There is something alluring about coffee shops. Maybe it’s the fragrance of fresh ground coffee that fills the air, that somehow stays attached to your clothing and belongings long after you get home, leaving you filled with memories of your day. Maybe it’s the people you run into, young and old, sharing stories, conversation, and simple saluations making it feel like an episode of Cheers, where everybody knows your name. Or maybe it’s the first sip of java that sparks an idea, gives you the energy to get you through your day or offers you a moment that is truly yours.
Whatever it may be, I heart coffee shops. In particular, one that is nestled about 60 miles east of Los Angeles in a quaint and charming town called Redlands; where citrus is grown in abundance and community is not just the word of the hour but one everybody lives, breathes and executes with ease and precision. At the head of this movement is a coffee shop called Augie’s, a small batch roaster that values quality and community above everything else. It has become a central hub for everything that is Redlands. This is a shop where meetings takes place, decisions are made, relationships are born and restored, and a place many call a second home. Personally, I have sat many a day in Augie’s drinking coffee, catching up with friends, and writing what would become my doctoral paper—I can vividly remember where I was sitting the day I pressed send on my computer and turned it in. It is also the place where my wife and I sat and formulated our wedding plans for months on end.
Good memories indeed.
The funny thing though, is that these memories are likely similar for many who walk through the doors of Augie’s—that is the alluring effect the shop has on people. It is welcoming, inviting, and casual. A place where you can feel comfortable in whichever season you find yourself in life. Although they sell quality coffee, the heart of their shop is you. The you that needed a place of solace. The you that needed a quick pick-me-up or the you that simply loved everything about this small town’s great little shop.
The story of Augie’s is about a father and his son embarking on uncharted territories, where success was as clear as a foggy morning. It’s also about taking chances and redefining what you thought life was supposed to be, and coming to terms with what it actually is. Finally, it is about success through a sea of trials, and finding that some of the best things in life are the things you never expected.
With that said, let me introduce you to Austin Amento, owner of Augie’s Coffee Roasters, as he takes us on a journey into his odyssey.
The Odyssey of Augie’s.
Let’s start at the most appropriate place—the beginning. What is your story?
I am 25 years old. Augies has been in business now for five and a half years. So kind of an odd place to start but my dad is an electrical contractor by trade and he has owned his own business since I was born. He went into business the year I was born and ran a really nice, successful electrical contracting company up until the economy crashed.
Where did you grow up?
Calimesa. I went to school in Redlands my whole life. I went to a private school until high school then stayed in Redlands for public school. I then went to the University of California Riverside (UCR). My father owned a business his whole life and when the economy took a turn for the worse, I was just about to graduate from high school. At the time he wanted to diversify what he did for a living and start a cash business. In contracting/construction sometimes you get paid a year later, which was obviously tough. So we looked at a bunch of different cash businesses which were pretty much just liquor stores and restaurants. It seems that’s really what the landscape of businesses looks like nowadays. Then one day we walked into Augies. It was an existing business at the time. We sat down and had a cup of coffee and we left feeling like it was what we both wanted to do. So it was for sale and we bought Augies. We ended up taking ownership of it at the first of the year in 2009—I was 18 at the time.
I had no clue about coffee. I didn’t drink coffee or go to coffee shops like Starbucks. So it was definitely a change of pace. The same could be said for my dad. He sat behind a computer screen his whole life. I never saw him communicate or interact with people. It was a learning experience for both of us. Looking back, it was probably the dumbest decision he had made in his sixty-four years of life, but it became a necessity since his business stopped. It was kind of crazy that we took over this coffee shop but we started to make little changes; buying better equipment and making sure we were serving the best coffee.
What was Augies up to that point?
It was a coffee shop and they served Klatch coffee. They had about six seats inside, no back room, and a completely different bar layout. So it was much more close and tight knit. It was a very “homey” shop. A lot of the customers that were around five years ago are still here. A group of guys in the morning have all been regulars since before we took over. We probably have another dozen or so customers that still come in everyday that have been here for the last five years.
We really liked the family aspect of it too. My dad and I have always had a great relationship, so it was a lot of fun working together. We had no idea what we were getting into. That being, and like I said previously, this may have been the worst business decision we could have made. Augies was a failing business when we bought it. Summertime was horrible. The first summer was really bad. We said okay, we can fix this. Then, the second summer came, and we were like, okay, we’re going to have to limit our hours and do something different, because summers were killing us. After we made it through that summer we didn’t think that we were going to make it to the end of the year. So it was kind of one of those things where we quickly fell behind the eight ball. We made as many changes as we could. To buy Augies, my dad cashed out his 401k. It was one of those things where we literally had no money left.
So you guys were all in for this?
I spent the last ten thousand dollars in our bank account to buy a coffee roaster. You know, we had a house, I lived at home in an apartment I built, but it was, like, okay we have done this for two years and it’s not working. We could have waited two months but to me there was no reason to leave the money in the account to give us an extra month. Our attitude was “let’s do this,” and hopefully it (the coffee roaster) can change what were doing or it won’t.
You essentially went from a coffee shop to being a speciality coffee shop that roasts. How did you get into roasting?
Klatch was great but they were starting to get a few more accounts in the neighborhood. So we thought we should do something to change again. We were going to make the switch to Intelligentsia but we were heading into summertime, which we knew was going to be brutal. So we decided to hold off on it. I purchased a little sample roaster and just started playing around with it at the house, not knowing at all what I was doing. At the end of summer, we got to the point where we could stay open until the end of the year, or we could close a month early and go buy a coffee roaster. So it was that. After looking all summer, I found one on Craigslist in a small town on the northeast corner of Nevada. We drove out there and picked it up in a U-Haul trailer. It was a crazy trip. First went to pick up the roaster, then to Reno, then Sacramento and San Francisco, and finally back home. There was an importer we wanted to meet on our trip to give us tips, so after visiting with him, we went to a few other friends who were roasting and finally decided it was something we could do.
That was about the time Robb Pearson (General Manager of Augies) came on board, around October of 2010. Robb was excited about that we had just purchased the coffee roaster because he had worked for a roaster previously. So he knew that it could change the game a bit.
Not having previous experience in coffee and roasting, how did you immerse yourself into this process?
Hands on. One thing I think Klatch’s owner Mike Perry taught me really well is that the best way to learn is from experience. From drinking to consuming yourself in the entire process. We would roast a batch, sample, and cup it. We would then write down what we did, then change it, cup it. We just kind of dove right in.
With anything worth pursuing challenges are often found. Were there any during Augie’s tenure that made it feel like this venture was going to be an uphill battle and when did it change?
I think for me it really changed when I decided to drop out of school and pursue the coffee business head on. It was just about a year or so after getting the roaster in 2012. Growing up, we were told to go to school, do this, do that. I had a great opportunity to go from practically nothing to becoming a coffee shop owner/roaster. So that was a really big change for me. It wasn’t too scary, throwing every last penny away because I am young. It probably sucked more for my dad. My dad is much older than me so I think he must have been pretty scared. My attitude was, “Of course I am going to spend every last dollar we have in the bank account to buy this coffee roaster. That’s what we have to do right?”
I think that is the great thing about youth. Young people take big risks. As we get older, it’s more common to choose safety and familiarity over risk.
Honestly, I don’t know if I would’ve make the same choice five years later. But, you know, for where I was at the time I was like, “Whatever, if we are going to fail, let’s do it.”
I like that mentality of just going all in.
We had to and it changed the game for us. It could have easily broken the bank. We made that change, 18 months prior to buy the roaster and things were getting better but not to the degree to where it was helping pay the mortgage and things like that. We went from not paying our bills at Augies to finally being able to pay our bills, but then we still had bills at home. So that’s what changed. Around Robb’s one year mark with Augies is when I decided I would drop out of school. He and I had really clicked. We got to know each other really well during his first year with us. So from that year on, everything was substantially better. That year showed to us we could really make this a business.
What does farm-to-Augies look like?
We have a great relationship with importers, and we are happy working with them. The reality is, if I want I go to the farmer, visit them, and buy their coffee, I am going to have to have an importer help me bring the coffee in through customs. So we have been lucky enough to work with a few local importers that have really helped us out. They brought us on board and enabled us to test the coffee straight from the farms months before they even come out. This helped us communicate with the farmer regarding which beans we wanted.
Where are your farms from?
We have worked with farms from Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and now we are starting to work with a really interesting exporter out of Kenya. Through them we got to meet all of the farmers state-side. We even had the opportunity to roast their own coffee and drink it with them, which was really fun and a cool experience. Hopefully we are going to evolve and grow and actually go down to origin. We have gone to Columbia, and even though we didn’t pull out a lot of coffee from that trip it was still a great learning experience.
What would you say your roasting profile is?
It’s definitely a light-medium roast. We are really focusing on the single origins. We do an espresso blend that changes seasonally. Last year, it changed three times. This year it will probably be the same. Besides that, it is the the only blend we have. Right now we are featuring Guatemala, Colombia and Kenya. It’s been a lot of fun to change it up and customers seem to like it.
Do you find that a lighter roast brings out the flavors more?
Yeah, definitely. That is what turned us on to doing all of the single origins—the lighter roast and the unique profiles.
That turns you into an artist or a chef in a way?
Honestly, I think that is what made me fall in love with coffee. To kind of take a step backwards, I think it was a year after we bought Augies, in 2010, I went up to San Francisco with some friends on a weekend trip. We were all super excited to see and experience the coffee scene. We hadn’t started doing pour overs yet at our shop or all of the specialty stuff. So we went to check out Ritual and Four Barrel.
At Four Barrel, we did a cupping where we tried eight different coffees. It was probably the third or fourth time that I had done a cupping. It was super intimidating but they were the nicest people in the world. My favorite and least favorite coffee were the same coffee. One was processed washed and one was natural. For me that was that game changing moment. I was like, “Woah, this is not just coffee anymore, it’s a whole new thing.” That is the moment where I knew I wanted to do this at our shop.
Augie’s has made a substantial name for themselves in the coffee community. What do you believe makes Augie’s stand out amongst the bigger names?
I think one thing that has make us a little bit different from everybody else is the community behind it. We have focused a lot on live music and local artists over the years, which helped build and cultivate the local community. In terms of our coffee, we are very intentional in changing what we do to make it the best we can and give you what you want. For example, we love working with local vendors like Parliament Chocolate to create, not just another mocha, but offer one of the best mochas around that we are proud to have created as part of a collaborative effort with local businesses.
Can you describe what Augies means to the community at large at the Redlands and Riverside locations?
It’s creating a place where people can gather and drink a good cup of coffee or whatever the heck they want—chai or anything else. I think I just want a place where I can hang out and feel comfortable and hopefully my friends and their friends could. I am not an artist. I don’t play music. All I do is coffee now. Which is fine. For me it’s a place where I can serve my coffee and it’s a lot of fun because it’s what I do. I don’t know, it’s kind of fun to share the space with everyone else. You can’t really define who comes in here because it’s every walk of life. Community is everyone.
I want to start this question with a quote. “With each sip, a memory is relived.” What does coffee mean to you and do you have any experiences or memories that you would like to share in regards to coffee?
For me it’s kind of changed my life. I never drank coffee. My first coffee experience was probably at Starbucks, so nothing memorable there. That coffee experience I talked about at Four Barrel was life changing for me. For now, coffee really is my life. I mean I met my wife at the coffee shop. Robb was the best man at my wedding and I had met him two years prior. He is from Iowa. We never would have met without coffee and now he is one of my best friends. I get to work with my dad everyday, and he is my other best friend. It has created this life that I never would have dreamt of. I thought I was going to go to school, graduate and get a job being a CPA or something like that. You know I didn’t really care. I wasn’t creative. I was just happy with what I was doing. So really it changed my life in every way possible and, I think, for the better.
I think the big thing too is that I just found out that my wife and I are pregnant—we are going to have our first kid in March. So now I’m taking this great hobby that has changed my life for the better and I need to be an adult and take care of my own family. It takes on a different role and I think that is kind of the fun part. It is seeing how that role will evolve because now I need to make it a career in which I can support a family, which is both fun and scary. It kind of changes what I want to do and how we want to grow but, once again, all for the better. That one sip has changed my life and I don’t think I can ever go back.
Like a good book, chapters help the story progress. What is the next chapter in Augie’s coffee story?
We have a lot of exciting news! We are opening up a new store in the coming months—actually pretty soon—in Claremont. So that’s kind of fun. It’s L.A. County. Three stores in three different counties. Which means we’re in L.A., which is kind of odd and cool. I never thought Augies would expand to L.A. The store is going to be a little different. We are trying a pretty unique concept, splitting the store with à la minute, which should be a lot of fun. We are going to do two different businesses in the same space and then we are going to do the same thing out in Temecula for a new project out there. That’s going to be coming up soon as well.
Finally, if this was your memoir and you looked back on this season of your life, what do you want Augies to be remembered for?
The community and the change it can bring to your life, to my life, and to that guy’s life over there. Hopefully you can come in here and not just get a cup of coffee but have a good conversation with someone or meet the love of your life and end up having a kid two years later. I think that is kind of the important thing. Not just serving you a cup of coffee; that’s the easy part. The farmer has done all of the hard work. We have the easy job. It’s really just the community and change it can bring to your life if you really let it.