Tucked away in a box canyon in the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, Telluride is an intriguing place. The first time I went, I was convinced that the building facades of Colorado Avenue—the town’s main thoroughfare—might fall down, as if I was on a film set, with the fronts perfectly maintained and charming, but backed only by bare-bones scaffolding.
Despite the feeling that this was a bit of a dream world, Telluride is in fact a real place, and a special one. I have come to love this small town, as I have been going to Telluride every spring for the past six years for the Mountainfilm festival. While attending this year, I got to check out one of the town’s newest additions, Ghost Town Grocer.
Opened earlier this spring by locals Drew Ludwig and Meghann McCormick, and housed in a bright turquoise-and-green building situated on a courtyard, Ghost Town has quickly made a name for itself on the Telluride food and coffee scene. But it’s more than just a coffee shop: part cafe, part grocery, part art space, part community hub, Ghost Town is an attempt at seeing if business can be done differently.
Inspired by Berlin’s no-packaging market Original Unverpackt, one of Ghost Town’s main goals is to reduce waste and packaging. If you order a coffee to go, you’ll be encouraged to take it in one of the cafe’s mugs, to be brought back at your leisure. “And they always do,” says McCormick, quelling any fears that people run off and hoard the mugs for personal use.
Almost everything on Ghost Town's menu is made in-house, including the almond milk and cashew cream cheese. Anything not made in-house is carefully sourced. Dense loaves of bread come from a baker in Norwood, a little over 30 miles down canyon. Those loaves are sliced for Ghost Town’s toast offering, which ranges from cucumber and hummus with micro-greens to avocado with sliced egg and chili oil.
This sort of thing might sound rather familiar to cafe-goers, but what makes Ghost Town different is that all of the ingredients used in the food are also for sale. “Design constraints build ingenuity, and we had to get creative,” says Ludwig, highlighting the fact that Ghost Town is small, only about 500 square feet. “We had to have our front stock be our back stock, and that sounds a lot like a grocery store. So we made our coffee shop a tiny grocer and our tiny grocer a coffee shop. Basically, my ideal kitchen/pantry became public.” So in addition to your coffee, you can pick up not just fresh ingredients but also jars of some of those tasty house-made treats, like salted date-caramel sauce.
The two business partners both come from service-industry backgrounds. Locals know McCormick as the former owner of The Steaming Bean, a coffee shop across the street from Ghost Town that closed last year, and while this is the first cafe Ludwig has owned, he isn’t new to the business. “I grew up with family in the restaurant business, so I knew I definitely didn’t want to do that,” he says, with a sense of irony.
“I had to re-evaluate what I was actually resisting when I was running from the family business. It was probably just the typical bullshit we all carry around as the sons and daughters of our parents. I shed that, and what I found was a desire to live in this region and do something worthwhile. And what I think is worthwhile is providing a space that elicits a creative response and produces a decent cup of coffee.”
For that decent cup of coffee (which will be served to you in one of those assorted second-hand ceramic mugs) there is a selection of beans from Colorado specialty roasters like Ozo Coffee Company, Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters, and Boxcar Coffee Roasters.
Sticking with the in-house theme, the design and build were all handled by the Ghost Town team. Ludwig is a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, and you can truly see his attention to every detail, both large and small. The bar is on casters so it can be moved to create more space because you never know when you’re going to need to have a dance party. McCormick tells me there are special design details all around the space; I found a few—the traffic light above the bathroom door is green when it's free, but turns red when someone enters)—but you should visit to spot others for yourself.
As Ghost Town is only a few months old, there are lots of plans in the works, and Ludwig and McCormick are still trying to figure out what works best in terms of helping their vision run smoothly. “We’re still making decisions every day,” says McCormick. “It’s an ever-evolving art project.”
This all gives the space a relaxed feel, not forced or curated. The furniture and fixtures are mostly secondhand, and there is an artist’s touch everywhere you look—including the colorful pickled-food installation, the work of Kelli Rae Adams, who sourced all of the ingredients for the installation from local farms. While the installation wasn't intended for sale, people have in fact come in and bought jars of pickles, which have since been replaced by empty jars instead. Ghost Town also houses the Clute Science Fiction Library, with books available to loan.
No matter what it looks like or what it holds, what really sets Ghost Town apart is Ludwig and McCormick’s approach to doing business. “We are just trying to put good food out there from good places and for the good of the community. It would be nice to pay ourselves at some point, as I hear that is what a business is supposed to do, but damn it’s hard to find our inner capitalists,” says Ludwig. “I am more excited about generating conversation about public art and public space while developing our own sense of self through culture. Food and culture are woven together.”
In that sense, Ghost Town is not just a cafe or a tiny grocer, but a reflection of what they “would like to cultivate in this community,” says McCormick. All with a plate of good food and a good cup of coffee.
Anna Brones (@annabrones) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in the American Pacific Northwest, the founder of Foodie Underground, and the co-author of Fika: The Art Of The Swedish Coffee Break. Read more Anna Brones on Sprudge.