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EDIBLE NOTABLES

STRONG START

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA

Calavera Coffee brings the hip factor to Hollister


Evan Morris sets two rules for his employees at Hollister’s Calavera Coffee— be nice and make good coffee.

Those guiding principles have been instrumental in the shop’s success sitting in the shadow of a Starbucks across the street.

Though it’s reviled by most in the specialty coffee industry, Morris actually credits the chain for sparking his interest in coffee. “Even though people see Starbucks as competition, I’ve learned a lot from them because they’re the ones who set the tone and example for our industry.”

Morris confesses he has a personal history with the corporate coffee chain, having scored his first job as a barista at a local Starbucks during his senior year of high school.

But it was local roaster Vertigo that showed Morris coffee could be a craft, not just a business. His brother Ryan convinced Morris to join him at the San Juan Bautista coffee roasting company.

“It opened my eyes to a really different way of doing coffee that I didn’t really get at Starbucks.”

More so, it inspired his dream of entrepreneurship.

Morris bounced back and forth between various jobs while studying at local community colleges, but was unsettled on what to do next. “I didn’t want to work corporate,” he says, “but I liked working for a small business.” He dropped out of school and returned to coffee service—this time starting his own café.

“I’d always wanted to own a small business. I just didn’t know I’d open a coffee shop.”

Calavera kicked off in 2018, sharing space inside The GardenShoppe in downtown Hollister. After a three-month residency there, Morris moved the operation to Farmhouse Café, becoming a permanent pop-up inside the restaurant.

In March 2020, Morris signed the lease for Calavera’s first café— and then the pandemic triggered shelter-in-place orders the very next day. He’d already begun to move out of Farmhouse Café, so Calavera spent the next four months in hibernation. Morris continued work behind the scenes, navigating the ebb and flow of restrictions, and after careful consideration, finally opened the shop at the end of July.

Many independent coffee houses have gravitated toward a signature look—white walls, subway tiles, rich woods, cement floors—a sterile space intended to showcase coffee without distractions and spotlight product not personality. But Morris purposefully broke that mold with Calavera’s first standalone café. “When you walk in, it’s very different.” The coffee shop makes a splash with bright pink walls, namesake skulls (or “calaveras” in Spanish), floral wallpaper, plants and loud music spinning on vinyl. “We want to be ourselves.”

Inclusivity is important for Morris. “We always try to be friendly to everybody and be as welcoming to everybody as possible. That’s the culture we have.” Morris recognizes coffee shops can be intimidating, so he’s purposeful in making the space and menu feel light and playful instead of stuffy and serious. There are tongue-in-cheek names and rotating seasonal drinks that welcome more casual coffee consumers to the fold.

Don’t take that playful nature as a sign Morris isn’t serious about coffee. He’s carefully considered and curated each roaster he features.

Owner Evan Morris (above with beanie) and crew offer a rotating menu of specialty coffee drinks that keeps customers coming back

Morris aims to serve coffee from every state and he’s checked 11 states off his list so far.

Cat & Cloud from Santa Cruz and Vertigo from San Juan Bautista are staple selections, but each month also sees a new guest roaster. Morris looks for artisan producers committed not just to their craft, but also their community. Favorites have been Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas— “I’d been trying to get their coffee for two years”—and Brandywine Coffee Roasters in Delaware—“They do a lot of coffee for a cause and have a good culture behind what they do.” Morris aims to serve coffee from every state and he’s checked 11 states off his list so far.

But seasonal craft concoctions have become Calavera’s signature.

“The seasonal drinks are always a little bit fun,” says Morris. “We’re intentional about how we design drinks. We want to have unique options other places won’t have.”

Morris’ past favorites have included The Villain—a brew with housemade coconut cream and dark brown sugar named in honor of the late rapper MF Doom—and the Cardi P—a cardamom-pistachio latte, so named because after his first sip, Morris exclaimed, “Oh, wow” in a tone reminiscent of one of rapper Cardi B’s signature catchphrases.

Each enjoys a limited run and selections won’t repeat, so regulars closely follow menu drops on Instagram for their taste of new drinks. Like many coffee shops, Instagram has been crucial in helping Calavera find new customers when the pandemic has reduced foot traffic and forced businesses to pivot to digital, instead of physical, engagement. Morris hasn’t let the pandemic dampen his vision for coffee and community at Calavera.

Like many businesses, he’s diversified revenue streams, adding merchandise. Morris enlisted the creative talents of his baristas, establishing profit sharing from sales of mugs, shirts and more featuring their art. It’s a win-win that keeps the staff employed and helps customers feel more connected to the brand.

But Morris is less concerned with profits than with people. “As a company, we’re a very customer relations-oriented business,” he emphasizes.

Above all, he hopes Calavera can offer respite to a community ravaged by the pandemic. “The quality of coffee is important, but the most important thing is how we treat people,” he says. “As long as we’re nice to people and give them good coffee, we’ll find our way through it.”

Calavera Coffee
1709 Airline Highway, Ste. M, Hollister
calaveracoffee.org

About the author

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Raúl Nava (he/him/él) is a freelance writer covering dining and restaurants across the Central Coast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @offthemenu831.