In the middle of America’s West Coast, there’s a little California beach town called Santa Cruz. The waves are dotted with surfers, and the always-sunny streets are filled with easy-going walkers and skateboarders. Nicknamed “Surf City, USA,” the town is surf culture in its purest form—and unapologetically so. Home to Santa Cruz Skateboards and coffee powerhouse Verve Coffee, Santa Cruz has forged a culture completely its own.
Chris Baca and Jared Truby lived the Santa Cruz life during their combined thirteen years in founding leadership positions at Verve. In September of 2016, after a few years dabbling in other projects and locales, they returned to open their own café and roastery, Cat & Cloud Coffee.
You might already be familiar with the Baca and Truby duo, who seem to operate as a single unit. (They’ve even used the combined-name moniker “Trubaca.”) Both are competition vets, and boast an array of regional and national Brewers Cup and Barista Championship trophies between them.
But even more recognizable since their departures from Verve, Baca and Truby have blogged, forum-posted, Tweeted, YouTubed, Instagrammed, Snapchatted, Kickstarted, and podcasted their way into the hearts of thousands of followers with their thoughts on espresso and the coffee industry, becoming known for their signature GoPro-fisheye angle on life as coffee professionals.
I visited Baca and Truby at the café, eager to learn more about how they arrived in this place, living their dream.
“We’ve had the Cat & Cloud dream since we met, but we didn’t know it would manifest in this way,” Baca starts.
“We got serious talking about it around 2014—that’s when the wheels started turning,” Truby finishes (yes, they finish each other’s sentences).
Situated on a busy corner of a commuter artery, the 1300-square-foot space is just a five-minute walk from the original Verve Coffee. The proximity isn’t weird—at least not for Cat & Cloud. Baca says he was confident there would be room for them in a place like Santa Cruz with so few specialty coffee options. He lives walking distance from both cafés and continues to be a regular Verve customer.
Like most coastal town buildings, Cat & Cloud is a single-story, ranch-style building, easily passable for one of the town’s many beach houses or surf shops. It’s flanked by walk-up windows, palm trees, and patio seating. The glass doors and windows let in so much light the room glows, showing off custom wood-tile countertops—built by Janine Stone of If You Give a Girl a Saw, and Mikey Gaumann—and a whimsical, colorful cat and boat mural by Nick Vargas. A picture window frames a Poseidon-green San Franciscan SF25 roaster and a small production area.
Though my visit was just a couple of months after their opening, the atmosphere was as comfortable and welcoming as if the café and roastery had been running for years. The entire staff was smiling, and it wasn’t unusual to see them bust out a dance move between making drinks. Customers were already regular enough to have first-name rapport with the staff.
The congenial atmosphere of Cat & Cloud reflects Baca and Truby’s playfulness. But the business partners are driven by much deeper convictions than drinking coffee and doing skateboard tricks. Their individual desires to build something great from a foundation of coffee strongly influenced the design of Cat & Cloud.
“Our friendship was one thing for sure, but we’ve always had similar ideas about coffee,” Baca says. “We approach problem solving in very different ways. We often arrive at the same conclusions but have different trains of thoughts for doing it . . . which makes for a good teamwork situation.”
The Cat & Cloud duo plan to open three more stores, with an equity incentive built in for long-term employees to promote longevity. “We want to provide [our staff with the] ability to actually have a career in coffee without them having to step away from their passions,” Truby says. He expresses frustration that many people are forced to abandon jobs as roasters or baristas to make a more stable living in coffee. “That’s why I’m doing this: to do something bigger than myself and provide for [my staff].”
While Truby has been inspired to action by people, Baca finds drive in being an ideas guy. “Creative expression is very important to me in work and life, so for me to feel fulfilled and know I’m having an impact on the world around me, I need to have the freedom to exercise my brain and turn crazy ideas into reality,” he explains. “I couldn’t find a place to make that happen so I had to create that for myself here.”
Jointly, they also felt compelled to pursue a distinct style of coffee. “There’s a lot of good coffee out there, but nobody was providing exactly what we wanted,” Baca says. “To get what we wanted in a flavor profile, we had to create it ourselves.”
What does that profile look like? “When you drink the coffee, it has enough character to where you can tell it’s something special but you’re not forced to think about it if you don’t want to,” he explains. “You can totally drink the whole cup and not think twice about it, and go about your day. But if you wanted to engage, that door is also open.”
Truby chimes in, explaining that many coffee companies suggest their coffee is “for everybody,” but fail to use it that way. “We like the idea of the coffee actually being ubiquitous,” he says.
Cat & Cloud designed a do-everything blend—called the Answer—to be used as their everyday batch brew, as well as one of their espresso offerings. “If you order coffee, it’s gonna be the Answer. If you order a milk drink, it’s also gonna be The Answer,” Truby says.
Baca and Truby had their hearts set on doing things their way, so they set up their business—with third partner Charles Jack, their green buyer and numbers guy—without outside investment. The Cat & Cloud build-out has been paid for through a combination of personal funds, an SBA-backed bank loan, and crowd-funding via Kickstarter. “It’s nice to have 100 percent decision-making power,” Baca says. “Since we don’t have deep pockets, it forces us to run the business well. There’s no backup money.”
Truby adds that foregoing investors made for a risky endeavor; both men sunk everything they had into the business to be able to open the doors. “It was real. It was super hard. But totally worth it.”
Look & Listen
Instagram: @CatCloudCoffee; @RealChrisBaca; @JTrubaca
Podcast: Coffee Podcast by Cat & Cloud (nominated for 2016 Best Coffee Podcast Sprudgie Award)
YouTube Channel: RealChrisBaca (nominated for 2016 Best Coffee Video Sprudgie Award)
By the Cup (“BTC”): A coffee “shot” made on a La Marzocco Strada AV (3.5 bar pressure, 21 grams in, 60-second brew cycle).
1&1: Truby and Baca were the originators of the now ubiquitous 1&1, so naturally it’s on the menu. A split-shot served side by side as espresso and a single-shot macchiato.
Make Out: 4.5 ounces espresso & milk
Flat White: 7 ounces double shot & milk
Creamy Beige: Espresso, half-and-half, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, and espresso grounds; blended with ice.
—Elizabeth Chai is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance designer, illustrator, and photographer.