Coffee Cycle celebrates five years in Pacific Beach
Coffee Cycle celebrated five years of business in Pacific Beach this fall by releasing two special coffees, Honduras Gesha from Juan Urquia Farm and Costa Rica Café Corazón Natural.
Each coffee is bought directly from the farmer who produced the coffee and only available in-store and in limited quantities. The practice of direct trade is something owner Chris O’Brien promotes in all aspects of his business.
“Coffee has the incredible power to bring people together,” O’Brien said. “You might have a fun conversation with a barista, meet someone for a first date at a cafe, or run into an old friend at your local coffee spot. As a barista, I’ve heard intimate details about my customers’ lives and done my best to support them and be present. Those connections make coffee special.”
Having worked at Starbucks for a few years, O’Brien found his way toward Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, landing a job as a barista. He said his time with the company expanded his appreciation for the craft of coffee.
“Tasting coffee as a fruit for the first time really blew me away,” O’Brien recalled. “It really opened my eyes to how a coffee could be, using a lighter roast to prepare the espresso and celebrate those fruitier notes in the coffee. It used to be you would just get the pot with the black handle or the pot with the orange handle. Now I was talking about cafe design and farmer names and fruit and it was so cool to me. It tickled my little nerd brain.”
One of the more prominent aspects of Bird Rock’s business that O’Brien took to heart was its working partnerships with coffee farmers.
“It really intrigued me how they had these direct relationships with these farmers,” O’Brien said. “I found it fascinating to have this connection to where this thing came from instead of a product on a shelf, something they got from a person who worked hard on it.’
Want to visit?
Address: 1632 Grand Ave., Pacific Beach
Hours: 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Good to know: The website lists Coffee Cycle’s menu and other information, including merchandise and events. Coffee can also be ordered online.
In addition to being a seasoned barista, O’Brien is a passionate cyclist with deep connections to the cycling community.
“I’ve actually never owned a car. I’ve never had a driver’s license,” O’Brien said. “While I was (cycling) I discovered this whole community. I discovered the spandex road riders going 30 miles an hour and the people just trying to get from their home to their job, and they’d all hang out together sometimes.”
Over the years working at Bird Rock, O’Brien noticed many of the same people he met through cycling were coming through the shop to grab a coffee. This overlap of his passions for cycling and the craft of coffee would eventually lead to his inspiration for the original iteration of Coffee Cycle.
“Whether you’re a more urban lifestyle cyclist or if you’re more of an exercise performance cyclist, sometimes you just want to get on your bike and ride to get a cup of coffee,” O’Brien said. “And I thought, ‘What a cool thing that both of my life passions are overlapping like this.’”
After closing the shop at Bird Rock one day, he invited two coworkers who had also commuted on their bikes back to his place for some post-shift beers. Sitting in his living room, he says, they were swapping stories about Bird Rock and their favorite regulars while everyone’s bikes were posted in front of them.
“Maybe they thought I had more of a chance than someone else, or maybe it was a total off the cuff comment, but one of them said ‘you know, maybe you should put a café on the back of one of these bikes,’” O’Brien recalls. “When I woke up the next morning I started drawing the sketches for it.”
Taking advice from fellow baristas and cyclists, O’Brien was able to outfit a used pedicab into a mobile coffee cart. Powering an espresso machine with a propane tank and lugging 1,200 pounds of water, milk and machine, Chris positioned the cart along the Pacific Highway every day at 7 a.m. to serve cyclists on their morning commute.
“It was kind of a feat of engineering,” O’Brien said. “The whole thing weighed about 1,200 pounds, and the electric motor broke on day one. The fact that it worked for nearly a year is pretty cool.”
This pedicab coffee cart was the first iteration of the Coffee Cycle business. O’Brien explained that the word “cycle” is meant both to emulate the bicycling aspect, but as well as the inherent “cycle” of coffee sourcing and preparation.
“It speaks to this kind of circle of give and take, or reward and giving back, it’s all a big cycle that brings us all together. I wanted to do all these cool things with the community and direct trade coffee.”
After nearly a year of serving from the cart, Coffee Cycle had reached its limitations both in mobility and offerings. During the downtime one day on the cart, O’Brien was sifting through a real estate app and happened upon a listing for a small space on Grand Avenue, directly across from Starbucks. The space became the brick and mortar shop it is today, with the now decommissioned cart acting as the counter top from which coffee is ordered and served.
“I really wanted to serve the people that live (in PB),” O’Brien said of the move. “I wanted to make it more of an experience than just getting a thing.
“In that early year or two, I was having people try the syrups we make, or the non-dairy milk that we make in house,” he said. “I would say ‘smell this coffee’ or ‘try this coffee’ and ‘let me tell you about why they taste different.’ I want regular customers, I want people to be able to say ‘this is my special spot.’”
Brogan Hedenm, a regular customer at Coffee Cycle, said O’Brien has succeeded in making the shop a special spot for locals.
“Chris has created a real haven, not only for cyclists and coffee enthusiasts, but for anyone who’s willing to try something new,” Hedenm said. “He has created a gathering place where everyone is respected and watched out for. From the moment you walk in the door you are family. It’s more than just craft coffee, it’s a craft conversation to fulfill any caffeine needs of anyone walking into his shop.”
Local roaster Luis Sanchez of Acento Coffee Roasters, who collaborates with O’Brien, said much of their success comes from his love for the craft.
“I would call him a coffee geek,” Sanchez said. “He is meticulous and pragmatic when sourcing out coffees to serve at Coffee Cycle.”
For more than just their customer base, Coffee Cycle has also come to be a hub for local artisans and artists. When the pandemic eliminated the option for indoor seating, unused counter space was given to local makers to exhibit their work, from books and soaps to handcrafted jewelry and upcycled plant pots.
Local artist Hilary Dufour, who painted a mural in the shop, said spaces like Coffee Cart offer much more local collaboration than with corporate competitors.
“It creates this whole experience that’s about more than just delicious sustainable coffee, it’s a hub for the whole community in one spot,” Dufour said. “It’s not something you’d get at a Starbucks, it’s a very supportive spot that’s a lot more than just selling coffee.”
Drawing from his days at Bird Rock, another important connection in the “cycle” of coffee is the connection O’Brien fosters with the farmers who supply the shop. A proponent of direct trade business practices, O’Brien said he believes that his business should help lift up all persons involved.
“It’s about seeing those connections that are greater than yourself. It’s about being a part of something a little bigger,” O’Brien said. “You’re not just buying a cup of coffee because you need a ‘third place.’ You’re participating in something that does good for everybody. I have the choice between a (name brand coffee) ... that is going to be bought below market prices to drive the price down and pay people pennies on the dollar, or I can buy something directly and pay a good amount per pound and everything is transparent and everyone wins. I want to contribute to that kind of story.”
From the cycle of coffee sourcing and preparation, Chris O’Brien and Coffee Cycle have cultivated a community that transcends just the immediate area in Pacific Beach. He says he hopes to be able to travel to meet farmers across the globe and continue the practice of a caffeinated interconnectedness.