I've been saying it for what feels like years now: The best coffee shop in Santa Maria isn't even a shop.
If you've never seen the light-roast-with-cream-brown trailer pulled by the dark-roast-hold-the-cream-black pickup truck cruising around town, it's time to let you in on the best kept caffeinated secret in the valley–Coffee a la Cart.
A quick note: I'm filling in for Rebecca Rose this week, and I called dibs on doing a write-up of Coffee a la Cart months ago if she ever needed a break. My wife and I owned a coffee shop several years ago, so I'm a bit more than a casual coffee sipper.
Coffee a la Cart first caught my attention as it would pass by the Sun office to serve up coffee across Skyway Drive at Zodiac Aerospace, but it's not the only place owner Pam Rowan and her staff visit during the morning hours of the workweek. They can be found at local schools, the Toyota and Honda dealerships, and various other office complexes.
Rowan first started serving different coffee beverages out of a smaller cart at her church, but she got her cart in 2011 and took her barista skills to the road. She began serving coffee on the go before the food truck craze took over.
"I was ahead of the wave on that," she said. "Nobody was around."
As someone who owned a coffee shop that focused on fresh ingredients handled with an artisan touch, I can vouch for Rowan's work. I love a strong espresso drink and avoid the corporate-chain-that-shall-not-be-named like the plague because the espresso is a joke. If I must resort to corporate coffee, I will get McDonald's drip before I go you-know-where.
The only place I can really get quality espresso anymore is from Coffee a la Cart. It's an aspect that Rowan focused on from the get-go with her business. She's used Endicott Coffee Roasters and hasn't changed since to keep things consistent.
"That was really important to me that I provided really good coffee with great espresso beans, great syrup, something that no one else in town really offers," Rowan said. "And I try to train my girls and really try and make them realize how important it is that every drink goes out the same."
Pulling a shot of espresso is an art, jittery hands down, and Rowan gets that. A true latte, macchiato, or cappuccino can't have any element automated, from the tamp to the steaming of the milk.
Just about every time I've ordered from Coffee a la Cart, Rowan is there with one of her staff making or watching over every drink. A couple of times she's been out of town and had her staff handle things, but everything ran just as smooth, even up to my picky standards.
It all comes down to the training, Rowan explained. She said she doesn't mind hiring staff that maybe didn't have prior barista experience, because then she gets to train them her way from the start.
"I want them to understand the importance of pulling the shot and how long that shot needs to be pulled and how fast you have to get that shot into the hot milk to save that flavor of the crema," she said. "We'll pull shots, and if they're not good, we'll throw them out and do it over again. That's just really important."
So far I've just focused on my favorite thing, espresso. But that's how coffee-heads are; we all have our exact drink (quad-shot iced Americano, add vanilla, room for cream for me) and don't care about anything else. Rowan will always remember your face and your drink, no matter how involved your order.
And the menu for Coffee a la Cart scratches just about every itch: lattes, mochas, chai tea, regular brewed coffee and tea, iced blended coffees, and even a few fruit smoothies. She also brings some baked goods by her friend, Claudia Stine. The fruit scones are a must, if they don't all get scooped up before Coffee a la Cart makes it to your part of town!
After seven years of building her reputation, Rowan is beginning a new venture with Stine and business partner Julie Darrah–an actual brick-and-mortar coffee shop in Old Town Orcutt.
The shop, which will be called Cups and Crumbs, will keep Rowan's coffee skills along with Stine's fresh-baked goods at a location that also does breakfast and lunch food. Something else they plan to bring to the valley that's sorely missing–crepes, both sweet and savory. Rowan said the opening is a couple months out, but keep an eye on the space between Jack's and Old Orcutt Barbershop.
But until then, you can still get the best coffee in town from Coffee a la Cart. You can check their schedule online or book a private event. She's been to events like the Live Oak Music Festival, weddings, and even studios in Hollywood. Despite the food truck craze in LA, there's still virtually no mobile coffee shops, she said.
Ever since she started her business, it hasn't felt like work to Rowan, who wakes up early every morning to give local coffee lovers what they want.
"I just love doing it," she said. "I love the customers and talking with them everyday. You develop so many friendships."
A good portion of Managing Editor Joe Payne's output for the Sun is thanks to Coffee a la Cart. Tell him your favorite drink at [email protected].
• Don't worry, Rebecca will be back next week with her Rebeccamendations, but for now, here are some things going on and what I stuffed my face with lately that's worthy of note:
• There's a new pho spot in town, Viet Kitchen, located in the redeveloped center near the corner of Skyway and Broadway in
• Wine Country Weekend: Past, Present, and Future runs Sept. 28 through 30 at participating wineries in Santa Ynez, Solvang, Los Olivos, and Buellton. The series focuses on current wines side-by-side with vintages and future releases. Visit santaynezwinecountry.com for tickets.
• Buttonwood Farm Winery and Vineyard will partner with Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort to celebrate its 50th year with a "farm-to-table feast" on Sept. 29 from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the resort, 1054 Alisal Road, Solvang. The event includes a hay wagon ride, live music, and the meal produced by Buttonwood Executive Chef Anthony Endy. Look them up on eventbright.com.
• I just gave my friend Josh Snow, owner of O'Sullivans Pub, a visit and he reminded me to not forget that Beerfest in Santa Maria is coming up soon! The event is organized by the Santa Maria Kiwanis Noontime group and welcomes craft brewers big and small to the downtown baseball field at 600 S. McClelland St., Santa Maria on Oct. 6. The event runs from noon to 5 p.m. and you can find tickets at nightout.com.
• Not to get too political, but Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo) just got a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown that will allow craft distillers to donate drinks to nonprofits and assist at licensed events. In a statement, Cunningham said that the Central Coast is home to "an emerging and vibrant craft distillery industry," and that he's "proud of our work to promote these small businesses and help them become even more successful." Thank him next time you're sloshed at a fundraiser event!