The main drag of Ninth Street holds a bounty of goods and services for the mid-Missouri town of Columbia. If you walk towards downtown from the University of Missouri campus and duck into Alley A past the famous burgers at Booche’s, you’ll enter the world of Shortwave Coffee.
Owner and proprietor Dale Bassham named the shop as an ode to his father and grandfather’s radio repair skills for the Missouri Highway Patrol. A lo-fi element ties the shop together. Wooden panels adorn the walls. There’s no intuitive place for a line to queue up, so the coffee bar operates more like a speakeasy saloon with a large menu board anchoring one end. Coffee is roasted six pounds at a time on a robin’s egg blue San Franciscan with a “stopwatch, a throttle and an Excel spreadsheet.” Espresso is pulled via levers on a Victoria Arduino Athena. Offerings are minimal, and drinks are centered around espresso and pour-over coffee. A record player stands at attention ready to spin vinyl.
“I like the fact that there are no motherboards in my equipment,” says Bassham. “There’s a tactile sort of sensation that I really enjoy. I like having grinders, I have clackers on them, it’s fun. If I were designing from the ground up with a gigantic sort of budget, it would probably be a different space, a different feel. You design whatever bar build out you have to the space that you’re going in, and I think that really fit what we do here. It just fit our space.”
“We bootstrapped the place within an inch of its life,” continues Bassham on the topic of Shortwave’s speedy design, a quick renovation from a previous coffee business that left the space vacant. “A year and change [later], we’ve got employees, we’ve got different offerings…right now I’ve got two Ethiopians and a Kenyan on the menu and those are the kind of coffees that really excite me.”
Bassham originally got into coffee after his first post-college job went under. Needing employment quickly, he began working at a Barnes & Noble Starbucks cafe. Despite not having a taste for coffee at the time, Bassham found himself managing the location within six months. The coffee bug bit him after that, and he left for the smaller confines of Grace Cafe in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to jump in with both feet. A year later, Bassham moved to St. Louis to work for Kaldi’s Coffee. He dove deeper into coffee, even dedicating his days off towards the cause.
“Most of the time I was just hanging out at the roastery, anything that I could do to hang out with those guys and learn and just keep myself interested and occupied,” Bassham says. “I was taking notes the whole time. I had no idea. I just said, ‘I just want to work in coffee, who knows what the future holds, right?'”
Bassham moved to Columbia after being introduced to his future wife by mutual friends during a visit to the city. He transferred to the Kaldi’s Columbia outpost. Bassham recalls being teased by his wife, who asked him “Aren’t you tired of telling people you don’t own the place when they ask you?” His response? “Well, yeah.”
“We just started developing this plan,” he says. “I gave it a solid year where I managed a standardized testing facility, and that job was about as awful as you can imagine it being.”
Since opening its doors last year, Shortwave Coffee has been spreading the Third Wave into the 573 area code. Bassham points out that the space’s unorthodox bar layout is on purpose and helps engage customers with their simple, pared-down offerings, maybe helps them branch out a little.
“You don’t want to be the guy that’s like, ‘You have to enjoy coffee my way,’ because coffee with a little bit of milk in it’s pretty tasty,” says Bassham.
“I think if you’re going to spend four and five bucks a cup though, taste the different thing that makes it unique and special—that’s a pretty common philosophy,” he continues. “No one else in town is really doing that here. Everybody fills that niche and does what they do, and I think they do it well. For what I wanted, I wanted the kind of coffee that I would enjoy every day. It’s exciting to see that people are into it, because otherwise [this] would be kind of a quiet place.”