Twenty years ago Craig Conner decided to give up his corporate job at JC Penny, sell his house and use every ounce of credit he could muster up to open Pablo's Coffee in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. It was 1995 and at the time coffee culture in Denver was just starting to perk up, as lattes, cappuccinos and espressos rose in popularity. Since then, Conner has moved Pablo's from downtown to Sixth Avenue and has also opened a second location of his popular coffee shop in Capitol Hill. Next week the company is celebrating as it hits its twentieth anniversary.
In honor of the anniversary, Pablo's is offering some awesome specials from September 21 through 25. On Monday you can head there for a free gift with purchases plus double punches on all drink cards; Tuesday has throwback pricing on bulk coffee ($10 for signature blends); on Wednesday, you can get a free travel mug with a latte or cappuccino purchase; on Thursday, all coffee drinks will cost what they did in 1995; and on Friday there will be an ice cream and cake party from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Sixth Avenue shop. Then, from 5 to 7 p.m. the Pennsylvania shop will offer free small coffee drinks. We spoke to Conner about how he started Pablo's and how the coffee industry has changed over the last 20 years.
Linnea Covington: What made you decide to open a coffee shop in the first place?
Craig Conner: I spent my last two years of employment interviewing 75 small-business owners in search for a business I could start on my own. I found that most small business owners seemed desperately overworked, but the coffee shop guys where the exception. They where all like, "You should open a coffee shop, the customers are great!" I did, and they were right.
Why did you name the shop Pablo's?
I started the first Pablo's with my friend Kris Kluver. He and I poured over names and in the end we took our list and pretended to answer the phone. Pablo's sounded the best. We put the name Pablo's in the mix because the first Pablo's on 14th Street was very art gallery centered and we liked Picasso. [Fun fact, the first location had a print of Picasso's Le Rêve on the wall and a photo of the artist behind the counter.]
In 20 years how have you seen the coffee scene in Denver change?
Today the information revolution has helped coffee drinkers seek out higher quality in the marketplace and because of this, hundreds of chains and independent shops vie for their attention. In 1995 coffee shops sought out customers through open mic nights, poetry jams, live music and bottomless cups of dark roast coffee. In 2015 coffee purveyors are looking to gain support through increasing quality and preparation practices. We have become very sophisticated in our purchasing practices especially in the last ten years. Overall, today customers are more interested in the coffee as culture, where as before it was about culture that had coffee.
Is there any advice you as a seasoned coffee shop owner today would have given yourself when you first opened?
Maybe play a little less jazz and get roasting as soon as possible.
On that note, what's the most important thing about roasting your own coffee?
There are many things important about coffee roasting and it's hard to say what is the most. I think sourcing green coffee is key. So, working with farmers and quality importers to secure the best quality of green coffee is a great start on the road to providing consistent quality to customers.
Tell us about your famous pancake breakfast; what happened to it?
The pancake breakfast was a really fun time. We ran that as a fund-raising event for the African Community Center for a few years, but we stopped when we lost access to the parking lot next to our Sixth Avenue location. It was a fun time — pancakes and bouncy castles — plus we raised awareness about the plight of refugees back before it was cool. We chose the African Community Center for a number of reasons, the foremost being that, in my mind, the folk they are supporting fight so hard to overcome unthinkable circumstances to make it to Denver. I like the idea of smart, resourceful people in my community.
What makes Pablo's unique from all the new coffee venues in Denver?
Pablo's is unique in the community mostly because we try to have a guest and host model rather than a server and client relationship. We roast and prepare excellent coffee and have more Barista Guild of America [the trade group for coffee preparation professionals] level-one certified baristas than any place we know of. We are, for the most part, a career-centered coffee company and the folk making your coffee at Pablo's are professionals.
After all these years, do you still consume a lot of coffee yourself?
I drink a lot of coffee. I like to drink at least two shots of espresso and three or four cups of coffee. I taste both coffees at both stores most days, and may critically cup coffee by the spoonful a couple times a week.
Do you see Pablo's staying where it is for another 20 years?
Pablo's is a very dynamic company and I think we have as much of a chance to be around for 20 more years as anyone. Almost all businesses reach a point where they may not look much like what they started as, so in that respect the Pablo's of today could be seen as being here only for a moment.
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You have the two shops right now, any plans to open more?
We are always looking in our favorite neighborhoods for a good spot for us to open another shop, though we won't likely go beyond three locations. In watching the industry over the years, it seems like the culture of an independent coffee shop can stay intact with up to three spots. Besides, I don't really want to be a district manager; I'd like to keep it a little more like working for a small, high-quality
company with a window to the world through importing and roasting coffee.
What made you decide to leave the Denver Performing Arts Complex?
It was a crazy place and at the time the arts complex had over four-million visitors a year, with most walking by my door. We would have mad theater rushes with coffee seekers lined up in queues a block long, and then complete lulls in business when the theaters had limited shows. When my first son, Ned, was born, I needed to spend some quality parenting time and that coffee shop was not going to provide me that luxury. That's why I sold the lease and equipment and moved to the Sixth Avenue store.