Buzz around town

Steamboat boasts an abundance of coffee shops

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There are a lot of certain things in Steamboat Springs: skis, bikes, Subarus, dogs and Mexican restaurants, for example.

And, yes, there is coffee, lots of coffee.

There are at least 12 coffee houses or cafes specializing in coffee or where coffee is a focus of the business. That's a ratio of one coffee house for every 800 residents. And that number doesn't include restaurants, convenience stores and other businesses where coffee is available.

The ever-expanding array of coffee shops -- even more apparent now that coffee giant Starbucks has opened a third location (it plans to open a fourth soon) -- inevitably raises the question, "Do residents and visitors really drink that much coffee?"

If national trends have any bearing on the local coffee culture, the answer is yes.

More than half of Americans drink coffee every day, and overall coffee drinkers make up about 80 percent of the population, said Joseph DeRupo, spokesman for the National Coffee Association of U.S.A Inc. in New York City.

In the past several years, the organization has noted more occasional coffee drinkers and "dual drinkers," who drink both traditional coffee and specialty coffee drinks.

People also are drinking more coffee in the evening and other nontraditional times of day, DeRupo said.

"That's leading us to think people are regarding coffee as a treat, event, even as a social outlet," he said.

In Steamboat, Amante owners Greg Buchheister and James Temple aim to create a unique experience for their customers. They serve Italian-roasted brews in porcelain cups, and customers likely will find a picture drawn in their cappuccino.

"It's not just about the taste, it's the presentation in general in the store," Buchheister said.

Distinguishing your shop from the competition certainly can't hurt in an increasingly busy marketplace.

Nationally, the number of coffee houses grew from about 585 in 1989 to an estimated 19,000 in 2004, DeRupo said.

About 57 percent of those shops are independent or have fewer than three stores. Coffee shops with 10 or more locations make up most of the rest.

Some people worry about independent shops' ability to compete with intense competition and corporate backing from high-profile chains such as Starbucks.

Buchheister, however, said Starbucks actually helped open the gourmet coffee marketplace by educating consumers. Now, almost everybody knows what lattes and cappuccinos are.

"Starbucks helped set a new bar. ... I think that offers locals a chance to prove themselves with quality," he said.

At the same time, Starbucks, though consistent and convenient, is the "superhighway" of coffee and sometimes people "get sick of being in traffic," Buchheister said.

In that sense, independent shops -- with their personal service, special coffee products and different atmosphere -- always will have a niche, owners and customers say.

At Spill the Beans, owner Julie Niemi has some customers' drinks almost done by the time they walk in the door. "They just come in and grunt in the mornings -- they don't have to say anything," she said.

Although the extra competition will keep her on her toes, Niemi is not overly worried about it.

"In this community especially, I think people are more prone to support independent businesses," she said.

More adventurous travelers also will go the extra mile to find different little shops in the places they visit, Niemi said.

Don Picard and Barbara Garrett of Boca Raton, Fla., regularly visit Steamboat Springs, and every time they're in town they make a stop at Mocha Molly's downtown.

"That's why I like to come here. It is to get away from the corporate atmosphere we have at home," Garrett said.

Picard said they enjoy seeing locals wander in and out of the shop as well as the dogs waiting for their owners.

"You can't go anywhere else and find this coffee shop," he said.

Overall, customers' demand for variety allows for many different coffee shops, DeRupo said.

"I really think there is plenty of room in the marketplace for many, many places," DeRupo. "Americans are just reveling in the wider variety of coffee options available to them."

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