GOLD BAR — When you have heaps of coffee supplies just 10 miles west of an explosive wildfire, you can dump them and evacuate — or stay and serve hundreds of firefighters.
Espresso Chalet owners Mark and Sandy Klein chose the latter. They’d prepped for a busy weekend at Espresso Chalet when the Bolt Creek Fire erupted Sept. 10. It was closest they’d come to a wildfire since opening their Gold Bar coffee stand 31 years ago.
As plooms of inescapable smoke settled over them, the couple suddenly stood at the edge of an evacuation zone, sandwiched between U.S. 2 road closures from Gold Bar to Skykomish.
“There’s nothing quite like being in the crosshairs of an explosive wildfire,” Mark wrote on Espresso Chalet’s Facebook page Sept. 13.
While the fire extinguished plans for a busy weekend, Mark and Sandy weren’t about to waste their bounty of milk, creamer and other perishables. So they did what they’ve done for the past three decades: Mark got out of bed at 5 a.m. (and Sandy shortly thereafter), walked across the 14-car parking lot to Espresso Chalet, and set up shop.
As they cleaned up forest debris and a daily downpour of ash, the couple knew firefighters were in need of a hot, caffeinated drink before heading toward the blaze. Mark and Sandy changed out the letters on their welcome board to read, “FREE DRINKS FIRE CREWS”. They photographed firefighter teams outside the stand, free coffee in hand, and posted them to Facebook. The crews hailed from South and North counties, Spokane, Oregon, Utah and even as far away as Mexico City. Soon, word of the free coffee got out and donations started pouring in.
“We didn’t mind at all, giving out free drinks,” Mark said on a still-smoky morning, weeks after the fire first ignited. “We’re helping the donors deliver a feeling in their heart that they are giving to (the firefighters) for saving their homes, for saving the beauty of the area.”
On their busiest day, they steamed, pulled and poured 44 drinks, with most being donated by residents.
They’re no longer accepting donations — a good sign, as emergency crews have lightened.
‘The worst we’ve ever seen’
Just before noon on Tuesday, Sept. 27, a firefighter in a brush shirt walked up and order a plain coffee. It was Dan Stucki’s first day as a division supervisor for the Bolt Creek Fire, though he’s been fighting fires for 21 years. Free coffee in hand, Stucki told Mark he’d traveled from Utah to help contain the blaze.
Since Sept. 10, firefighters like Stucki have often converged at Espresso Chalet to chug some caffeine and plan out the day. That includes monitoring the containment lines, removing burning material, assessing damage and so forth.
Espresso Chalet keeps customers and fans — both in person and on their Facebook page — updated about road closures and other wildfire-related information. They are what Public Information Officer Lynda Lancaster called an important “trapline” for the community, in that they “trap” interested passersby with fire information and maps. Lancaster and Amanda Monthei, another PIO, were at Espresso Chalet to give Mark and Sandy their daily update, as they have since the fire started.
Fire officials announced over the weekend that humans caused the Bolt Creek Fire, and that a full investigation could take weeks, if not longer.
It’s been a “very long time” since Snohomish County has seen a wildfire of this size, Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management spokesman Scott North told The Daily Herald on Sept. 11.
“Based on the volume of this one, it’s probably going to be the worst we’ve ever seen,” North added.
Mark and Sandy had their bags packed in case they needed to evacuate the weekend the fire broke out.
“The most important person to get into the car was this lady right here,” Mark said, putting his arm around Sandy.
The couple don’t plan to leave unless it’s absolutely necessary, but the Bolt Creek Fire shook them.
“I never thought the west side would become so vulnerable to fast-moving wildfires,” he said. “As we’ve gone by, the stretch of dryness has gone longer and longer. More sunlight is nice, but the forest becomes more vulnerable to bad behaviors from it.”
Flavors up the wazoo
You might call Espresso Chalet an indecisive customer’s worst nightmare: They have flavors up the wazoo (don’t worry, they break it down by categories of fruit, spicy, nuts, chocolates, sugar-free and miscellaneous. Cupcake latte, anyone?), including more than 20 varieties of chocolate.
Firefighters especially enjoy the Maple Nog Latte. When I was there last week, Mark guessed I’d enjoy a mocha with almond milk. He was right.
They also serve tea and Red Bull chargers with popular combinations like Sasquatch Berry, Orange Creamsicle and Pina Colada. You can get an 8-ounce latte for $2.50 or pay $5.25 to quadruple it.
For milk, they have everything from oat and macadamia to goat and plain old cow milk. About 15 years ago, Espresso Chalet added hemp milk to the menu (after one of their daughters assured them it was legal, THC-free and full of protein). Mark put it on his board as a “hempuccino” and a few days later, a sheriff showed up.
“I’ve been getting complaints that this place is selling pot milk,” he told Mark.
A lot has changed since then, though hemp milk is still on the menu and Mark is just as obsessed with sourcing top-quality coffee beans as he was when they opened Espresso Chalet in 1991. He buys his beans from Oregon-based Longbottom and is known to test his baristas on their coffee knowledge: The tiny round beans are Tanzanian peaberries, the perfectly oval-shaped ones are from Kenya, and you can tell an Arabica from a Robusta by its signature squiggly line. He ensures his beans are perfectly roasted to a dark brown (not burnt).
Espresso Chalet began when Mark met Sandy at a disco bar in Coos Bay, Oregon, in 1979. The couple eventually made their way up to Washington, kids in tow, when Mark spotted a property for sale in Gold Bar. It had been one of the sets for the 1987 comedy “Harry and the Hendersons,” about a family who adopts a friendly Sasquatch after accidentally hitting him with their station wagon.
Mark saw a future there, offered the grumpy owner a deal and spent the next year cleaning up the property. They removed dozens of old cars and other salvage materials but kept the friendly Sasquatch theme. The Quonset hut that was once the Bigfoot Museum in the film is now a piece of history — and storage for coffee supplies. The couple began purchasing Bigfoot carvings and placing them on the property (they currently have Freddy Krueger, spiders and other Halloween visitors as well).
Bigfoot believers can take home Sasquatch crossing signs, “Harry and the Hendersons” and more hairy souvenirs.
Even with the smoke, a sort magic settles over you at Espresso Chalet. It could be the lure of Bigfoot (loggers and forest service workers have confessed to Mark they saw the large hairy figure within miles of Espresso Chalet), or the smell of rain and moss and hot coffee, the views of Mount Index, the promise of a warm Sasquatch hoodie.
Whatever magic Espresso Chalet holds, I implore you to take a drive out there and experience it for yourself. Hopefully by then, you can sip on your maple nog latte with fresh air and clear views of Mount Index.
As it should be.