Community—A Handshake Away
Ah, the era of mobile food service. Throughout the last decade, we have seen an influx of food trucks, pop-ups and bars on wheels burst onto the food and beverage scene. This new fad combines the idea of convenience with that of community. The proprietors of these literal “meals on wheels” set up anywhere and everywhere to share their product with the world. From farmers’ markets to neighborhood gatherings, breweries to music festivals, you’re bound to run into a pop-up food or beverage stand somewhere. Arlen Coiley of Handshake Coffee aims to take the movement one step further, using his mobile coffee bar to forge relationships between the coffee drinker and the local coffee roaster.
Having just recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, Handshake Coffee is a mobile business unlike any other. Not only is Coiley’s company one of the few transportable coffee bars, but it is also a business with a clear goal – connect people with others around them. Think about it. When is the last time you stopped to ask where your coffee was from? Just like every person, every product has a story and Handshake Coffee is there to help tell it.
Handshake Coffee’s mobile cart set up at Maritime Heritage Park in Bellingham, WA. Photo courtesy: Arlen Coiley.
“I love the pop-up business model. It is truly an amazing outlet. I’ve learned so many different things through pop-up business,” Coiley says.
Coiley has been an active member of the food service industry for many years, most recently as one of the chefs at Rifugio’s Country Italian Cuisine in Deming, WA. A stalwart of the Bellingham community, he graduated with a degree in ethnic gastronomy and a minor in entrepreneurship from Western Washington University.
The idea for the small-scale specialty roaster came shortly after Coiley travelled to Central America for three months. During his travels, he and a friend visited coffee farms and developed relationships with the local farmers. Upon returning to Bellingham, he enrolled in Western Washington University’s newly created entrepreneurship minor. The program calls for students to create their own small business. Coiley settled on Handshake Coffee for his business proposal but it wasn’t his first idea.
“The very first idea I pitched for the minor was to create a waterfront restaurant in Bellingham called the Salish Circle,” Coiley says. “As more time went by I thought about my trip to Central America and realized I wanted my business to be involved with the coffee trade,” he says.
Arlen Coiley operates a hand-pulled espresso machine at Handshake Coffee’s mobile coffee bar. Photo courtesy: Arlen Coiley.
Handshake Coffee’s original idea was to serve as a local coffee roaster that only sold bags of coffee. Coiley wanted to establish a relationship with farmers and then help sell their high-quality product. Handshake’s first incarnation operated on this platform for a while but Coiley wasn’t satisfied with the model. He wanted more. After some frustration and a few trips back to the drawing board he came up with the idea to not only establish relationships with the farmers, but to create meaningful connections with the people drinking the coffee.
“One day in the spring of 2016 I grabbed my barbecue, a table and my coffee gear and set up downtown,” he says. “I knew my strengths laid in meeting and interacting with people, so it was logical that a mobile coffee bar was the next step for Handshake Coffee.”
Using pour over and aeropress methods of brewing for their coffee, Handshake Coffee ensures no one cup of coffee is the same. In addition, the coffee bar is a great staging area for conversation. When you walk up to the coffee bar, not only do you get a fresh cup of hand-ground locally roasted coffee, but you interact with community members you may have never encountered before. Coiley dubs it his “coffee theater.” Coiley uses social media to announce when and where Handshake Coffee’s mobile coffee bar will be located at on certain days.
Handshake Coffee’s mobile coffee bar set up at the Alternative Library in Bellingham, WA. Photo courtesy: Arlen Coiley.
“I want to create spaces and events that are positive for everyone involved,” he says. “Community support is one of the most important things and Handshake Coffee is built on the idea of human interaction.”
Right now, the name of the game in the food industry is hyperlocal, and Handshake Coffee is most certainly a player. With all roasts coming from various local roasters, or Coiley’s own private roasts, he wants to connect his customers with the many great coffee producers in their area. And if you find that one of the roasts quickly enters you into a state of caffeine-fueled bliss, you’ll be happy to know that Handshake Coffee sells roasts by the bag. After visiting Handshake’s coffee bar, you may just walk away with your new favorite coffee blend.
Coiley is a man with many ideas and what it means to be Handshake Coffee keeps expanding. With an eye on the future he plans on Handshake becoming a hub to help future entrepreneurs. He will be using a 3D printer to create more mobile carts and will then sell the carts to other small business owners and offer instructional courses on mobile entrepreneurial endeavors.
“I want to see real change in our business models and in the community,” Coiley says. “Active collective participation in your local economy is what will bring people together and allow them to work side by side.”