On a Sunday morning in late 2016, Greg Preisch unlocked the front door of The Coffee Spot and switched on the lights, illuminating employee-made artwork hanging on employee-painted walls.
Within the hour, longtime barista Ren Geertson arrived to ring up the first burrito and cup of coffee. Over a grill in the kitchen, Preisch fired a cattle brand and stamped the first tortilla with the shop’s insignia: “The Spot,” backed by the charred shape of an egg.
A year ago, they both knew any of these morning firsts could have been lasts, as Eric Tate, the owner of this eminently funky, colorful El Prado café, had informed them that he was planning to close. They had been some of his first employees, and he thought they should know: new business opportunities would be taking him up to Colorado. After six years of running the shop, he planned to sell the place.
Preisch had moved from Ohio to Taos in the late 2000s. He found a home at The Coffee Spot. So, too, had other staff members and transplants, like Geertson. They all saw the shop’s crew and regulars as family. Everyone made their mark on the place – from the art on the walls to the food on the menu. As a former barista himself, Tate had given them the latitude to make the café their own.
“Can we have a shot at running the place?” Preisch asked Tate on behalf of the crew before the year was out.
Tate quickly agreed, but after years of struggling to keep the business afloat, he did so with an admonishment. “Break even or you won’t have a job,” he said.
For the past year, Preisch, Geertson and their co-workers have managed to keep the lights on, sometimes even turning a profit in a industry saturated with competitors. And they’re doing it in a manner less conventional than many others businesses might. In keeping with the style of the shop, they’re operating on a kind of horizontal, egalitarian management structure, where everyone has an equal vote.
“With big decisions, the crew all has a say in it,” Geertson said. “It’s more like they tell me what to do now, instead of me telling them what to do.”
Early into the transition, the crew was looking to cut costs. They said Tate had overseen the creation of an extravagant, but costly menu that accommodated both breakfast and lunch. Over the past year, the crew has whittled it down. But when Preisch suggested cutting out bacon and sausage, the other crew members protested, Geertson recalled, laughing.
“The crew won out on that one,” she said.
The rest of the operation functions with each crew member taking up responsibilities that suit their personal skill set. Everyone is free to get things done their own way.
“Every person has taken different responsibilities in a little bit of a different direction,” Geertson said.
Allie McCabe, another longtime barista at The Spot, manages the café’s Instagram account. She also takes on major cleaning projects. Other crew members, many of them local artists, have added artistic texture that imbue the café with the unique atmosphere it’s known for.
In 2010, when Tate first purchased the café, which was formerly known as The North Side Bean, he asked Preisch to paint a mural on the eastern wall. It was the first of many artistic additions, and has since been converted into a chalkboard, where anyone can make and contribute their own artistic brush stroke. Preisch said parents appreciate it as a welcome diversion when they bring their children to the Spot.
It was the start of an important tradition. Over time, Tate invited his employees to hang all types of artwork on the walls. Preisch hangs his paintings, the first he had ever had the opportunity to put up for sale, he said. Geertson also paints and creates mixed media pieces, sometimes in collaboration with Preisch. Her work can be found in the shop as well. Sometimes they’ll host guest artists, and every three months, they rotate the work on the walls to keep things interesting for customers.
Geertson’s probably best known for her handmade tables in the main dining area. She created her first when Tate gave her a pile of duplicate keys for which he had no use. Knowing her creative bent, he asked Geertson to make something interesting, something that could be added to the shop’s growing array of artwork. She arranged them artistically beneath a pane of glass using resin and added splashes of color. While Tate paid her for the hours she spent working on it, these days, she works on other creative pieces of furniture for free.
Marcus Gabbert, who moved to Taos from Oklahoma two years ago, doesn’t create his artwork in the shop. He wears it. Gabbert’s building interest in creating his own clothes further developed when he moved to Taos. He found a mentor in a former Spot employee, who runs a fashion business with his wife. They taught him the basics, how to make his own clothes, which often look like artifacts from another time period. He tends to favor leather work, often crafting intricate gauntlets and vests, which draw interest from customers when he works behind the counter.
The Spot is a place where everyone, including customers, tend to feel comfortable doing their own thing, Gabbert said.
Sometimes people can get a little too comfortable, however. The Spot has attracted a rough crowd in the past, the staff said. But that edge is also part of the charm. It’s not perfect, but it’s indelibly unique, well-suited to Taos – a kind of world within a world where you can experience every social and artistic cross-section the surrounding community has to offer.
This year, the crew is planning on introducing new events. In the past, they’ve played host to The People’s Mic, a local poetry and musical collective that runs a roving open-mic night. More recently, they’ve partnered with Monotone Productions to host bands in the evenings.
Tate continues to serve as an advisor from a distance, but its the crew that has ensured that The Spot not only stays open, but retains its identity, which, in many ways, is just a reflection of who they all are.
“We’ve all worked on the floor,” Gabbert said. “It’s been our livelihood. With the experience we’ve had every day, we all know what’s worked and what hasn’t. We’re more lucrative now than we were in any year prior, which is excellent. I think that speaks volumes about how we’ve been taking care of the place. We’ve made it past a year and we’re still going.”