Our Des Moines: Buffalo Brew delivers coffee — with a side of Sooshie
When the ringer on Chris James’ cellphone broke his morning silence last July, he knew it was the call he’d been dreading for months. Similar calls had already been placed to others in the hospitality industry, and more calls were sure to break more silences.
James was laid off from overseeing the cafes and catering requests at Principal Financial, a job that kept him constantly moving from location to location, solving problem after problem.
Now, he was still. Now, there was just quiet, and the slow leak of depression.
“I was facing a black hole and looking down, and you just don’t want to fall in there,” James says. And with 11 years of sobriety under his belt, he really didn’t want to fall in.
So James turned to his life’s three comforts: coffee, biking and his elderly pug, Sooshie, whose blindness and bum hind legs never dampened her love for people and scratches.
Coffee came first — as it often does.
James, a java junkie, had been a hobby roaster for a decade, gifting packs of beans to friends. He had pipe dreams of starting a coffee business, sure, but with good benefits and a decent paycheck at the end of the week, jumping ship felt more like walking the plank.
With COVID (unfortunately) removing that obstacle, James dove in headfirst. He sold furniture and various sundries to earn enough to buy a laptop, a website and a better roaster.
A calmness settled over him when the beans tossed in the roaster. His house came alive with the smell of cherry and sandalwood, aromas so bright they seemed to stain the walls.
Buffalo Brew — named for his high school mascot and the road he lives on — went live in November, right before the holidays. Business boomed, buoyed by Iowans wanting to support small craft ventures.
Enter Comfort Two: biking.
When James stopped drinking, he started running. And when running began to break down his knees, he took up biking. It’s his therapy. And as a self-identifying environmentalist, he’s always believed one less car on the road can only be good.
COVID made DoorDash and Instacart indispensable, but James wanted to offer something different, something unique.
“I said to myself: I'm going to use my bike as my delivery system.”
Which is where Comfort Three — Sooshie — makes a star turn. When life seemed dark, and the gravity of that black hole enough to crush, Sooshie was his ally, James says. She had this way of snuggling right under your arm, right into your flank.
“She was my buddy,” he says. “If I don't have a real job, why would I leave her out of anything?”
So he outfitted his bike with a basket. He’d strap her in, secure her teeny goggles and tiny helmet — safety first! — and nestle the beans next to her.
On trails, bicyclists followed four or five deep. We love your dog!
At stoplights, drivers rolled down their windows for a picture. Your dog is so cute!
“She brought smiles to so, so many people’s faces,” James says.
She made Buffalo Brew about more than just coffee, you see. Sooshie made it about joy.
By May, one of James’ earliest customers joined as a partner. They expanded their offerings to five coffees and a sample pack, with designs on an expresso roast. They bought an even bigger roaster.
Business is growing, slow and steady. The pair is looking into distributors, farmers market booths and moving its headquarters out of James’ basement in West Des Moines.
But at the end of June, 2020’s awful tentacles reached their way into his 2021 for one final slap.
After a dental surgery, Sooshie died. The outpouring on social media was overwhelming, James says, and customers sent flowers to mark the loss.
“Pets have an amazing stranglehold over us,” James says. “When they’re gone, it’s like you have to emotionally start over from scratch.”
The afternoon Sooshie died, James bought a stuffed pug and strapped it into the basket, securing the teeny goggles and tiny helmet. With so much summer left, he wants a few more smiles, a smidge more joy.
So, at least for now, he’s still delivering coffee with a side of (stuffed) Sooshie.
Courtney Crowder is the Register's Iowa columnist. She likes her coffee with two Sweet'N Low and a splash of milk. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8360.
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