It’s a crisp Friday morning in September as Western students make their way through the streets of Bellingham, headed to campus. For the tired and weary students in need of a pick-me-up, a site for sore and decaffeinated eyes greets them at Laurel Park, located on Billy Frank Jr. Street.
Fairhaven College senior Arlen Coiley is standing behind his wooden, mobile coffee bar.
As people approach the stand, Coiley uses a hand-crank grinder to grind the coffee beans, ensuring the freshness of his coffee. Then, using either a pour-over method or an aeropress, he brews the coffee per customer request. The coffee is served in a small mug, with customers encouraged to stay and enjoy Coiley’s brew at the bar.
With a toasty cup of coffee in hand, Coiley’s smile suggests he’s pursuing his true passion.
“I had an excellent experience,” junior Cole Thomas said. “Nothing beats coffee out in the sun.”
Customers are encouraged to pay whatever they think they can afford and Coiley has often received gifts, including a box of chocolates or personally painted art, in return for a cup of coffee. By not charging money directly, Coiley is able to set up shop anywhere and serve coffee on the streets of Bellingham without a permit. When he eventually gets a vendor’s permit, Coiley said he’ll set up downtown and charge for coffee at a set price.
“…there was a coffee shop that appeared out of the blue in front of my apartment. And it’s pretty good.”
The coffee bar is mobile, with wheels underneath, and is small enough to fit in the trunk of Coiley’s Honda Element. On the front is a chalkboard with the logo of his company, called Handshake Coffee, and installed in the wooden base of the bar is a small sink and burner.
Coiley’s setup is simple, but his stand has the ability to impact a student’s day.
“(I was) coming home from a day of school and little tired,” senior Henry Haro said. “Then there was a coffee shop that appeared out of the blue in front of my apartment. And it’s pretty good.”
Coiley had hopes for his coffee-for-donations business model, but when he first began setting up the stand roughly three weeks ago, he had no idea how well it would be received. So far, Coiley’s brand of do-it-yourself coffee has connected with his customers.
“I love little pop-up things and real people. I am a coffee lover, (I) hate Starbucks and I am always in search of good coffee,” senior Masha Szaro said.
Growing up on Lopez Island, Coiley took his first job as a dishwasher at age 13 at a fine dining restaurant. The restaurant’s chef mentored him, Coiley methodically moved up the ranks and eventually became a line cook — his passion for the restaurant industry growing.
During high school, Coiley attended a culinary hospitality school in Italy for a semester. Once he returned from his trip, he began using his new skills to sell bags of fresh, homemade pasta at farmers markets.
After high school, Coiley decided he wanted a break before attending college and moved back to Italy for a year to work on farms and at small mom-and-pop cafés.
By the fall of 2013, the Pacific Northwest was calling Coiley back home. Western was the main reason for his move to Bellingham, and the town welcomed him with more than he had imagined.
“Right when I moved here, the community immediately made me feel like I fit right in,” Coiley said.
He helped run an organization called Food Not Bombs. The organization would often serve free food downtown, and would set up at different locations on the streets. This business model ultimately inspired the pop-up coffee stand. After leaving Food Not Bombs, Coiley got a job as a chef, where he worked for a year and a half until the summer of 2016. It was at this time that Coiley decided to go a different route.
Coiley’s love for coffee had emerged and was growing rapidly. He had experience with Italian espresso culture, but did not learn about the coffee roasting and specialty coffee cultures present in the United States until he met his good friend Tucker Samuelson.
Samuelson and Coiley met on their first day living in the Fairhaven dorms in the fall of 2013; the two lived across the hall from one another and quickly became close friends.
“Having this (stand) becomes a tool for adventure.”
Samuelson had worked in a coffee roastery in Colorado called Boxcar Coffee Roasters. He began introducing Coiley to the craft of coffee, showing him where coffee comes from and how flavors can be brought out from different roasts, grinds and brewing methods.
The two friends had a dream of traveling to somewhere in Central America and bringing back coffee with them to roast and sell, so they got on a plane and flew to Costa Rica. While there, they found a few coffee farms and learned more about the growth and origins of the coffee they were in the market for. Coiley is currently using the coffee he brought back from Costa Rica for Handshake Coffee, and hopes to form trade relations with these farms for direct importing in the future.
“After working at a restaurant for the past year and a half, (I) realized ﹘ compared to food ﹘ coffee is such a simple art. All you have to do is work on refining one ingredient and put everything you can into it,” Coiley said. “If you get really good coffee, it’s had a lot of love put into it from when it was a plant, when it was picked, when it was processed. You get it roasted real well and give it a lot of attention while it’s brewing and you will end up with this amazing, unique product that you actually can make very different with very simple alterations.”
Coiley’s favorite parts of cooking were the act of giving people something delicious and the personal interaction with his customers. So, he decided to lower his inputs and achieve the same goal by focusing on making his customers the perfect cup of coffee.
Through his love for customer service, and the dream to personally know the farmers he imports his coffee from, the name Handshake Coffee arose, he said.
“(A) handshake is like making a deal with someone directly,” Coiley said.
Handshake Coffee has been active during all times of day. In the mornings, more people are in need of their coffee so Coiley gets more customers, but at night, the customers have more time for a good conversation. He sets up, on average, four days a week, usually in accordance with his mood. Coiley plans to set up more often, and wants to start being a vendor at more events in order to publicize his company.
Coiley intends for the coffee bar to always be a part of his life, even if it is not his main job in the future. It is about the experience, not necessarily the money.
Coiley is a student of Fairhaven College currently concentrating on ethno gastronomy, cultural studies and the art and science of food and beverage. These are closely intertwined with his love for coffee because it is a refined beverage that many people drink, and can be improved, but coffee also has cultural and historical components.
“Coffee is an interesting lense to look at history through, and to tell the story of the world and different countries’ interactions with each other,” said Coiley.
His minor in entrepreneurship is directly tied to his coffee stand because it teaches different business tactics and how to improve on one’s business model.
When he graduates in spring 2017, he hopes to drive his mobile coffee bar to different locations, serving coffee and documenting the whole adventure.
“Having this (stand) becomes a tool for adventure,” Coiley said.
The ultimate goal for Coiley is to drive Handshake Coffee’s mobile bar down to Costa Rica, buying coffee from the local farmers in order to roast and serve it to them.
“How cool is that, having this sweet coffee bar where the people that are actually growing and picking the coffee are able to sit down and drink it themselves,” Coiley said.