As it has been touted across the city for over a year and a half according to TIme Magazine
, Utah is the geekiest state in the nation, with top scores in most every category they judge it by. (We do, however, need to catch up on more D&D games while anime movies play in the background.) It's been a slow progression in local geek circles, but businesses are slowly making the transition over to opening as geek-centric locations. The latest to join the movement is The Watchtower Cafe, occupying the former Coffee Connection spot across from the SLCC South campus on State Street. It has quickly turned into a safe-haven den of all things comics, video games and podcasting. And it doesn't hurt that they make nerdy beverages as well to keep the customer base coming in. Today we chat with a pair of old friends to the blog, co-owners Cori and Tui, as we discuss how they came to be the mavens of the the "comics & coffee" location. (All pictures courtesy of Watchtower Cafe.)
Cori Hoekstra & Mike Tui
Gavin: Hey guys, how have you both been since we last chatted?
Busy! And I believe the last time we chatted was a few weeks ago, when you were hanging out in our shop playing Cards Against Humanity. So, not a lot has changed since then. Still hustlin’ every day and slinging coffee.
I did a brief stint down in St. George. It's a cool place if you know a few people there and are able to take advantage of the landscape, but neither of those things applied to me.
Gavin: Just to catch up, what have your individual projects been up to?
All of my projects have been put on an extended hiatus. I like to keep busy, and I usually have a bunch of side-projects involving film, music or writing. But when we opened up the shop, everything got pushed aside, and all of my time is now spent working on the business or doing dad stuff with my kids. And I usually figure out ways to combine the business stuff with dad stuff. My kids all come in and work at the shop with me. They’re learning how to make drinks and pull espresso shots. It’s great. I love it.
Cori: Femme Fatalacast
has been put on the back burner until things level off at the store and everyone else isn’t overloaded with school. I wouldn't say it's dead. We are just waiting for the stars to align so we can get back together. Hopefully, we’ll set up a podcast hub at Watchtower and it'd be our new home.
Gavin: When did the two of you first meet and eventually get together?
We've got a few podcast circles that just turned into a Venn Diagram.
Mutual friends of ours were doing a geeky podcast called Pop Culture Massacre
. We were both invited on as guests to talk about comics and movies and nerdy stuff. I’m pretty sure she thought I was a dork, but we were guests together a bunch of times and we became friends. About a year later she asked me to help start her podcast, Femme Fatalacast
, and I worked on that with her as a producer for the show. We’ve been geeking out together ever since.
Gavin: Prior to the shop, did either of you work on other projects?
Yes. A lot. I tend to get restless if I’m not working on a bunch of projects or hustles on the side. Having too much on my plate fills my creative void. Before Watchtower opened, I was producing and recording podcasts and radio shows, playing some music, painting projects, writing a children’s book, working on a TV pilot, and doing some video and editing stuff. I was slightly bummed that I had to shelf all of that to get the business going. But the great thing about running Watchtower is I get to apply all of my creative interests to the business. It feels like I’m doing a hundred different projects in one. I’m ridiculously busy all the time, but I’m definitely in my environment here. It feels good.
I'm usually always working on something. I tried crafting, really as a hobby more than anything. I've done special effects makeup in the past and haven't been able to make it into a studio much since I've moved back.
Gavin: How did the idea to start up your own coffee shop come about?
It came from daydreaming. This is something I had been kicking around for a long time. But the original plan wasn’t to start up a coffee shop at all. It was going to be a comic book store called Watchtower Comics. The idea came from many late-night conversations with my cousin Mark years ago. We’d stay up geeking out about comics and Star Wars
and superheroes. Then it became a “what if” game every night. Like, what if we opened up our own comic book shop? What if we made the shop big enough for people to play HeroClix and Magic and D&D? What if we had a coffee bar in it and made drinks with geeky names like The Iceman? And we’d go on and on, one-upping each other with ideas on what the coolest hangout spot would look like. Mark was actually the driving force on it. I was always skeptical because, seriously, how could I support my five kids by selling comics? But it was an idea that never went away. We just kept talking about it every time we’d get together. We’d call each other randomly in the middle of the night and say “Hey, what about [insert crazy idea here]?” Then when Cori and I got together, she joined in the brainstorm sessions and threw all kinds of really cool ideas on the table too. She started engineering new recipes at home and coming up with different presentation ideas for drinks. From there it continued evolving and changing and eventually shifted from being a comic book shop that sells coffee, to a coffee shop that sells comic books. I pitched the idea to my friend Jeff, who had some experience investing in businesses. He loved it, and jumped on board. Little by little, opportunities started presenting themselves and everything just fell into place.
Over the past couple of years, I've been managing or working retail for some small business owners. All that time, I'd think to myself about what I would do if I were the one running the show. I was already working in coffee when the opportunity presented itself (I've worked with various other types of specialty food/retail as well). I'm also a marketing student and wanted to put together a shop that I could sell the hell out of. Why not start out kinda small, with something I know a few things about?
Gavin: What made you decide to go with a geekier format for the shop?
Well, to continue from what I was talking about earlier, Watchtower wasn’t originally going to be a coffee shop. It was a comic book and game store. When we decided to flip that around, nothing changed in regards to what we wanted the shop to look and feel like. It was always going to be geeky and full of toys and cool art (and by “cool art” I mean nerdy art). Even the name of the business is a reference to the Justice League. These characters and stories are a huge part of our lives and played a tremendous role in my upbringing. My parents raised me on sci-fi and superheroes. My moral compass was shaped in movie theaters and from the TV screen on Saturday mornings. All we’re trying to do is create the place that we would want to hang out at. We want to bring others together and build up the community in a fun, safe place. So we have board games, comic books, toys, cartoons, video games… We’re geeks. Batman matters to us. Star Wars
is important. If we did it any other way, we wouldn’t be genuine.
I always thought to myself, what kind of shop would I like to go in? While there are hobby or comic shops that are great and provide retail of interest, there are few good spots, other than home, to really enjoy them or hang out with people that have similar interests. Around the age of 19, I wanted to really get into comic books, but going into the comic book stores, I wasn't comfortable shopping since I didn't know where to start. Most apparel was designed for males, so I couldn't really purchase things with screen prints. I did experience a weird type of sexism in some shops, as I was either not being taken seriously or I couldn't get some customers to leave me alone. It would get to a point that I'd have to call up a male friend to hold my hand when I wanted to go pick up some comics. I would love to have a place that has a comfortable atmosphere where patrons can peruse at their own leisure. In addition to that, after purchasing a comic at a typical store, you always have to leave the comic book shop in order to read them.
Gavin: What led you to the old Coffee Connection on State Street?
That was all Cori. The Coffee Connection acquisition never would’ve happened without her. She was working there as a barista and general manager. Coffee Connection had been my favorite coffee shop for years. It’s where I’d hold all my meetings, my kids had their first cup of coffee there, Cori and I hung out there, I always thought it was a really cool place. When Cori started working at Coffee Connection, I hung out at the spot a lot more. This is back when I was still thinking of Watchtower as a comic book shop rather than a coffee house. One day, Cori and I were texting back and forth, and as a joke, I texted her “I should just buy Coffee Connection and turn it into Watchtower Comics.” After I sent that, I thought for a minute about how much space was in the building, and visualized a comic book shelf in there and people playing games on the tables. As it turned out, the owners were actually looking to sell, and once they found out I was interested... Well, it all happened so fast. It’s kind of a blur. It’s funny how these things play out, you know?
I started coming to Coffee Connection with a group that would get together and make crafts. A few of us actually had some commissions and a tendency to procrastinate so it gave us a semi-private comfortable space to drink coffee, gossip, and keep each other moving towards a deadline. During that time I got to know a few people involved with the place, which was inspiring and led me to want to work there. I have a habit of picking my jobs that would teach me a new skill while getting paid for it, and I felt like being a barista was kind of a right-of-passage that I haven't done yet. So, I was already here when opportunity came knocking!
Gavin: What was it like taking over and essentially remodeling the menu and the building?
Craziness. Pure chaos. But so much fun. The first change we made to the place was painting a giant chalkboard on one of the walls. We weren’t a hundred percent sure what we were going to do with it, but we knew that we wanted a big ass chalkboard wall for our menu. We started drawing on it. Then Kirsten, one of our baristas, drew Superman on it. Then she drew Batman. And every time she worked a shift, there’d be a new character on the board. At that point, it only made sense to draw the rest of the menu to look like comic book panels. So we all started pitching in, drawing and adding what we could to the board. It’s not done yet, and I already want to change some of it, but it’s absolutely my favorite part of the remodeling changes we’ve made.
I feel like a coffee shop is almost a habit. Some people even like to steal "their" booth for a day and it contributes to their study or writing process. I've found most people even already have their change all counted out while they wait to order, so it's been almost like re-training people on settling on a new normal.
Gavin: What changes did you make to the drink selection and what new stuff did you bring to it?
The very first thing we did was switch coffee roasters. Before we opened, we all decided that we needed to find a new roaster. The coffee wasn’t bad, it was ok. But because we’re doing something different, going with a strong pop-culture influenced atmosphere
, it'd be easy to target us as a gimmick or a fad. So the coffee has to be amazing. We can’t be a gimmick. We are a coffee house first and foremost above anything else we do. The coffee has to be great. In a coincidental (and convenient) turn of events, a friend of ours referred Joe Evans from LaBarba to us. Joe came in and brought us a bunch of samples before we even opened. Right off the bat, Joe started geeking out with us about Star Wars
and comics. Needless to say, we hit it off. After we tried the first sample of coffee, Cori and I looked at each other and agreed there was no reason to look anywhere else. I’m not just saying that. There are a lot of really good roasters in this city. Really, really good roasters. But LaBarba is the best. That’s just my opinion, but I am very proud of the coffee we serve. We also kept Boba Tea on the menu, and have been pushing our hand-crafted sodas a lot more. We’ve started making as much as we can in house, so we make our own vegan caramel sauce and we’re making our own flavored syrups. I’m starting to feel like a mad scientist in the kitchen. We’re having way too much fun doing this.
Gavin: Early on you received a lot of donations to your comics library. How was it for you receiving so much support?
Oh man, we’ve gotten so much love from our friends in support of Watchtower I don’t even know how we could ever begin to thank everyone. In the first couple of weeks after we opened, the majority of customers were our friends coming in to support and congratulate us. We even tried to hook them up with free coffee and discounts, but they refused and insisted on paying full price for everything. We have the most amazing friends. During that first month, we stayed in business thanks to their support. Since then, our customers have grown to friends of our friends, then their friends, and so on. It’s been total grassroots word of mouth, and we owe so much of our success to our friends. People also donated things to us. A lot of things. Like, a LOT. We got a bunch of toys, comic books, artwork, mugs… We have boxes and boxes of cool stuff that we haven’t even put on display yet because we need more shelves. I’m so humbled. And it adds so much to the vibe and energy of the place. All the decorations you see in the shop are donations from friends and customers, and it’s a perfect representation of our community. When a customer comes in and sees the action figure they donated on one of the shelves, they know that they helped build this too. It makes everyone feel like this is their shop. They aren’t customers, they’re family. It’s a community. I’m so incredibly grateful that I get to be a part of this. We really have the most kick-ass friends.
I can't believe how much stuff we are getting! It's nice to see so many people interested in helping us succeed. People have just asked that we make sure they get appreciated. I can confirm that all the donations really are greatly appreciated here!
Gavin: The place has become a bit of a gaming hub. How has it been incorporating that into the daily routine?
It’s one of my favorite things in the world when I see people come in with boxes of Magic: The Gathering
cards, or D&D maps and dice towers. It was always in the plans to be a gaming spot, so it wasn’t a surprise when gamers started showing up. I wish we had more. Hopefully, in the near future, we’ll have ongoing game nights every month. But we have so much space, we’d be crazy if we didn’t try to grow a strong gaming community here.
It's what we've always wanted! When I was starting out LARPing, we would have meetups where we would just sit down and work on building characters for hours, typically at a hobby shop or some office space. Usually, the only thing available was vending machine food and soda, both of which I don't really care for. I feel like I would've built much better characters had I been doing it with the right amount of caffeine. Our coffee shop environment allows people to meet up without having the stress of hosting. It'll be even better down the road when we can put together some tables that even have grid maps or boards built into them. Our shop has plenty of space to hang out!
Gavin: What's the reception been like overall from both the regular customer base and the college population from the SLCC campus across the way?
All positive. The best is when we get the old regulars who think we are still Coffee Connection and are pleasantly surprised when they see what we’ve done to the place. Whether they’re geeks or not, everybody has given us a very positive response to what we’re doing. It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world when people leave after their first visit saying “This is MY coffee shop now!”
Some of the students are just looking for some coffee, wifi, and a quiet place to study. So as long as we still have that (which we do) they don't care. That is, until they see the new decor and how much lighter the atmosphere is! I've seen some students come back on dates and set up a board game. It's kind of cool to have people return with someone else to kind of show off the shop. I'd say about half of our current customer base are the ones that are really into the geeky stuff, but they still enjoy the atmosphere and all the cool things to read and play with.
Gavin: What are your upcoming plans for the place as you move forward?
Comics and games. We’re still building out the shelves for the comics, so we haven’t started selling them yet, and we’re still figuring out details around selling Magic and Pokemon and other games, but they’re coming. We also want to have a huge manga and anime section. Lots of comics, lots of manga, and lots of games.
More retail and more meetup groups! I think it'd be fun to get superhero speed dating together and maybe some hobby classes together. I'd love for someone to come in with and interest in something and we can help set them up. Or, if they just want a cup of coffee we can provide that too.
Gavin: What can we expect from both of you and the shop going into 2016?
Coffee, comics, and games. Expect a LOT
I'm probably never going to be able to leave. If I'm not slinging coffee I'll probably be taking advantage of the space.