Running a successful coffee franchise in the Roaring Fork Valley can be done in three easy steps: using quality ingredients, providing good customer service and being consistent, said Charlie Chacos, owner of Bonfire Coffee.
Simple, however, doesn’t mean easy.
“We are focused on management and execution,” Chacos said. “And we are investing a lot in training our staff. Most of our employees take 20 to 30 hours of training in their first few months.
Bonfire is celebrating its 10th anniversary, but Chacos has worked in the food industry for most of its life.
Born in Aspen, Chacos grew up in Carbondale after his parents, Chris and Terry Chacos, decided to move to the Valley and open The Village Smithy in 1975.
“At the time, Main Street was a dirt road and there were only a few hundred people here,” said Chacos, 50. “It was a city of cows, for sure.”
In 1998, Chacos took over his parents’ restaurant and learned the value of employee management the hard way, he says.
“I went from a line worker, as a bartender, to an owner, skipping all the middle managers,” Chacos said. “These first five years have been quite difficult.”
Over the years, Chacos said he has developed a talent for handling the business side and the remaining 90% of the job: employee-customer relationships.
In 2004, he attended a Specialty Coffee Association show in Atlanta, Georgia, where he discovered the “third wave” of the coffee industry.
“In the ’90s, everyone was looking for these complex blends of coffee beans from 3 to 4 sources, which were roasted quite darkly,” Chacos said.
At the exhibition, lighter roasted coffees, often from a single source, kicked off the third wave. Chacos brought his new knowledge back to Carbondale and successfully applied it to the Smithy. In 2011, he and his business partner Jared Ettelson took it to the next level by opening Bonfire Coffee at 433 Main Street.
“Strong sense of community”
A line of Bonfire customers stretched out on the sidewalk Wednesday morning as Leticia “Lety” Gomez, 45, poured almond milk into a latte.
“It’s fun working here, fun making the drinks,” Gomez said. “I think my favorite part is making art in coffee with milk.”
Brightly colored images of Native Americans, crows and wizards painted by local artist Chad Knowles line the wall opposite Gomez as she adds a scoop of ice cream to an espresso, creating one of the coffee’s specialties : affogato.
Having worked for Chacos for about 20 years at both the Smithy and the Bonfire, she said he was not only a good businessman, but a great boss.
“Charlie takes care of his people, he always looks out for us, the employees,” said Gomez.
While some customers know Bonfire Coffee for its commitment to ethically and sustainably sourced coffee beans, locally roasted in Glenwood Springs, Chacos said the coffee is making many strides to become not only a business in the community, but also from the community.
“We are able to compost 50 to 60% of our waste, including all of our cups and service clothes,” he said.
Bonfire customers can find a number of locally produced items at the cafe, including music by local musicians and coffee mugs created by local potter and Bonfire employee Giana Grossman.
About a year ago, Grant Grindler, 28, joined Chacos as Deputy Director of Bonfire.
“I’ve been in the valley for about three years and come here shortly after arriving,” said Grindler. “There is a strong sense of community between employees, but also with customers.
The coffee industry is not that different from other restaurant jobs that Grindler has worked in the past, but he said there is more job satisfaction.
“Coffee is so immersed in our culture,” he said. “I like to provide a product that people want to wake up to. “
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on the restaurant industry, including Bonfire Coffee.
“The pandemic was a roller coaster,” Chacos said. “But we were fortunate enough to pull through, in large part thanks to Paycheck Protection Program funds and some local grants.”
Another boon to the cafe business was Carbondale easing its restrictions on outdoor dining.
“Traveling to Italy, France and Spain opened my eyes to how cafes bleed in the streets,” Chacos explained. “It creates an atmosphere of community which I hope will prevail here in America.”
Bonfire requires customers and employees to wear masks inside the cafe, unless they are seated at tables. Chacos said ensuring the health of its employees and customers is essential to its business.
Chacos’ focus on employee care extends beyond the Roaring Fork Valley. Whether buying coffee beans for local customers or wholesale through Bonfire’s online store, which accounts for up to 40% of the company’s revenue, Chacos said he was looking for single origin coffees from fair trade farms that pay their workers well.
“In the 1980s, single origin meant from the same country or region,” he said. “But these days, we really focus on buying individual farms and cooperatives.”
However, ethically sourcing coffee beans comes at a cost, and Chacos has said it pays more than market value to ensure its beans come from certified fair trade farms.
As the “fourth wave” of the coffee industry approaches, Chacos said the future of coffee lies in experimenting with the fermentation process, including extending the typical fermentation period to 24 hours and allowing the coffee fruit intact around the bean during the fermentation process.
“With the fruit still there, the seed absorbs these extra flavors,” he said.
While family ties may be what brought Chacos back to the valley as a young man, providing the community with basic places to eat and drink keeps him in place.
“What I love most about doing business in Carbondale is that we are supported locally,” he said. “Tourism is really cool, but the bulk of our customers are people who live, eat and play here in the community every day. “
Journalist Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at [email protected]