That irresistible plume of ground-up coffee bean vapor – or what Steven Sanger, owner of Huckleberry’s Espresso in Rawlins, refers to as the world’s “legal drug” – can be just as influential to area commerce as to human sense.
And at Huckleberry’s, a Main Street establishment well-known for its charming interior and neighborly service, with delicious eats and treats to match, of course, it in fact attracts a vast collection of clientele.
To get there, some patrons walk. Some patrons drive. Some patrons even fly. And once they take that first eye-opening sip of the morning, with it they get to taste what the Rawlins community is all about.
To gain more perspective into this local cup of Jo, the Rawlins Daily Times recently caught up with Sanger with for a morning Q&A coffee talk outside of his storefront.
RDT: Please State your name.
Sanger: Steve Sanger.
RDT: And, Steve, what do you do?
Sanger: I own Huckleberry’s Expresso, and I’m a (Rawlins) City Council member.
RDT: How long have you owned Huckleberry’s for?
Sanger: Going on six years.
RDT: Was the shop established before you purchased it?
Sanger: It’s been a coffee shop for the better part of 21 years.
RDT: Sort of a staple on Main Street?
Sanger: Yeah, it started off as Cedar Street Coffee – we still have the sign downstairs, actually… It started off as Cedar Street Coffee. It was owned by a couple of doctors. And then, after they sold it to a couple here, who now live in Colorado, they changed it to Huckleberry’s and it’s been Huckleberry’s ever since. In about 15, 16 years, it’s been Huckleberry’s.
RDT: What compelled you to purchase it?
Sanger: That’s a really long story, but I worked in the oil field and my niece was coming through. She was a music education student at Doane University in Nebraska, and she was on her way through, going home for summer break. We had come in and we were waiting to get drinks and stuff like that and I saw the little sign that said it was for sale. And I’m from Washington – the home of coffee… all things coffee – and we thought, ‘You know, if I ever wanted a place that I’d go into every day, this would kind of be it.’ Not in its current form at that time, but we could fix it to a where I’d want to go every day… Makes going to work really kind of cool.
RDT: What did you envision exactly?
Sanger: Well, first of all, the building was built in 1907, so it already had history to it. So that was kind of cool. It had really tall ceilings, and it just had really good bones. I’ve been in a couple places in Washington that I went, ‘You know, I could own a place like this,’ and there wasn’t anything like it here. So, I said, ‘You know, we could do that here without too much trouble.’ You get all the equipment, you get all the stuff, you’re not starting from scratch. You don’t have to go out and buy all that stuff. So that was really good. And I bought it from Thomas Gamblin, who’s a police officer here in town. We were open for about 10 days, then we closed down for a little over a week and redid the entire building, reopened back up and have been open ever since.
RDT: Since then, what notable people have walked through these doors?
Sanger: Every year we have a lot of – if you have any election component going on – we host an event. We host both sides, we’ve always done that. It seems to be me to be disingenuous to say, ‘Yeah you, but not you,’ regardless of my own political beliefs. You give them a place that people know that they can come into that they’ve been here before… And Inside the building we have books of people who are all over the world. So, we have ‘em from China and Yugoslavia and Russia and Puerto Rico and all the way to down into South America and what have you. There are literally books of people. They write where they’re from and what they’re experience was like, and we read them every day just to make sure there’s a comment in there we can pick out and say, ‘Hey, we can do better than that.’ Once in a while you have that comment that goes, ‘It’d be great if you served this.’ Can we fit that into what we do? If it’s something we can do with our existing material, yeah, we’ll take a shot at it.
RDT: Speaking of what you serve, what’s available at Huckleberry’s?
Sanger: Well, we’re known as a coffee shop, but that’s actually not the largest part of our business. We actually sell more in the food range. We sell specialty sandwiches – that is our primary business. That’s about, give or take, 46 percent out of all of our business. We have about 3,460 possible combinations of just drinks, because we carry so many different kinds of syrups and you can use them for a number of different things. We sell Italian sodas, which you can make any way you want, and you have 30 different syrups to choose from, so you can make an infinite number of those. We have 16 different flavors of ice cream, so you can have any combination of those. The syrups, we also use as part of our coffee, so it can be any infinite number of coffees we can use for that same exact thing. It’s a lot. For us, we just memorize formula. Are you doing it in coffee? Are you doing it in a shake? Are you doing it in an Italian soda? And we also sell regular soda.
RDT: From that, what keeps customers coming back?
Sanger: It’s being able to serve whatever their need is whenever they walk through that door. And if you don’t have it, knowing where that need is. I learned that a long time ago. I used to work for what used to be the largest sporting goods chain in America – which was Oshman’s Sporting Goods – and they went bankrupt probably 20 years ago. But when I first started working them, I worked in a mall and we sold stuff and so did a lot of other businesses. And if we didn’t have what people were looking for, or we were out, my manager said, ‘Go find it. Know where it is, and if we ran out of it, we know where to send them.’ First and foremost, if you can satisfy whatever (the customer’s) need is at that point… if you can do that regardless of if you sold it to them or if somebody else sold it to them… as long as you took care of it, they will remember you – not where they bought that thing. It gets ‘em back to you in one way or another… if somebody wants eggs over easy, we know where the other restaurants are.
RDT: How is this business good for other business, and how does it attract more people to this community?
Sanger: Density creates excitement. If you ever notice that whenever McDonalds forecasts where to put a store, as soon as that store touches the ground… within a year so you will find anywhere from three to five other fast food restaurants immediately. The other restaurants know that McDonalds is forecasted well. They know that they’re in the right place. We just have to be within a quarter of a mile here. Within a quarter of a mile, we get all of the traffic that comes by them… We’re kind of the same thing. You come here and get a cup of coffee, but the Visitors’ Center is right across the road. So, I wonder, ‘What else there is to do here?’ So, I can just walk across the road to the Visitors’ Center and pick up all the pamphlets from all of Carbon County… We are providing that extra service that keeps them in town. We know that 60-some odd percent of the state’s income comes from the state’s oil and gas industry, and the next largest one is tourism. So ,if we can accommodate them from that stand point, we’re keeping those dollars here.
RDT: For the perfect romanticism of it all, what’s the ideal day for the avid coffee drinker here?
Sanger: Look where you are right now. You sit here, you have flowers behind you, you have access to a coffee within fifteen steps… It doesn’t get better than this. You can be anywhere in the United States, and if you had this environment right here – would you have a cup of coffee? I would.
Huckleberry’s Espresso is located downtown Rawlins. They can be reached at (307) 324-4758.