Coffee beans, buffalo and a pug11/2/2022
Coffee roaster delivers joy via bicycle.
Keep a sharp eye out around the metro, and you might spot an unusual sight: Chris James delivering coffee beans on his bike, with his beloved pug strapped in the backseat — helmet, goggles and all.
His canine companion only ventures outside when the weather is nice, but you’ll find James out making deliveries, rain or shine, snow or storm.
Like his cycling habits, James’ story is one of resilience. And buffalo.
Hailing from Arizona, James graduated as a Tempe High Buffalo. Upon moving to Iowa 15 years ago, he landed on Buffalo Road in West Des Moines. Around the same time, he received a gift from his father: a small hot air coffee roaster.
“Every weekend, I would fire up that little roaster, and the aroma just took over the entire house,” he said. “That’s when I began falling in love with coffee.”
On occasion, James bagged up beans for friends and coworkers. He dreamed of turning the hobby into a business, but his 25-year corporate career was too comfortable to abandon.
Then came a pandemic. After an uncertain two-month furlough period, James got the call in July 2020: He had been laid off.
James went into a deep depression. But, as a former alcoholic — he’s been sober for 12 years — he resolved not to spiral.
“Not just for myself — I have two children,” he explained. “I don’t want them to ever see someone so close to them, like their father, giving up like that.”
He started selling his possessions around his home. With the money, he purchased a website, a 60-pound bag of raw green coffee beans, and a drum roaster that could process 1 pound of beans each hour.
Buffalo Brew Coffee was born.
The response from his neighbors was “overwhelming.” With requests pouring in, James found himself stuck in his basement with his little roaster for hours on end, scrambling to fulfill orders. Itching to get outside, he thought, “Why not hop on a bicycle and deliver that way?”
He continued through the harsh Iowa winter, and the neighbors loved it. As springtime approached, James gained some company on his deliveries: Sooshie, a 12-year-old pug, blind, with non-working hind legs.
“She couldn’t go on walks,” he said. “So, I got her a four-point harness, put her in a crate on the back of my bike, threw some orange goggles and an orange helmet on her — safety first — and started delivering.”
The unusual sight scored James and Sooshie numerous double-takes from passersby, then a local TV station. They went viral. Calls and emails came pouring in, and people weren’t asking about coffee beans; they wanted to talk about pugs.
Sooshie became “Iowa famous.” At stoplights, drivers rolled down their windows and waved. At the farmers market, people lined up for selfies.
“It was an absolute great time during one of the darkest periods in this nation’s history,” James said. “She gave people something to smile about.”
When Sooshie died in June 2021, her followers poured out their support on social media. Fans sent flowers.
With the face of the company gone, James had to re-strategize. Not only that, he discovered someone else owned the rights to the “Buffalo Brew Coffee” name. Coffalo Coffee emerged after a tedious three-month rebranding period.
“Somebody once told me to do my research,” James said. “My approach was taking a dart and throwing it at a dart board and seeing if it sticks. It’s the things that you learn through your mistakes — those are the most important ones. Those are the ones that stick with you.”
Now, two years into the coffee business, James has taken his missteps and setbacks and run with them. He’s upgraded to a 60-pound roaster, sells at farmers markets and 10 retail stores across the metro, and ships across the country.
“You will never ever hear me complain about working seven days a week. I’m doing something that I absolutely love. For me, there was a silver lining with the pandemic.”
While he gets busier every day, James still finds time to hop on his bike to make deliveries the old-fashioned way.
“I try to fit in one or two [rides] every week. It keeps me in shape, not just physically but mentally as well.”
And on those long bike rides, James now has a new delivery partner in one-year-old pug, Bugsy. At times, she shrugs off her safety gear and chucks it off the bike, but she’s learning. Just like James.
“I kind of relate to the buffalo and what it represents: its willingness to move forward and not allow elements or people from stopping it to continue to move forward in life. Giving up is not an option. If we continue to connect with one another over good conversation, over a smile and a cup of coffee, I think that we can all move forward together and be successful together.” ♦