Coffee

The Full-Circle Redemption Story Behind Little India Owner's Lil Coffea Shop

Lil Coffea Shop is located at 300 East Sixth Avenue.
Lil Coffea Shop is located at 300 East Sixth Avenue. Lil Coffea Shop
Robert “Bobby” Yoakum never set out to open Lil Coffea Shop.

After eight years managing Little India restaurants, Yoakum left in 2013 because of a combination of illness and burnout. He soon lost himself to drugs and alcohol, got caught up with the wrong crowd and eventually found himself in prison.

After his release in 2019, Yoakum transitioned to a halfway house and found a job at a Jiffy Lube. While he was working to return to society, he dreamt about Little India and wondered if he would see its owner, Simeran Baidwan, drive by as he walked to and from work. “While I was recovering, my family would ask me, ‘Why don’t you call Simeran and go back to Little India?’ I wanted to,” Yoakum says, “but I felt ashamed.”

Eventually, Baidwan found him. “He ended up coming to the Jiffy Lube. I was working under the hood of a car, and I heard, 'Is Bobby working?’ and I looked over and Simeran was walking toward me. He told me that he had heard what happened and asked to meet for coffee,” Yoakum says.
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Bobby Yoakum (top left) with his Lil Coffea Shop team.
Lil Coffea Shop

Baidwan extended a second chance to Yoakum, offering him the manager position at Little India’s South Downing Street location. When Yoakum returned to Little India on March 16, 2020, “everything was the exact same,” he recalls. “My computer was still in the office with my files on it.” That same day, however, Governor Jared Polis ordered the closure of Colorado restaurants to curb the spread of COVID-19.

What came next for Yoakum and Baidwan is the now-familiar story of the pandemic pivot: They closed the buffets at Little India's Sixth Avenue and Downing Street locations, pushed takeout deals and curbside pick-up, and did whatever it took to keep their staff on the books.

But while so many restaurants were shuttering, Baidwan soon had his eye on expansion. Yoakum was getting tattooed on one of his rare days off when Baidwan called him with an exciting opportunity: A Starbucks space next to the original Little India location on Sixth Avenue had come up for sale. Would he want to partner with him on a new coffee shop venture? “He said, ‘You’re family, and I want to offer you a place in life as a business owner,’” Yoakum remembers. As it turns out, Yoakum had worked as a barista at that same Starbucks when he was nineteen years old; his former manager recognized him when he walked in to sign the lease.

Lil Coffea Shop opened in October 2021 at 300 East Sixth Avenue. While Yoakum is the first to admit that he didn’t know a ton about the coffee industry, he knew he wanted to focus on local and building a community. He tapped the pros at Huckleberry Roasters for beans, equipment and training expertise, and opted to bring in fresh baked goods from Mary Nguyen’s Olive & Finch operation. “Everything just seemed to fall into place, even the staff. They’re so involved, and I have the best team there,” Yoakum says. Recently, the team added a full kitchen and is now serving burritos, sandwiches, avocado toasts and smoothies, in addition to specialty coffee and tea.
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Avocado toast is on the menu at Lil Coffea Shop.
Lil Coffea Shop

Although he gets off parole on April 10, Yoakum continues to reflect on his struggle with drugs and alcohol and his time behind bars. “A lot of people don’t have the opportunity like I did. I had my family, and I also had the Little India community. Our restaurants are so tight-knit.”

Yoakum decided to share his story with the intent to help others who may need a second chance, and his journey is inspiring his next moves at Lil Coffea. He has recently implemented monthly volunteer days for Lil Coffea’s staff and is “looking to partner with an organization that works in the youth homelessness space so that we can develop some sort of program to give back,” he says. “Simeran and I accomplished so much last year, opening Lil Coffea and two more Little India locations. This is where we want to take things this year.”

Meanwhile, Yoakum says Baidwan is already considering opening another coffee shop, and the pair have been busy developing Indian-fusion pizzas topped with the likes of chicken tikka masala, tandoori eggplant and paneer makhani, which are now available from Little Star Mart  (which is located in the same shopping center as Lil Coffea Shop; look for Little Star Pizzeria on third-party delivery apps). And just last month, Little India reopened everyday buffets at the restaurants. “I feel that we’re very fortunate,” Yoakum says, “and our community made it that way for us.”

Lil Coffea Shop is located at 300 East Sixth Avenue and is open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. For more information, visit lilcoffeashop.com.
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Formerly the associate food editor at 5280 Magazine, Callie Sumlin is a born and raised Coloradan who has been covering local food, drink, farming and sustainability since 2013.
Contact: Callie Sumlin