the existing staff. I like a group interview process, so staff and customers are welcome to ask questions. Through this, I believe, I have worked with some of the best and most conscientious people, many of whom now own their own businesses.
- I personally have won three barista competitions. For the first win, I took home a tamp (the weight that pushes the espresso into the portafilter handle to make the espresso shot) that we still use everyday. For the second win, ask me to tell you the awkward story about the ceremony afterwards.
- Within the last year and a half, we switched coffee roasters from Barefoot Coffee, based out of San Jose, CA, to Imua Coffee Roasters, a local roaster who is amazingly precise with his roasting profiles. All of our coffees are a light roast to a heavy medium, all tailored to the specific characteristics of the beans themselves. I couldn’t be happier with the result. I only miss African coffees (Hawai‘i is forbidden to import green coffee from Africa because there could be a pest present that would endanger the Hawaiian coffee crops). My favorite coffee varietal has always been from Africa, Kenyan coffee, Ethiopian, or best yet, Yemeni beans (whose crop has been decimated or abandoned due to the war crisis current to the region).
- When moving into the bus, my business partners and I didn’t have the time to wait for equipment to ship to Hawai‘i. So, through the generosity of our regular customers, we have granite counters and custom cabinetry like a brick and mortar shop would. We got to design it ourselves and it’s one of a kind.
Find us every day from 6 a.m.-4 p.m. in the big red bus at the old Kojima’s market in North Kapa‘a, 4-1543 Kuhio Hwy. Also on Facebook and Instagram. I love what I do. Thank you for the opportunity to keep it going for 12 years.