Chukchansi enters the coffee business

Tribe works on diversification plan to make coffee chain international

Tiffany TuellOctober 11, 2012 

Grabbing a cup of coffee at an affordable price and learning a little Native American history have come together in the form of the Native American Coffee Company. The company's first coffee shop recently opened in Coarsegold at the Willow Glen Smoke Shop on Highway 41 just south of Lucky Lane.

The cafe offers more than just coffee and boasts a menu that has no comparison to other coffee shops. Menu items include everything from regular coffee drinks to sweet confections such as cookies 'n cream and maple donut milk shakes and a cheesecake drink complete with graham cracker crumbs. There are also snow cone drinks -- not the ordinary icy snow cone, more like a rich, creamy milkshake. The drinks are affordable with many 18-ounce drinks selling for $2.50.

"It's not about the money, it's about the pleasure of a drink and building that for the customer," said Jerry Caputo, owner of the Mariposa Coffee Company, who is working as a consultant with the new company. "There's been a really good response from the community so far and I would encourage the community to come and try our snow cone drinks and iced coffees."

Patrik Lawhon, who works at the smoke shop and cafe, says he's noticed an influx in customers since the cafe opened.

The Native American Coffee Company's drinks are all made out of ingredients unique to the cafe. Caputo has created a special coffee bean blend called "Tribal Lands" for the shop. All the creamy drinks are made out of what Caputo calls "gelatte" -- a whey based powder Caputo created himself that is used in place of ice cream, cutting the fat content by a third.

It was Chance Alberta, chairman of the board of directors for Chukchansi Inc., a subsidiary of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, who approached Caputo about being a consultant for the new business. Caputo, who only uses free trade coffee from indigenous tribes, has owned his coffee roasting business for 21 years and in that time has perfected his own way of roasting -- unlike main stream coffee roasting procedures -- that eliminates dust particulates from his product.

"Coffee should be pure and simple and that's why people wanted my process -- because they heard of the purity of my coffee," Caputo said.

Alberta said Caputo's coffee roasting process is what inspired him to go through with the idea for the Native American Coffee Company.

"Jerry's process is phenomenal and follows what we want to do as a tribe," Alberta said.

Alberta said diabetes is high among Native American Indians, so they are trying to take a healthier approach by using Caputo's new process and recipes.

The coffee company's mission statement is "Sustaining Body, Community and Earth."

"We have respect for that and what we do affects body, community and earth," Caputo said. "We want to create a spirit of unity and we're working together and hoping coffee will be the ambassador."

In the next two to three years, Alberta says the tribe hopes to share their mission with other Native American tribes by distributing coffee and building companies. However they aren't just creating coffee shops, but also schools that will teach coffee shop workers every aspect of the business -- from equipment repair and sustainability to mixology and coffee roasting.

Alberta said he is already speaking with other tribes in California, the Lakotas in South Dakota and the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in Michigan. Even though the Native American Coffee Company has only been in business for six months, Alberta said there's not a tribe that doesn't like the idea. Alberta said trade with other tribes is very important, adding that the Chukchansi tribe already trades with about 118 other tribes. Working together, Alberta says all the tribes can become stronger and accomplish a lot more.

Each coffee shop will be designed differently according to each tribe's culture, giving every tribe the opportunity to share their story. At the Chukchansi coffee shop, they will illustrate what is important to their culture through manzanita items such as manzanita furniture. The names of each drink will also be translated into the Chukchansi language and printed on all the menus and reusable coffee tins will be printed with a cultural story.

Because taking care of the environment has always been part of the Native American culture, Alberta says he hopes to eventually only see reusable coffee cups used at their cafes.

"We want people to not only come there to plug into Wi-Fi, but to have whole new experience," Alberta said. "We want an experience to tell our story, share our culture and have people read our language. In 1851 we suffered our biggest devastation to the tribe when we were wiped out by cavalry and sent to schools where we weren't allowed to speak our language and it almost dissipated."

Alberta says he also hopes to give back to the community and enrich the culture of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians through the Native American Coffee Company. The five year plan is to branch outside of reservation land. Alberta says possible local locations include Oakhurst and Fresno. By 2020, they hope to go international. The coffee company is being funded through Chukchansi Inc., a corporation created in 2009 for diversification according to Alberta. The company owns about 17 businesses now, according to Alberta, including national companies such as Blue King Inc., a payday loan service, and Chukchansi Gaming.

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