Edible Monterey Bay

Coffee, Cycling and Conversation Converge at Monterey Cafe

February 27, 2018 – It was in Italy that Peterson and Wendy Conway had a coffee epiphany. During a six-month globetrotting trip with their two daughters, they discovered the pleasures of cycling to a neighborhood café and sitting with an espresso at a favorite table, where they got to know the servers, the patrons, their families, and a whole way of life that revolves around coffee.

Now they’re intending to bring this Italian way of life to a little corner near downtown Monterey—but mixed with a coffee roasting style that hails from the land Down Under, and a homegrown philosophy of unplugging and reconnecting.

The new coffee house at 398 Franklin Street in Monterey might seem odd at first glance—squeezed in between auto body shops and other industrial buildings—but it’s just a few blocks from historic Alvarado Street and downtown Monterey. Originally an auto paint shop, more recently it has been a cupcake shop and a sausage store. With painting and finishing touches still under way, the opening of Captain + Stoker is tentatively planned for March 12. (A second shop will open sometime in March inside Esalen Institute in Big Sur.)

Adding another layer of intrigue to the enterprise is the family’s love affair with cycling. That’s why they named their shop Captain + Stoker, after the riders on a tandem bike. The captain, in the first seat, leads, while the stoker, in back, provides muscle power.

Tandem cycling is a great metaphor for relationships—and the experience of working together for a common goal Peterson says, “It takes a crazy amount of trust—the captain is the only one with brakes, steering, and has access to the gears. You have to be in sync with each other.” Wendy’s take: “It’s marriage therapy.”

Farm to table

Peterson and Wendy Conway on their farm in Carmel Valley

The Conways seem to already have plenty on their plate—raising two daughters, managing a small farm in Carmel Valley, and Peterson’s Silicon Valley career, working on projects for high-tech mogul Peter Thiel. But their search for more soul-satisfying work led them down the path to something completely different.

Their cozy farmhouse is a preview of the café’s decor. “We want it to look just like our kitchen,” says Wendy. That’s also the vibe they’re striving for: a place to be comfortable and gather with friends. Captain + Stoker will look similar, with white subway tile, open-beam ceilings and reclaimed wood—along with a commercial-grade coffee roaster and espresso machines.

Peterson has a long history with his current place of residence. He grew up across the road from the 10-acre property and in his youth learned to drive tractors there. In those days, it was the Carmel Valley Poultry Ranch, home to 68,000 chickens and known locally as “the egg ranch.” The Conways bought it four years ago, even though at the time they were in the process of building a 9,000-square-foot glass and steel house on Jack’s Peak. Ultimately, they sold the hilltop home and opted for life on the farm.

The remodeled 1,200-square-foot farmhouse surrounded by fields, fences and enormous holly trees is not large or grand, but the family likes it that way: “It holds us tight,” says Wendy.

She has wanted to be a farmer ever since she was in elementary school in San Diego, living with her parents in a tract home, and asked her parents for a pet chicken—which subsequently became a beloved member of the family, even sitting at the dinner table each evening in Wendy’s lap. Even though she grew up and became a computer engineer, her longing for country living never went away until they moved to this property.

Wendy rules the roost here—planting pumpkins and other row crops in the fields, adding more than 40 heirloom fruit trees in addition to avocados and olives, and managing a flock of some 60 chickens, several Jersey cows and friendly pigs. “We grow everything we can of our own food,” she says, noting they picked 3,000 oranges and made 200 gallons of olive oil last year.

Some of that bounty that will supply Captain + Stoker. Eggs and fruit will go into the pastries that will be offered there, as well as avocados for Peterson’s go-to snack, avocado toast. “We really want it to be farm-to-table,” says Wendy, with the offerings changing with the seasons.

A long redwood table, made from a slab milled by Peterson 30 years ago, will be the communal gathering spot at the coffee house. The Conways will also display several tandem bikes from their collection on the walls.

Electronics discouraged

Captain + Stoker Coffee on Franklin Street in Monterey is nearing completion.

Despite Peterson’s career as a high-tech guy, they’re deliberately taking a low-tech approach. Although the typical American coffee house is populated with people on mobile devices, Wendy says they’re encouraging customers to put away their electronics and actually talk to each other—even covering outlets so people won’t be tempted.

In today’s world, “We’re all linked as never before, but we’re over-connected, and all still very lonely,” says Peterson.

“When we spent a month in Italy last year, we were amazed that no one was on their laptops or on their phones. Everyone was talking to each other. We went to the same coffee shop every day and really got to know people,” adds Wendy.

“What happens before the coffee is just as important as what happens after coffee,” says Peterson. Thus, the tagline for Captain +Stoker: Coffee Roasting + Damn good coffee + Connecting.

The story of Captain + Stoker is a journey unto itself. It really began more than a year ago, when Peterson was experiencing that lack of connection, so much so that he says he was increasingly withdrawing into himself. He craved something more. “There was no sense of community, and more and more, I was shutting down,” he says.

Ceramic coffee mugs to be used at Captain + Stoker

That sparked the six-month trip around the world, with stops in India, Europe and Africa, with homeschooled daughters, now 8 and 4, in tow. That led to the Italian experience, and Peterson’s sudden passion for coffee—something he did not drink at all prior to that trip.

The wanderlust is not entirely unexpected when you know Peterson hails from an adventurous background. His father Peterson Conway VII has trekked around the world to find exotic treasures for his Carmel store, Conway of Asia.

The switch to coffee wasn’t completely odd either, considering that coffee and cycling are inextricably intertwined in Europe. The Conways spent a month of their journey with their good friend, Olympic gold medalist Thomas Frischknecht, following the coffee and biking scene in Italy. Frischknecht was given a commercial Rocket espresso machine for his home after his Swiss mountain biking team took home multiple golds in the Rio Olympics. “Thomas was our first inspiration to start a biking social café,” says Wendy. 

Another factor was when Peterson began looking for office space in Monterey—something that began that way, anyway. Then he talked about adding an espresso machine. And then a coffee roaster. And then … it became a coffee shop.

Economical and baked from scratch

The Conways have hired a three-person crew headed by manager Tyler Ellis to supply coffee, freshly baked bread and seasonal delights to customers. Only four coffee offerings are on the menu—a very European model—espresso, black coffee, flat white, and pour-overs, and each will cost just $2, Wendy says. Other items will be seasonal, based on what’s ripening at the Conways’ farm.

They could not be doing it without help and support from their friends. One is John Subranni, who Peterson calls “a coffee genius,” who moved from Washington D.C. to help start the shop. Head baker Helena Bee, a monk at Tassajara, will come on board in late April to create bread with flour from Lehi Roller Mills in Utah, which makes “the best flour in the country,” according to Peterson, who should know since it was founded by his grandfather.

Unlike Italian coffee the couple enjoyed in Europe, Captain + Stoker’s roasting process will be based on the Melbourne, Australia style, which produces lighter roasts that are not so intense. “It’s light and more fruit-forward,” says Wendy. “It’s not like a coffee you get at Peet’s that’s like you’ve been hit across the head with a 2×4.” The light roast is a more subtle coffee that can be enjoyed all day long. To get it just right, they’ll use a coffee roasting machine made by San Francisco Roaster Co., complemented by Italian-made Rocket espresso machines. Wendy also has plans to sell Captain + Stoker beans to local restaurants.

Australia—another place the Conways love—has its own singular coffee scene. Every town has numerous cafes and coffeehouses—with nary a chain coffee house in sight. “We’re taking our cue from the Aussies,” says Peterson. “They have a coffee culture that’s very unique. Each (shop) has its own personality.” They’ve had help and inspiration from Jeremy Creighton, the Australian behind award-winning Common Room Roasters in Newport Beach.

And now there are plans to tie Captain + Stoker to the cycling community, just as coffee and cycling are melded in Italy. A grand opening event is planned sometime during the Sea Otter Classic, which takes place from April 19 to 22. Wendy expects Frischknecht to attend and display several of his medals, as well as another good friend, legendary bicycle designer Tom Ritchey, who built several of the tandem bikes they own.

Continuing the coffee-cycling connection, Wendy envisions a weekly ride with a pack of other cyclists that starts and ends at the coffeehouse.

Captain + Stoker is all the things they love, tied up in one package.

Says Wendy, “We’re hoping to create a spot where we can all hang out and talk, and make it exactly like this kitchen.”

They do not yet have a live website, although that’s in the works at www.captainandstoker.com, but you can follow them on Instagram (@captainstoker) and Facebook (Captain + Stoker Coffee).