RAWLINS – Walking passed the tables covered with upside down chairs on a windy Thursday morning, Steve Sanger made his way to the sign-in book near the front door, whose tiny bell always gives a jovial ring every time someone comes in.
He flipped through the pages, occupied by hundreds of passages inscribed by people from all over the world – France, Ukraine, Casper, Wyo.
“You’ve done something right,” Sanger says, referring to these tangible reminders of success of his downtown café, Huckleberry’s Espresso & Ice Cream. “(The visitors) are walking advertisements.”
Those very same people, however, who somehow found themselves inside a mom and pop coffeehouse buttoned in an isolated, high desert oasis, will now simply have to tell their friends about another quaint and indelible place they once stumbled upon in their travels.
After seven years of operation, Huckleberry’s drew its final cup of coffee on Feb. 25, as it officially closed the door.
How this community caffeine refuge, in a typical summer customers snaking to the cash register, mixers buzzing about, a cacophony of voices bouncing off the artwork-filled walls and the high, antiquated tiled ceiling, came to this may be puzzling to some.
The café has lined the rugged, western elegance of Cedar Street as a coffeehouse for the past 27 years, and no doubt it’s been a local favorite for many. Before that, in fact, it was even a magazine and cigar shop as well as a shoe store.
For Sanger, he notes the abrupt closure can be attributed to a mixture of the declining foot traffic, the cruelty of Wyoming winter, and the recent actions of the federal government.
What lasted 35 days, Pres. Donald Trump’s proposal to build a $5 billion wall at the Mexican border literally polarized Congress into a government shutdown starting late last year – now faulted as the longest in U.S. history.
The move was so monumental it momentarily hindered all sorts of federally reliant industries in the greater Carbon County area, including the rest of the Cowboy State and the country. With no government, timely paychecks for federally furloughed employees were placed on hold, while certain projects couldn’t get the green light to unfold on federal land.
So, already dealing with half the foot traffic caused the by the winter season, a frigid obstacle that presents a niche business owner who caters to 1.2 people per square mile quite a struggle to break even, a government shutdown, according to Sanger, doesn’t help.
“When you’re already at margin, or close to margin, during that time of year anyway, and you wipe out about 30 percent (of traffic)?” Sanger says, now sitting at one his tables. “It makes it difficult to stay in business.”
But what about other area businesses? Did they also bear the brunt of these contributing factors?
One thing to always keep in mind is that Rawlins is a boom and bust economy. The oil industry is always at the mercy of fluctuating prices.
Leading into the early 1990s, just about every downtown storefront was occupied by commerce. Once oil prices dropped and a bust hit, businesses started to clear out. Even in the past year, according to Rawlins Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Josh Martinez, an estimated 10 area businesses have closed throughout town.
Meanwhile, says Martinez, many of the area’s tourist attractions don’t encompass downtown. Therefore, passersby along the I-80 corridor, a major freight and travel route of the U.S., are more likely to make quick stops at the fast food restaurants and gas stations on the east and west ends of this city inhabited by roughly 10,000 residents.
But the figures are a bit deceiving. Despite the influences, some places know their market and manage to appeal to different demographics and clientele. Rawlins, in fact, has seen other places flourish, and Martinez hopes this excitement snowballs into increased commerce and financial success.
“Sooner or later this town is going to find its identity,” Martinez says. “And that’s when it will take off.”
Sanger’s café also had its own distinct identity: something that did attract customers, from campaigning politicians, people hiking the great continental divide, and overall local coffee lovers.
Alongside the brews and espressos, Huckleberry’s perishable inventory consisted of items classic but unique to the café scene: a freezer full of ice cream, a grand assortment of flavored beverages, breakfast and deli sandwiches lauded all over Trip Advisor online.
When no one’s coming in, however, not only do monetary transactions not take place, a restaurateur must throw these acclaimed products in the trash, as if banknotes to a paper shredder.
With that, although a tough pill to swallow, Huckleberry’s seven employees could make out why they were informed of the closure.
“They clearly understood how difficult it is, and they know what they’ve been going through over the past month and a half, almost two months, just from the number of bodies that are walking through the building, that there’s something that’s seriously not right with this,” Sanger says.
Soon, after saying that regardless of him being married to his café, and that sleep was not a function of the job, Sanger paused with emotion as he eyed the menu still on the wall behind the counter, and acknowledged, “You still need to make money.”
“When it no longer serves that purpose, you have to divorce yourself from the emotional impact of it,” he says.
Though, all is not lost. The café that pleased so many, connected with its customers, and donated to so many local organizations has a seemingly positive future.
Sanger says once news came out that his place was for sale, he almost immediately received six phone calls from prospecting buyers. Once it hopefully sells, Sanger also hopes the place keeps or replicates its familiar atmosphere.
Nevertheless, as he looked around his cafe with a sort of bitter-sweet air of nostalgia, he expressed how difficult it will be for him to let go and pursue his next business venture.
“You love the ability to make someone’s experience in your town, who’ve never been here, something they’ll remember,” he says with emotion. “That part I’ll miss.”
If all goes well, the sign-in books, says Sanger, will remain in the shop.