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A latte to love in second career


For most of her life, Betty Read-Holmes’ knowledge of coffee was limited to one word: Folgers. Even that said more about the power of marketing and product branding than the kind of passion that has fueled the resurgence of 1960s-style coffeehouses as a cultural icon. She could take coffee or leave it. Mostly, she left it. “I wished coffee tasted as good as it smelled,” she said.

She discovered that it could in a Chico, Calif., coffeehouse five years ago while visiting her then-college-student son, Robert Read. She drank her first espresso drink – under the shingle of one of the industry’s giants, she said, grimacing rather than expressing her philosophical differences with chain stores. But whether a monopolistic threat to independent businesses or an entrepreneurial genius that succeeds where its competitors fail, its specialty drinks were ambrosia, Read-Holmes said. “I loved it.”

That experience wasn’t, however, what put her behind the counter of Mercato Gourmet Coffee, nestled among the niche businesses along Valley Junction’s eclectic Fifth Street. Her journey there was much more serendipitous, the result of an accidental meeting with Mercato’s former owner, Scott Timberman.

Read-Holmes was inching toward retirement after a 40-year career in payroll and benefits management when the two met. Timberman was applying for an information technology job at Life Care Services LLC, where Read-Holmes had worked for 17½ years, and she was part of the interview team.

In preparation for retirement, she had been exploring various options to fill the years ahead. “As I got closer and closer, I talked to a lot of people about working in a bank because of my accounting background,” she said. “I’m one of those people who can’t imagine getting up in the morning and not having a purpose or some place to go.”

For a while, Read-Holmes focused her research on a bed-and-breakfast inn, where she could meld her talents for cooking and hospitality. As romantic and dreamy as the idea was, she concluded “it was a big investment, and if it didn’t work out, I’d be too old to start saving for retirement.”

Then the opportunity to buy Timberman’s coffee business “dropped in my lap.”

“I thought, yeah, this is it exactly,” she said. “I said, ‘I might as well buy it.’“

She did, last October. “This is my bed-and-breakfast, without the toilets and beds,” Read-Holmes said. “I’ve always liked to cook and entertain, and now I’m doing it on a business level.”

Her chance meeting with Timberman was not only fortuitous, but also potentially lucrative. Specialty coffee is a hot business, with sales totaling $8.4 billion a year in the United States alone, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Need more? Howard Schultz’s Starbucks Corp. debuted on the Fortune 500 list in 2003, a sign that the coffee industry has come of age. And, seemingly recession-proof, coffee sales haven’t declined with dips in consumer confidence and other economic indicators. The National Coffee Association’s 2004 National Coffee Drinking Trends survey showed that nearly eight out of 10 Americans drink coffee, half of them every day. While total consumption remained steady, daily gourmet-coffee consumption showed a 16 percent increase, up from 12 percent the year prior.

Read-Holmes’ coffee store has existed under one name or another since 1993, when it opened as Borean Coffee. It was renamed Lola’s Fine Coffees after it was sold in 1998, and continued to operate under that name until March 2003, when Timberman gave it the more international-sounding name of Mercato, which is Italian for “market.”

Mercato’s customers are a diverse mix. Valley Junction shopkeepers and business people whom Read-Holmes knows both by name and beverage choice keep the coffeehouse and café – sandwiches and confections are offered – busy during the week, and on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the chatter of the Nifty Over 50 group that works out in Valley Junction’s community center breathes life into the shop. The crowd is more cosmopolitan on weekends and other heavy shopping days, when visitors flock to the 120 specialty shops in West Des Moines’ original downtown.

Read-Holmes keeps them all happy by paying attention to details, such as keeping her inventory of coffee beans low to ensure freshness. She says the secrets to coffee that tastes as good as it smells lie in the beans (she uses higher-quality Arabica beans, which are naturally lower in caffeine than other beans and are grown at elevations of 3,000 to 6,000 feet and above, where frost is rare) and in the brewing method (she uses a vacuum coffeemaker that combines the convenience of an automatic drip maker with the full-bodied flavor of a stovetop vacuum brewer).

And she doesn’t serve Folgers.  

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