ALASKA – The origin story, or myth, of coffee—many people’s favorite non-alcoholic beverage—goes something like this: An Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi notices that his goats are digging on the bright red berries of a certain bush they occasionally encounter, and they get buck-wild after chewing on them. So Kaldi chews on some of the berries and cops a little caffeine buzz himself. He brings some berries to a monk nearby, but the monk’s not down with the berries and throws ‘em into a fire, and damn if that shit doesn’t smell good! So Kaldi rakes the beans out of the embers, crushes them, dissolves the grounds into hot water and coffee is born.
The origin story of Kaladi Brothers Coffee doesn’t quite fit in a paragraph. The Anchorage institution, with some 15 locations, plus Black Cup (the former Café del Mundo) in the state, got its name by throwing an extra vowel into our Ethiopian goatherd’s name. But before Kaladi was born, there was an espresso cart, the first of its kind in downtown Anchorage, according to founder and co-owner Brad Bigelow.
Bigelow was living in Seattle in 1983; he’d never been to Alaska before. He was out of college, with degrees in art history and interior design, and was bartending and waiting tables at restaurants, trying to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up. His friend Rick Charron was from Anchorage, and the two of them were spending a lot of time copping caffeine buzzes while espresso cart hopping in Seattle.
They struck up a conversation with the owner of Monorail Espresso, the first espresso cart in Seattle, who mentioned how cheap the permits were for his cart. And, he said, that two dollar cup of coffee you’re drinking costs me about fifteen cents. The profit margin stuck in Bigelow’s mind, and Charron told him about the million or so people disgorged to downtown Anchorage by the cruise ships every summer. An espresso cart to get the tourists jacked up could be big bucks, they thought.
So Bigelow and Charron opened up a cart on Fourth Avenue in 1984, Midnight Moon Espresso. (“Everything was like ‘Midnight Sun’ this, ‘Midnight Sun’ that,” Bigelow says—“be creative! To be sort of antagonistic about the whole thing, we called ourselves Midnight Moon.”)
There was a hitch though—the tourists weren’t down for a two-dollar cup of coffee. They were on their package cruise trip and certainly weren’t looking to spend a couple bucks when they could get a cup of coffee at Woolworth’s for a dime or so. But the locals, they dug it, even if they couldn’t pronounce latte. Downtown businesspeople, the courthouse crew and even the ones who weren’t necessarily buying—street people, even a hooker—became fast fans of the espresso cart.
The guys started out buying their beans from the venerable Café del Mundo, which began in Anchorage in 1975. But there were no bulk discounts, so when a regular mentioned he had a seven-pound roaster, and asked if they’d like to buy his beans, they were in. When the guy with the roaster was leaving town for a few years so his wife could go to college—and offered to let Midnight Moon use it while he was gone—they were totally down. So in the spring of 1985, Bigelow and Charron were roasting beans for their own coffee, even selling a few bags at the cart.
When the cart shut down for the winter, the guys decided they’d like to roast beans commercially. Bigelow went to Corvallis, Oregon to meet the guy who’d built their little roaster, and bought a 30-pound roaster and learned how to use it. They took on another partner, and in March of 1986 they opened Kaladi Brothers Coffee on Rosewood Drive, close to where their Brayton location is today.
After a couple of years they had to move, and relocated the roasting operation to Brayton Drive, the New Seward access road. It was all a wholesale operation, but the cart was still sitting up front in the office section of their warehouse and the guys made themselves and their friends espresso drinks. Soon customers were asking for a drink when they stopped by to pick up beans. With good visibility from the access road, it only made sense to put in an espresso bar—so they got the necessary permits and did just that.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. In the pre-internet days, the Kaladi guys had to buy their raw beans from California, and there were no fronts. They could pay a $15 fee to wire money to buy the beans, or send a check in the mail. So they sent checks. The beans came from California, by land to Seattle and by barge to Anchorage, so it took a couple weeks. “We were going from almost out of coffee to almost out of coffee,” Bigelow says. Once, the container with their coffee fell off the barge on its way up north. Kaladi had orders to fill, including an 80-or-so-pound order for a regular customer. They were short. So Brad went to Carrs, bought what they needed to fill out the order, mixed it with Kaladi’s beans, and kept the account.
The third partner sold out of the company in the late ‘80s and Bigelow and Charron took on a new partner. The new partner and Charron would both eventually sell out of the company, and current president Tim Gravel became a partner in the mid-‘90s.
In 1991, New Sagaya was opening its midtown market, and asked if Kaladi wanted to operate an espresso bar next to the L’Aroma Bakery. It happened. In 1992, Kaladi opened up in Soldotna. In 1993, the Tudor location opened. It’s just been dominoes falling ever since.
Fast-forward a bit, and in 2011 Kaladi Brothers acquired Café del Mundo from its owner and founder, Perry Merkel, the longtime friendly competitor Bigelow had first bought his beans from. They kept it the same for a while (“We were lazy, we didn’t know what we wanted to do with it, Bigelow says), but it reopened as Black Cup less than a year ago. Black Cup is a “third wave” coffee shop, the sort that concerns itself with provenance and terroir, so you know which farmer’s beans were used for your drink and maybe which square meter of his farm they were grown on.
In February of 2014, Bigelow and Gravel opened Rustic Goat, the bistro at Turnagain Crossing, the mixed-use apartment development at Northern Lights and Turnagain. The two are partners in the entire development; along with JJ Brooks and his father, they own the property. It wasn’t going to be a restaurant at first, Bigelow says—Brooks approached them about putting a Kaladi Brothers Coffee in, then they figured they could put in a kitchen and use it to prepare the cookies, muffins and other food for all the KBC locations. They went big though, savoring a new challenge, and Rustic Goat became a reality, and it’s been wildly successful.
Kaladi Brothers’ story is one of those unique born-in-Anchorage tales that would be impossible to replicate: one espresso cart downtown transformed into a roasting/café/restaurant empire 30 years later. And Kaladi Brothers has stayed cool the whole time—its slogan is “catalyst for community,” and the company and its employees donate time, products and funds to worthy projects locally and globally. Kaldi and his hyperactive goats would be proud.