Carbondale’s Bonfire Coffee celebrates 10 years in business

Owner says caring for employees, customer relationships key to success

Ike Fredregill
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Lety Gomez makes an Americano for a customer at Bonfire Coffee in Carbondale.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Operating a successful coffee franchise in the Roaring Fork Valley can be done with three simple steps: use quality ingredients, provide good customer service and be consistent, said Bonfire Coffee owner Charlie Chacos.

Simple, however, does not mean easy.

“We focus on management and execution,” Chacos said. “And we invest a lot of training into our staff. Most of our employees go through 20 to 30 hours training in their first couple months.”

Bonfire is celebrating its 10th year in business, but Chacos has been tooling around the food industry for most of his life.

Born in Aspen, Chacos grew up in Carbondale after his parents decided to move downvalley and open The Village Smithy in 1975.

“Back then, Main Street was a dirt road and there were only a few hundred people here,” Chacos, 50, said. “It was a cow town for sure.”

In 1998, Chacos took over his parents’ restaurant and learned the value of employee management the “hard way,” he said.

“I went from line employee, as a bartender, to owner, skipping all the middle management,” Chacos said. “Those first five years were pretty rough.”

Throughout the years, Chacos said he developed a knack for managing the business side and the other 90% of the job: employee-customer relationships.

In 2004, he attended a Specialty Coffee Association expo in Atlanta, where he learned about the “third-wave” of the coffee industry.

“In the ’90s, everyone was shooting for these complex blends of coffee beans from three to four sources, which were roasted pretty dark,” Chacos said.

At the expo, lighter roasted, often single-source coffees were kicking off the third wave. Chacos brought his newfound knowledge back to Carbondale and successfully applied it at the Smithy. In 2011, he and his business partner Jared Ettelson took it to the next level by opening Bonfire Coffee, 433 Main St.

Lety Gomez makes a drink for a customer at Bonfire Coffee in Carbondale.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

‘Strong sense of community’

A line of Bonfire customers stretched out onto the sidewalk late Wednesday morning as Leticia “Lety” Gomez, 45, drizzled almond milk into a latte.

“It’s fun to work here, fun to make the drinks,” Gomez said. “I think my favorite part is making art in the coffee with the milk.”

Brilliantly colorful images of Native Americans, Ravens and Wizards painted by local artist Chad Knowles line the wall across from Gomez as she added a scoop of ice cream to a shot of espresso, creating one of the cafe’s specialties: affogato.

Having worked for Chacos for about 20 years at both the Smithy and Bonfire, she said he is not only a good businessman but an excellent boss.

“Charlie takes care of his own, he is always looking out for us employees,” Gomez said.

While some patrons know Bonfire Coffee for its commitment to ethically and sustainably sourced coffee beans, locally roasted in Glenwood Springs, Chacos said the cafe takes numerous strides toward being not only a business in the community but of the community.

“We are able to compost 50 to 60 percent of our waste, including all our cups and service ware,” he said.

Bonfire patrons can find a number of locally produced items at the cafe, including music from local musicians and coffee mugs created by local potter and Bonfire employee Giana Grossman.

About a year ago, 28-year-old Grant Grindler hired on with Chacos as Bonfire’s assistant manager.

“I’ve been in the valley for about three years, and I’ve been coming here since shortly after I first arrived,” Grindler said. “There’s a strong sense of community between the employees but also with the customers.”

The coffee industry is not so different from other restaurant jobs Grindler worked in the past, but he said there’s more satisfaction in the job.

“Coffee is so immersed in our culture,” he said. “I enjoy providing a product people want to wake up to.”

Heading outdoors

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the food service industry, Bonfire Coffee included.

“The pandemic was a roller coaster,” Chacos said. “But we’ve been fortunate to get through it, in large part, because of the Paycheck Protection Program funds and some local grant funding.”

Another boon to the cafe’s business was Carbondale relaxing its outdoor dining restrictions.

“Traveling in Italy, France and Spain opened my eyes to how the cafes bled into the streets,” Chacos explained. “It creates an atmosphere of community that I hope will catch on here in America.”

Bonfire requires customers and employees to don masks while inside the cafe, unless they are seated at the tables. Chacos said ensuring the health of both his employees and customers is essential to his business.

Chacos’ emphasis on employee care extends beyond the Roaring Fork Valley. Whether purchasing coffee beans for local patrons or wholesale through Bonfire’s online store, which accounts for as much as 40% of the company’s revenue, Chacos said he seeks out single-origin coffees from fair-trade farms that pay their workers well.

“In the ’80s, single origin meant from the same country or region,” he said. “But nowadays, we really focus in on buying from the single-farm and co-op operations.”

Ethically sourcing coffee beans comes at a cost, however, and Chacos said he pays above market value to ensure his beans arrive from certified fair-trade farms.

Heading into the “fourth wave” of the coffee industry, Chacos said the future of coffee is in experimenting with the fermentation process, including extending the typical fermentation period of 24 hours and leaving the coffee fruit intact around the bean during the fermentation process.

“With the fruit still there, the seed soaks up those additional flavors,” he said.

While family ties might be what brought Chacos back to the valley as a young man, providing the community with staple locations to eat and drink keeps him rooted in place.

“What I like most about doing business in Carbondale is we are locally sustained,” he said. “Tourism is really nice, but the bulk of our customers are the people who live, eat and play every day right here in the community.”