A Salinas original serves great coffee with a shot of community
Photography by Margaux Gibbons
It’s 7 a.m., and a steady stream of regulars is coming through the Cherry Bean Coffeehouse & Roastery in Oldtown Salinas. At this hour, it’s mostly attorneys, health care professionals and teachers, as well as a few firefighters and police officers.
Bruce Banks, a Salinas chiropractor, is standing at his spot at a counter opposite the cash register. It’s been “his” spot for over a decade. So when Banks walks in and finds that someone else has unwittingly taken it, the regulars wait for his reaction. Usually, good-natured growling and ribbing ensue. That’s how the Cherry Bean is. It fosters a sense of community, fraternity—and even family.
For many, the Cherry Bean provides the setting for their first brush of the day with the rest of humanity—a fact not lost on one of the owners, barista Todd Williams. “You have a rude barista and you’ll be going off about it until lunch,” he says. “It can ruin your whole day.”
Williams has nailed down the best way to do everything from brewing the housemade chai to managing the flow of customers so everyone has a great experience. He’s also good at the repartee he says is central to coffeehouse culture. While he won’t tolerate disrespect for customers or employees, he loves a good debate as well as the next person.
“I want to have a place where people from all walks of life have open and honest discussions,” he says.
The fragrance of truly fresh coffee that envelops customers as they talk is thanks to founder and partner Peter Empson, the coffeehouse’s self-taught roaster.
A few days every week, Empson labors over the cherry red roasting machine, which Williams describes as “a combination dryer, oven and popcorn popper,” producing all of the beans that the coffeehouse will brew or sell by the pound over the next couple of days.
The trick is to roast the beans slowly while controlling the air flow so that they caramelize and develop complex flavors. Williams says the coffeehouse sources its beans conscientiously from brokers it trusts, selecting some fair trade and organic beans and the rest from plantations that at least don’t clear cut or douse their crops with chemicals.
The coffee’s not the only draw. From burritos made by Watsonville’s Sweet Earth Natural Foods, delicate croissants from Salinas’ Royal Bakery and still-warm treats from the nearby Bagel Bakery, there’s plenty to fill the belly. Local art and periodicals as well as a book- shelf full of bargain used books and a chess set satisfy minds and souls.
One important tip: Call it a coffeehouse, not a coffee shop. A coffee shop, Williams says, is a diner. Coffeehouses, on the other hand, put coffee and community dialogue front and center, and have a proud his- tory dating back centuries, he notes. Even the Sons of Liberty’s pivotal protest of colonial-era tea taxes was planned at a coffeehouse, Boston’s Green Dragon.
Williams says he loves seeing the end result of serving up excellent coffee, like the look on a customer’s face after taking a first sip. He calls the barista’s job, “cooking meets performance art.”
Watching Williams make a dozen drinks in a rhythmic dance of cups and shots behind the espresso machine is a delight. It’s even better when he’s conversing with one customer in French, another in English and skewering a third with a witty comeback.
“It makes me happy,” he says. Pursuit of happiness with a side of caffeine: The Green Dragon would be proud.
Cherry Bean Coffeehouse & Roastery
332 Main St., Salinas • 831.424.1989 cherrybeancoffeehouse.com
Elaine Hessser is a lifelong foodie who has been cooking since she was six years old. She lives in Salinas and loves to share her knowledge about seasonal, local food.