When Colorado Springs’ first Starbucks suddenly closed in late March, many didn’t see it coming. But Mike Hartkop had had his eye on 134 N. Tejon St. for more than a decade.
He imagined it as an ideal location for another Solar Roast Coffee, the company he co-founded and owns with his brother David.
Billed as “inventors of the world’s only commercial solar-powered coffee roaster,” the Hartkops opened their first location in Pueblo and were always looking for the chance to expand into Colorado Springs.
“I moved to Colorado 12 years ago and came to downtown Colorado Springs when this was a Starbucks … and I just thought it was such a tragedy that it was a Starbucks and not an actual coffee house,” Hartkop recalled.
For years, as they fine-tuned their solar roasting processes and put down roots in Pueblo, the Hartkops had a real estate broker friend tracking Springs listings for potential locations — without luck. Then the Starbucks came up.
“We walked in and we’re like, ‘We’ll take it if we can have it — it doesn’t matter what it costs. We just want that spot,’” Hartkop said. “It’s on the main drag of Colorado Springs, it’s by the park — so it’s like the 50-yard line, or home plate. It’s the center of the city.”
Patience has paid off, and Solar Roast Coffee is soft-opening this third location (they have two in Pueblo) this month — right next door to Pueblo-based Bingo Burger’s Springs restaurant.
Solar Roast’s Pueblo roots are no mistake. From their home in Oregon, the Hartkop brothers chased the sun south to get the most out of their unique coffee roasting process.
“Our thought was, ‘Why do you always have to burn gas for something?’ Virtually all the coffee roasters on the market are natural gas or propane. … All of the coffee being produced is being roasted directly in the exhaust from burning gas,” Hartkop said. “And so my brother and I were like, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”
In 2004 they built their first solar-powered coffee roaster, using their parents’ old satellite dish, covered in 100 plastic mirrors “focused at one point, like a magnifying glass,” Hartkop recalled. “And we found that point could get up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, which is crazy. We built the first [roaster] drum out of aluminum — it took us a month to build this thing — and the first time we aligned it to the sun to see that it worked, we melted a hole right through the coffee roaster drum.”
Pushing the situation from sad to very bad, the pair had already signed up to roast coffee at a major Fourth of July event the next week — so they had just two days to build a new drum.
“We got a stainless steel stock pot and broccoli steamer and just, you know, MacGyvered this thing,” Hartkop said. “And it worked, thankfully. We were able to roast coffee on the spot in downtown Central Point, Oregon. And it was popular.”
They named that first roaster Helios I, after the Greek god of sun, and it roasted about a pound of coffee at a time. Helios III managed 5 pounds at a time, and in 2008 the 35-foot Helios IV went into action, producing up to 30 pounds of coffee at a time.
Before Helios IV, though, the Hartkops ran out of sun.
With about three months of sunshine a year, Oregon was no place for a solar- powered startup.
“We had to move somewhere that made more sense,” Hartkop said.
In 2007, the Hartkops opened their first retail coffee shop in downtown Pueblo and threw themselves into learning “what makes Pueblo tick,” getting involved with the close-knit community and even reviving a “Buy Pueblo” marketing campaign.
In 2010, they received a business development grant from the city of Pueblo to develop Helios V. It uses a grid-tied photovoltaic array that powers an electric heater for the roaster and provides electricity to the building when the roaster isn’t in use. The Hartkops are committed to “coffee with a conscience” and have been certified 100 percent organic by the USDA.
“That’s good for the people that are growing the coffee, it’s good for the soil, for the land, and it’s also better for us — because there aren’t any residual chemicals associated with organic,” Hartkop said. “Some of these countries that grow coffee are using chemicals that have been long since outlawed in the United States.”
They opened a second location in Pueblo in 2018 — and they’re no strangers to Colorado Springs, with the wholesale side of their business selling coffee to Sprouts, Natural Grocers, King Soopers and Mountain Mama.
This third location, opposite Acacia Park, will combine the “calming, escape-from-the-hustle” feel of their first Pueblo location with the speedy service of their second, drive-thru location.
While the coffee and the food will come fast, Hartkop wants customers to take it slowly.
“They’re supposed to sit and relax,” he said. “I want people to enjoy the space as much as I enjoy the space.”
The windows are papered over while renovations continue, but the interior is already bright with murals. The theme is a carryover from their Pueblo stores — both are adorned with similar murals — and a way to make the place feel right.
“We’ve got a great friend who’s a muralist, Matt … and this was a standard-issue Starbucks, so it had the plain-Jane paint, the most horrible design you could imagine,” Hartkop said. “I said, ‘Matt, I just want to walk into my store and not have it feel anything like a Starbucks. So do whatever you want that’s coffee-themed.’ He came up with this.”
Hartkop knows the Springs renovation will cost more than either of the Pueblo locations (“I don’t know exactly, because we still have engineers in here trying to figure out the wall and the floors — it’s more than I would like.”) but he’s confident of turning a profit quickly.
“In Pueblo, it took five years,” he said. “It stopped really hemorrhaging money after three years. This thing will be profitable in, like, two months.”
The major difference: It’s really hard to start a business from scratch.
“In Pueblo, nobody knew who we were. We were these dudes from Oregon. We were in a dead downtown district, so that was a challenge. But we built up a huge following down there, and our southside [Pueblo] store opened right out of the gate outselling our original downtown store. … Then this store, we ran a ton of [geographic information system] numbers for traffic, and the numbers are significantly higher than either of the Pueblo stores. So the ability to outperform our Pueblo stores is here. We’ll find out.
“Once you get that ‘Open’ sign illuminated, everything is known,” he added. “It’s just the process from signing the lease to getting open — that’s four months of unknown.”
Solar Roast currently has 35 employees, and will add 10 more in the Springs. For Hartkop, they’re the heart of the business.
“We really work hard to be as friendly as possible,” he said. “Some coffee houses you go in and the baristas are almost standoffish. They get upset because a Starbucks customer will come in and want, like, a caramel macchiato with two different milk preferences and whipped cream and then a quarter-shot of decaf wedged in there somewhere.
“We say, ‘That’s okay, let’s just do it. We may not have made that before, but it’s our job to make something that you’re going to like. It’s not our job to tell you what to do — it’s our job to give you what you want from us.’
“Our attitude and spirit is: Be kind to the customer, and the customer will be kind to you.”
Solar Roast Coffee
Location: 226 N. Main St., Pueblo; 134 N. Tejon St., Colorado Springs
Contact: email@example.com; 719-544-3515; solarroast.com