Alpine Grind claims ‘best coffee in town’
“There hasn’t been a day that I’ve regretted buying this business,” said longtime newspaperman John Snelgrove who changed hats and bought the Alpine Grind Coffee House 17 months ago, “but it can be a struggle sometimes.”
“I enjoy the atmosphere,” he said. “When I hear people talking and laughing, I know I’ve done the right thing.”
Originally set up by Brad Brown and Kim Robinson seven years ago, Snelgrove recalled “a group of friends would come here Monday to Friday after dropping the kids at school and we’d sit and chat for an hour before going home.”
When Brown and Robinson considered closing the doors, “The idea of not having this place didn’t sit too well,” Snelgrove said. A deal was struck and the new Grind swung open its doors in February 2010.
The Alpine Grind Coffee House and Microbakery is in competition with Sunshine, Clancey’s, Rush, and Café Books, but Snelgrove boldly revealed his trade secret:
“We think we have the best coffee in town. Actually, I’d say I know we have the best coffee in town!”
He also thinks the Grind’s “microbakery” sets them apart, making bread three times each week and the focaccia for their sandwiches.
Using a big supplier could save money, he speculated, “but the more we do in-house, the better quality we can give our customer, and there’s more control over what we do.”
Quality may be one pillar of his philosophy, but community is another. “Sponsorships are importnat. We support events that the community wants to see happen. If we get spin-off business, that’s great. But first and foremost we want to get behind the events.”
“Music’s a priority,” he said. “And if an event for kids needs help, I have no problem giving a five-gallon carafe of hot chocolate, or cookies or muffins. It doesn’t cost a lot of money for what [our community and my business] get in return.”
He’s also proud of his café’s comfortable atmosphere with bright natural light and local and regional art that changes every month or two.
Above all, Snelgrove credits the Grind’s success to “a really steady local clientelle.” He gets visitors, mostly directed to the café as a “destination” by word-of-mouth, but “we don’t get walk-by traffic.”
Being on the other side of a busy intersection from the rest of downtown, “most foot traffic stops on the opposite corner and turns down the other way,” he said.
Despite the very real competition between the local cafés, there’s also a strong sense of co-operation, “or consideration,” Snelgrove said. “It makes for happier customers and better business all around.”
The cafés will let each other know when hours change: Fluctuating, unpredictable sales affect stocking to staffing, and poor decisions can lead to unhappy customers or waste.
They also make referrals, which Snelgrove appreciates.
“We also send people to other establishments. We don’t do traditional breakfasts, for example, but we’re not afraid to tell somebody where they can get that,” he said.
For now, it seems Rossland can support the coffee habit — Nelson has four times the population but eight times the coffee shops.
Fundamentally, Snelgrove depends on a cheerful and competent staff. “I’ve always had good staff, staff I could trust to do the right thing,” he said. “When I first bought this place, the first group of staff here had way more experience doing this than I ever did.”
That’s because Snelgrove has actually spent most of his career as a newspaper publisher. “I was the customer for a long time,” he laughed. “I’m not a chef, but I knew what I could do and I knew what I liked. And being in the newspaper business, I’ve always been a good listener. I hear what a lot of customers like and don’t like.”
Snelgrove was born in Montreal to a French-Canadian mother and a Newfoundland father. They left during the FLQ crisis and “ended up on the east shore of Kootenay Lake.”
He worked the knives on a cardboard machine for Domtar, considered a career in turf management, and tree planted, but his photography hobby led him to journalism.
He met his wife, Shelley Ackerman, at Selkirk college and studied photography, electronic publishing — a brand new art in the early 1980s — and creative writing.
“I’d always been a current events junkie and liked the idea of newspapers,” he said. His career’s many highlights include starting The Rossland Summit in 1991, incidentally working out of an office in the Alpine Grind building.
His daughter Maddie was born in that time, and Clare’s birth will be forever rembered for falling on a hectic “production day.”
His priorities remain close to home. “We’ve always taken an active part in the community, and we’ve always made time for our kids.”
If he had to choose kids or business, “I’d shut the doors. It’s not about making someone happy with a great americano that day.”