Words: Kelley Heider
Photos: Rachel Havel
When Fifty Fifty opened its doors on December 14, it already had a throng of regulars waiting with great anticipation. However, for anyone who had frequented the Raven's Nest on the corner of Boulder Avenue and Institute Street, the sight that greeted them when they first entered the new coffee shop next door was wholly different from the cramped, dark, and cozy place to which they had grown accustomed. Fifty Fifty is bright, hip, and welcoming, and anyone who knows its owners gets the sense that the décor isn't a far cry from what you'd find in their own homes.
I admit that I am one of those aforementioned regulars. I love coffee and have always treated coffee shops like a second home—staying to read or write, and feed off of the buzz generated by conversations and similar creatives sharing a common space. Fifty Fifty is right down the road from my house, and they serve yummy vegan, gluten-free pastries from The Paisley Pantry. I could say that I stop in nearly every day for the good coffee and homemade pop-tarts (may I recommend the spicy pumpkin), but it's more than that. The employees are warm and genuine, and they demonstrate a care for customers that is rare. We've become—to some extent—invested in each others' lives. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to talk with Jo Marini and Sarah Crowell, originators of The Local food truck and owners of the new Fifty Fifty Coffee House.
I met with Jo and Sarah for the interview at some point in the middle of the transition that saw Raven's Nest closing its doors and reopening next door as the newly envisioned Fifty Fifty. When I arrived at the new location it was just before Thanksgiving and Jo and Sarah had been working hard for weeks to renovate the space. Jo has a reputation for being a do-it-yourself nut and a bit of a busybody when it comes to improving places she finds herself in. She and Sarah share an adventurous spirit and a laissez-faire attitude that just happen to be the ideal composition for successful (and resilient) entrepreneurship. Rarely do they seem discouraged, but instead go plodding ahead with confidence that it will all work out in the end. In their case, it has.
“I spend more time with Sara than I spend with my husband,” Jo laughs. “I don't know how it works, but it works.”
As business partners, Sarah and Jo have a rare kind of magic. Their personalities complement one another so well, they behave like sisters, and so they bring a “family business” comfort to their various endeavors. “I spend more time with Sara than I spend with my husband,” Jo laughs. “I don't know how it works, but it works.” They admit that they have bad days but are able to recognize that their intentions are always good. Jo acknowledges that she forces change, often acting before her ideas are fully formed. Sara offers reason and helps to rein her in before she “spirals out of control.” Still, everything they produce is a compromise of vision—a 50/50 split.
As Jo explained, she met Sara in history class their freshman year at the Air Force Academy. They soon became friends and roommates. After graduation they were living in different parts of the country—Jo in Colorado and Sara in Texas, but they stayed in touch, trying to visit one another when they could. Shortly after both finding themselves back in Colorado Springs, Sara was released from the Air Force. What had felt like a misfortune turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Jo and Sara developed their sourcing network as they went, meeting more of the community while working at local farmer's markets and various events. The first summer was rough. Everything that could go wrong, did. “We had a lot of breakdowns and tire explosions, gas leaks, and everything you could possibly think could happen in a mobile business happened,” said Jo. Yet they made it through the summer, drawing in customers by sharing their delicious food along with the latest chapter from their food truck saga. By the next spring, Jo and Sarah had to take on a partner because The Local was growing faster than they could manage on their own.
In the summer of 2013, their transition into the coffee business—the business they initially wanted—was almost serendipitous. Jo and Sarah were driving past the Raven's Nest one day and noticed a “for sale” sign. They bought the business and moved in that July. What they found was something that is nearly impossible to build with a mobile business—a community of regulars whose lives they enjoyed being a part of. “You find yourself looking at a lot of friends instead of just strangers at the door,” said Sara.
“We want to do things that bring people out of their homes on an evening when you might have just sat on the couch and watched T.V.”
Within a matter months, the space next door became available. Jo and Sarah saw an opportunity to create a space unique to them—the coffee shop they had originally envisioned. And they have plans to develop Fifty Fifty into something of a community retreat. “We want to do things that bring people out of their homes on an evening when you might have just sat on the couch and watched T.V.,” Jo explained. A few of the ideas they have are to host board game nights and knitting circles, and to post a trade board where members of the community can trade goods and services.
Jo has been inspired by the positive changes and the trend of people making and creating with local pride throughout Colorado Springs. “There is an incredible pool of passion and creativity in this city. I think that it is probably one of the most exciting times to be here. The market is not saturated. There is so much that is yet to be tapped and there are so many unbelievable ideas out there. It's really cool that every time you talk to somebody, you hear about their ideas, their aspirations, what are they passionate about, and I love that.” Jo is adamant that Fifty Fifty is not just about serving good coffee. “I've never taken this much of a risk, but at the same time, I hope the intention behind this is visible and is accepted and becomes something that is loved within this couple-block radius.”
“Everything in this space, in one way or another, is reclaimed,” Jo said. “As opposed to making this crazy design, like this is our dream space, we looked at it as 'what do we have, what already exists, and how do we maximize that to make this space?'”
The new location was a bit of a blank canvas, but Jo and Sara's way of jumping in with only a general plan and really figuring things out as they went along worked out well. Where they could, Jo and Sara looked to existing resources. “Everything in this space, in one way or another, is reclaimed,” Jo said. “As opposed to making this crazy design, like this is our dream space, we looked at it as 'what do we have, what already exists, and how do we maximize that to make this space?'” Jo looked around her, pointing out different elements in the room as she described how, for example, they plan to refinish secondhand bar stools, or how they cut through an existing wall and bumped the lower section forward to create the bar front. The extra boards that they pulled from the wall then became the top of the wraparound bar. “It's less of an experiment in what can we make, and more of an experiment in what can we use.” Though they were tired from a long week of work, I could tell both women were proud of their accomplishment and hopeful for the future. As we sat in the space, gazing at all the work in progress, Jo admitted to me that she has no idea what it will look like when it's finished.
Jo and Sara are looking for help building a wooden patio for Fifty Fifty in the summer. If anyone is willing to donate materials or help with labor, please stop in, buy some coffee, and ask to talk to Sara or Jo.