Try Vail Mountain Coffee & Tea in Downieville en route to ski trip

Editor’s note: This is part of The Know’s series, Staff Favorites. Each week, we offer our opinions on the best that Colorado has to offer for dining, shopping, entertainment, outdoor activities and more. (We’ll also let you in on some hidden gems).

The next time you’re in the mood for a pitstop en route to skiing, I suggest you try Vail Mountain Coffee & Tea at Downieville.

Located 6 miles west of Idaho Springs, Vail Mountain Coffee features excellent coffee and delicious grab-and-go food at a convenient exit off of Interstate 70. The shop replaced the Starbucks there last summer and became my favorite place for coffee in the mountains. It shares space with a Breeze Ski Rentals location, parking is easy, and there’s a gas station next door.

Vail Mountain Coffee is not owned by Vail Resorts, but partners with Vail Resorts at Beaver Creek and the Downieville location. Its headquarters is in Minturn, where employees do their own roasting.

The store stocks empanadas from The Argentos in Silverthorne, which was featured as a Denver Post Staff Favorite in 2021, and deli sandwiches from Marczyk Fine Foods in Denver. (The only other food options in Downieville are a Taco Bell and the Sinclair gas station, which serves Subway sandwiches.)

“Downieville was kind of a food desert, but because all of our food is wholesome and healthy and fresh, there is an alternative now at Exit 234,” said Vail Mountain Coffee co-owner Chris Chantler.

The roots of Vail Mountain Coffee date back to the 1980s when Chantler and partner Craig Arseneau were living in Boston. Specialty coffee was just becoming a thing, and Starbucks was still concentrated in the greater Seattle area.

“We really got turned on to just how good specialty coffee was,” Chantler said. “All of a sudden, it was a giant leap.”

After a great ski trip to Vail, they began thinking that’s where they should open their own specialty coffee shop. In 1989, while on a ski trip to Europe, they watched on television as Vail hosted the world alpine ski championships for the first time. That convinced them it was time to pursue their dream.

“We’re like, ‘Wow, we’ve just got to pull the trigger, the whole world is watching Vail. It’s going to put Vail on the global ski map,” Chantler said. “And that’s exactly what happened. Vail had this exponential growth as this international destination resort.” In fact, the Vail Valley would host additional world championships — the biggest event in skiing, outside of the Olympics — in 1999 and 2015.

Arseneau and Chantler opened their first coffee shop,  the Daily Grind, in November 1989 on Bridge Street in Vail Village. Two more Daily Grind locations followed in Denver, and the team began doing their own roasting, creating the Vail Mountain Coffee brand in 1992.

Eventually, the pair closed the retail stores to concentrate on roasting for wholesale. Today, Vail Mountain Coffee is sold in 180 Kroger grocery stores (King Soopers and City Market). Chantler estimates they import half a million pounds of coffee beans annually from around the world.

They got back into the retail business recently when Vail Resorts phased out its leasing relationship with Starbucks. Vail Mountain Coffee & Tea took over a slopeside Starbucks at Beaver Creek before replacing the Downieville Starbucks last August.

Recently, Chantler showed me the roastery in Minturn and walked me through the process. He was passionate about sharing his knowledge. But, he said, it’s not just about coffee. The company supports a women’s empowerment project in Colombia that was set up for widows who lost their husbands in the conflicts waged there for decades by far-left guerillas, the government, far-right paramilitary groups and criminal drug enterprises. It also supports a co-op owned by coffee farmers in Costa Rica.

“We wanted to be able to say we’re a coffee company with purpose, and the purpose was to help enhance the lives of our suppliers and our partners,” Chantler said. “It sounds like a good marketing tagline, but that’s what it was all about. We do it because that’s what you should do. It makes me sleep well at night.”

Vail Mountain Coffee & Tea is located at 999 Co Rd 308 in Downieville.

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