Walking into Village Coffee Shop, there’s someone paying in the front, so I wait outside, wanting to give them enough space during the pandemic aftermath.
Past the entrance with the cash register stand the cooks, feet from a counter with several stools, and no more than a dozen wooden booths, at once a throwback, cozy vibe emerges.
Though only a few older men trickled in and out during the first hour the restaurant was open on a Tuesday morning, I can imagine the weekend chaos of families, college students and friends of all ages sharing meals here.
A small, dependable diner, Village Coffee Shop’s slogan is, “890 square feet of reality, surrounded by Boulder.”
It suits the restaurant, taking a hint from one of Boulder’s mottos, “25 square miles, surrounded by reality.” Both the diner and town itself recognize their roles, one in its bona fide nature and inexpensive food, and the other in outdoor beauty and laid back culture.
Shanna Henkel, Village Coffee Shop’s co-owner with her husband Ryan, started working at the restaurant as a waitress. Back then, she was a sociology student at Colorado University who didn’t yet know that her degree would allow her to provide a quaint breakfast spot for the Boulder community.
“This restaurant fulfills a really important sociological function in our community,” Shanna says. While the diner food is inexpensive enough that most Boulder residents can afford to eat at Village Coffee Shop, the establishment also has staff retention that helps build bonds over decades.
The restaurant serves up two biscuits and sausage gravy, one of the menu’s “Village Favorites” for $6.50. Number 6, Another favorite, is chicken-fried steak with gravy, two eggs, hash browns and toast for $9.25, on a plate as long as my forearm.
Between the large portions and a quaint, authentic aura it makes sense that Shanna sees every kind of person – from lawyers and to groups of high school football players.
Shanna, who’s worked at Village Coffee Shop for 25 years, is not the most tenured employee. This staff retention allows for customers to sit and chat at the counter a few feet from the line cooks they’ve known for years.
“The kids who were in preschool when I started are done with grad school now,” Shanna says. Colorado University alumni, who have been in the workforce for up to two decades, return to campus and recognize Shanna.
Some even recognize Chuck Tyler, who started the Village Coffee Shop almost 50 years ago and still sells watercolors at the restaurant, and his late wife Nancy.
Though business is not what it used to be pre-pandemic, Village Coffee Shop opened to full capacity May 16. The Henkels will celebrate Village Coffee Shop’s 50th anniversary, and the 17th anniversary of their ownership, in February.
New York in Boulder
“She was hilarious and very well-loved,” Shanna says about Nancy, who worked at the front of the house as Nancy did. “But she was also a lot more New York, a little more abrasive.”
“Honey, you better come in here with a sense of humor because, otherwise, we will shuck you like a pea,” Nancy told a reporter for a past profile.
“If people held the front door open, she would say, ‘Shut the goddamn door,’” Shanna remembered. “I tried to be a little more like Nancy when we first owned the restaurant, and I realized that is not who I am.”
“We think we are a little spot of authenticity, surrounded by fancy-pants Boulder,” Shanna says. “The people who choose to come to a neighborhood diner in the middle of foodie Boulder are the authentic people.”
“The people who choose to come to a neighborhood diner in the middle of foodie Boulder are the authentic people.”
Married to the Village
Chuck Tyler’s father Bruce owned Tyler’s Applewood Pit and Twinburger Drive-Ateria, one of Boulder’s first drive-through establishments next to a drive-in movie theater. In 1972, Bruce Tyler set his son up with a long-lasting Boulder favorite, Village Coffee Shop.
When Chuck retired more than 30 years later, he asked Shanna and Ryan Henkel to buy the restaurant from him because he thought they were a good fit. Though Ryan had a culinary degree and had cooked in several restaurants, the couple was also recently married with a one-year-old.
“When we got married, my husband promised me we’d never own a restaurant,” says Shanna, who explained that it’s common industry practice for chefs to work until midnight and their partners to handle kids at home. “I didn’t want to raise children by myself, or have a husband who never saw his kids for dinner,” Shanna says.
Shanna says she talked to her grandma about the important decision, who told her, “Shanna, you’ve got to take a risk some time.” Though it was daunting, the Henkels felt prepared – Ryan with his culinary background and Shanna having worked for independent restaurant owners her whole life – and bought Village Coffee Shop in 2004. Ryan ran the kitchen and Shanna managed the front of the house, roles that largely remain today.
“When we took over the restaurant, the only change that Ryan wanted to make is that we brought in Cholula,” Shanna says.
The upgrade from red and green tabasco was eventually followed by the kitchen using fresh mushrooms and jalapeños, instead of canned ones, and sourcing coffee and bread locally.
Shanna and Ryan’s two sons started bussing tables at age 8 for their elementary school’s fundraiser at Village Coffee Shop.
When the pandemic hit, Cam Henkel became the restaurant’s main delivery driver at age 17.
His 14-year-old brother Jaden, a math whiz, waited tables. Without a point-of-service system, staff memorize most price combinations, with tax and coffee charges, to hang the tickets most efficiently.
“Before Covid, our kids largely had a life of leisure,” Shanna says. “I don’t know if we’d have a restaurant today if our children hadn’t worked so hard. They did not take days off last summer.”
Coming back to life
Starting in March, Village Coffee Shop shut down indoor dining for around four months. “The first couple weeks, I just cried a lot,” Shanna says.
The couple started Chef Ryan’s Heat and Serve Dinners From Home, where Ryan cooked weekly dishes, like chicken piccata and Cesar salad, for friends who picked up meals from the restaurant during normal business hours. Though Ryan cooked a different readymade dinner for 15 weeks, the efforts weren’t entirely sustainable considering Village Coffee Shop’s minimal refrigerator volume.
Though the pre-made dinners paid rent and not much else, the Henkels are grateful for Boulder’s support during that time. In addition to those who ordered out, Shanna thanked residents who tipped generously and bought gift cards for the staff.
In February, Village earned some minor celebrity when it won support from the Barstool Fund, sponsored by entertainment brand Barstool Sports, which financed several small U.S. businesses financially impacted by the pandemic.
Shanna started planning an application video. They shot in Village Coffee Shop, which Shanna described as “somewhat sports-centric,” though she didn’t know at the time that Barstool Sports was an athletic media brand.
Barstool paid a little less than half of Village Coffee Shop’s rent in March, April, May and June. The organization emails the restaurant every month to see what’s changed financially. “I am so eager to decline their help in July because we feel like we are making it on our own again,” Shanna says.
“The reason we come to work every morning is to build relationships with people,” Shanna says.
“The vehicle we use for doing that is excellent food at inexpensive prices with generous portions, but our motivation is the authentic relationships with the people.”
Header photo: Jess Mordacq