If you ask Serranos Coffee Company owner Carl Nolt about his favorite coffee, he’ll no doubt take you back to his coffee research trip to Antigua, Guatemala. When Carl describes that best cup of coffee he’s ever had the edges of his salt-and-pepper mustache turn up in a smile as he exhales “a café con leche right under the Santa Catalina Arch.” Ah-h-h-h…now that cup was more than good to the last drop. And Carl’s love of people and coffee makes Serranos in Monument great to the last drop.
Carl grew up about 40 miles south of Seattle, Wash., the world center of coffee roasting and major coffee companies. But his first introduction to real coffee was sipping Melitta pour-over brews in his University of Washington dorm room.
Times were changing in Seattle’s coffee scene in 1980 as Carl launched into his 40-year coffee career. The college student landed a job as a barista and ice cream scooper at The Wet Whisker on Pier 70, Seattle’s famed waterfront. “I have such good memories getting off work at the pier and watching the sun set over the Olympics, sipping fresh coffee.”
In time, The Wet Whisker became Stewart Brothers Coffee and then Seattle’s Best Coffee. Carl learned the coffee world from the ground up.
Falling in Love with Monument
After years on Seattle’s Best management team, Carl sensed a pull to branch out into business for himself. A physics major who had shifted to math, Carl tapped into his analytical side and researched census data in U.S. western states.
“I had learned a hot business in the Seattle area,” Carl says with the pun intended, “and this was before coffee was doing much around the country. So I looked into what the successful Seattle coffee stores were like when they all started. I found that these stores were close to people of higher income and education levels and near neighborhood grocery stores.”
This research prompted a business exploration trip to Colorado. Carl wistfully smiles at his recollection of pulling his rental car over at the former Larkspur rest stop. The cool mountain air and breathtaking pine trees almost sealed the move to Colorado on the spot.
“I fell in love with this area and originally thought about a store in downtown Colorado Springs. But the Monument Safeway was going to build a building right beside their store,” Carl recalls. “So we went ahead and jumped on it.”
Before Carl and his wife and three daughters moved to Monument to open Serranos along Highway 105 in October 1995, Carl invested about a year in business planning and selecting a company name. “I had a whole lot of criteria in mind when naming the business. The name needed to paint a picture in your mind when you heard it, you needed to spell it easily and pronounce it easily,” Carl explains. “I wound up with none of those.”
Visiting the Origin
Giving a hearty chuckle at the back story on the Serranos name, Carl is quick to point out that serranos is Spanish for people of the high country or the high country itself. And Carl notes that Mrs. Olson from the retro Folgers coffee television commercials once explained, “mountain-grown coffee…is the richest kind.” If Mrs. Olson says it, who can question that authority.
At the Serranos roasterie just past the railroad tracks north of town on 105, you’ll find an assortment of up to 152-pound burlap bags of green, raw coffee beans. Carl delivers premium roasts from the world’s choice fields. In the back section of the roasterie, Carl precisely controls his commercial roaster to heat and tumble the beans.
Carl can list off all the global coffee plantations he’s visited, but he’s not a name-dropping kind of guy. During his Seattle’s Best days, Carl traveled to many growers in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and throughout Central and South America, along with Kenya and Indonesia.
Valuing Customers and Staff
Carl can certainly engage in popular coffee speak like, “How’s the espresso pulling today?” but he’d rather talk with his customers about their lives and give genuine high-fives to his staff of around 20.
Carl describes his new employee training as “pretty fussy.” After four decades in the business, his exacting guidance with his staff is a robust blend of disciplined coaching and nice-guy boss. With his eyes closed, Carl can mentor his team in slow circular hand-pouring and creating latte art on a 16-ounce espresso drink. Yet Carl knows there’s more to hiring and retaining his Serranos team than these technical barista skills.
“I’ve always been behind the scenes heavily focused on the product consistency and quality. But especially since my heart attack ten years ago, I’ve learned how important the people are,” Carl explains. “For me the most important thing is the customer. Because we can have the best coffee and the best location in Monument and the best staff, but if we don’t have customers, we don’t have anything. Our customers are our friends.”
Customers as friends is how Carl describes his banking relationship with First National Bank Colorado, whose former location Serranos took over in 2011.
“First National Bank Colorado is a community bank versus a conglomerate national chain,” Carl notes. “There’s a lot more personalized service, yet they are big enough that they have a real diverse staff with lots of experience, so I really appreciate that.”
Like enjoying his first cup of medium roast in the morning, Carl knows he’s found the perfect blend of banking professionalism and personal connection.
“Being able to talk to people using first names when you are on the phone or when you walk in First National and they recognize you is huge,” Carl adds. “That makes banking easy.”
Creating Smiles for All
The first-name basis with customers in Monument is also what helps separate Carl’s coffee company from the hordes of other coffee businesses. When Serranos moved to the new store, people kept asking Carl how he liked the bigger space and drive-up feature.
“I would respond with, ‘The smiles on both sides of the counter feel really good. After about the third time of saying that, I realized that was our mission statement: we create smiles on both sides of the counter.”
Carl’s formula for creating the smiles is a blend of serving fresh, exceptional-tasting coffee and food, and being attentive as if welcoming someone into their own home.
Expanding the Menu to Food
Carl looks back on how coffee stores have changed over the years from his foray back in Seattle. “At first you couldn’t buy a cup of coffee, it was all beans and equipment and ice cream and spices,” Carl recalls. “Then cups came in and then the espresso machine, and then big pink and white cookies and other food. In time, the question became, are you are a good coffee store that has food or are you a restaurant that has good coffee?”
Carl and Serranos are a delightful bouquet of both good coffee and good food. Just ask his satisfied customers. Carl added salads, sandwiches and soups to his array of hot and cold beverages when they moved to the larger store and added an ample kitchen. Soon the morning addition of breakfast burritos and breakfast sandwiches became wildly popular. So much so that when customers continually requested that the cheesy-egg creations be served all day, Carl listened.
“I’m a coffee guy and brought in a food guy,” Carl says of his success in hiring an experienced chef. A former employee who left to attend the Culinary Institute of America will soon be back with the Serranos team too.
Carl understands regular transitions with staff in the food and beverage industry and leans on his fatherly nature to give high school students in particular a chance to root themselves in good work ethics.
“I tell my staff, ‘You create the world you live in.’ If I can send employees off from their window of time with me with a little more information and a little better off,” Carl stresses, “that’s what it’s all about.”
Roasting for Wholesale Customers
Beyond Carl’s respect and enjoyment of people, his self-deprecating humor just adds to his easy-going charm. When asked when he started the roasterie, Carl turns to his trusty computer for the date and quips, “As the hair changes color and comes, out so does the memories.”
But his memory is not fading. Carl remembers well his first wholesale beans customer in 2005—B & E Filling Station in Palmer Lake. His roasting and wholesale coffee expansion over the years includes customers The Cliff House, Karios Coffee House, Marigolds, and roughly 75 other restaurants and businesses in the region.
Before Carl shuts out the lights on the roasterie and makes a stop over to the coffee store, he pauses for some vision casting and another sip of his half strong-half light coffee of the day concoction.
“We plan to keep doing what we do well and improve,” the adaptable coffee aficionado adds. “The best thing about the business is like that first cup of the coffee in the morning with its aroma and that sip where you go, ‘Ah-h-h-h.’ That’s what I want to give people.”
Ah-h-h-h. Carl you do.