This story was produced through the Daily Yonder Rural Reporting Fellowship, with support from the LOR Foundation. LOR works with people in rural places to improve quality of life.
Kelly Gregory had dreamed of opening a coffee shop for thirty years.
After working as a middle school science teacher for over a decade, Gregory took the first step and started Kelly’s Kitchen. She sold packaged food at the summer farmers market in Dolores (Population 904), Colorado, where she’s lived for the past 25 years.
And after nearly three years of growing her food business, on December 15th, 2022, her dream of operating a coffee shop came true. Gregory opened a brick-and-mortar cafe in Dolores.
This may sound like a story you’ve heard before, but this one is built on the particular type of community that comes from living in a small town. The type where your neighbors are always happy to lend a hand or build a bench. The type built over decades of creating and tending to relationships.
The town of Dolores sits on the Dolores River in Montezuma County, Colorado, in the southwest corner of the state. The town has a brewery, a small grocery store, a library, a post office, and now her coffee shop.
For Gregory, starting her business could not be separated from the town’s community. Her menu developed from food that friends and family loved over the years.
“For some reason, I had made like two or three dozen carrot cake cupcakes. I took all these cupcakes over to the playground and my friend Scott said, you should sell these, and I was like, huh, okay,” said Gregory, about one of the first products that she sold at the farmers market during the summer of 2020.
Her niece helped out with the original farmers market booth when she was 12, and now works in the cafe. When Gregory started remodeling the cafe, a friend built an outdoor bench in exchange for coffee and burritos. Another friend gave her a deal on graphic design and her brother helped build the bar, counters, and decorative metalwork. The owners of the building, also friends, helped with the interior remodel.
“It’s all community effort,” said Gregory.
She built up to the physical location step by step. Early on, as the summer of 2020 wound down, a friend who worked at the local brewery asked her to set up in their beer garden and sell appetizers.
Throughout the winter of 2020 and the following years, Gregory started developing an even deeper fan base in the Dolores and broader Montezuma county region. She already had plenty of friends who loved her cooking, but as she became a regular at the farmers market and started serving dinners at the local brewery, her food became beloved by strangers who stopped in looking for a bite to eat. Gregory served chicken katsu sandwiches and curry on Wednesday nights, and taco nights continued on Thursdays.
By the end of 2022, Kelly’s Kitchen had expanded to selling packaged products at retailers around the county, as well as driving her food truck all over.
Food trucks are a common sight around Montezuma County, especially at the many breweries and cideries that are not able to have their own kitchen. They make the rounds, to the farmers’ markets, breweries, and outdoor events all summer long. But Gregory said they’re unpredictable.
“There are no guarantees with the weather. Every time the weather is bad. Especially if you’re in a food truck, it’s like, ooh, you know, you’re gonna take a hit and people are gonna stay home,” said Gregory. And because they used a separate kitchen to prep, life in the food truck involved lugging food in and out of the food truck every day.
So in 2022, Gregory began the search for a commercial kitchen where she could have a home base. She found the historic Exon Mercantile building, which had recently been bought by the owners of Kokopelli Bike and Board, a local bike shop. Kelly’s Kitchen remodeled the side of the building unoccupied by Kokopelli into a kitchen and cafe space.
When asked about how she felt about starting a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Gregory said, “I guess I just took the leap. I had a customer base, I had staff and those things are hard to get. It’s hard to get loyal customers if you haven’t served them anything. And so I took a leap of faith, like hopefully they’ll show up and want to eat breakfast or lunch.”
And people did want to eat Kelly’s Kitchen’s food. Since opening in December of 2022, the cafe has become a community gathering place for the town of Dolores. It’s one of the only places to get a cup of coffee, especially if you want anything other than black coffee. This summer, Kelly’s Kitchen plans on expanding to have a patio and serve brunch, complete with mimosas.
Over the past three years of the covid-19 pandemic, four brick-and-mortar food service businesses in Dolores have either closed or changed ownership. At least one of these restaurants was started by a new-to-town family. It closed after only a year in business.
“It helps when you know some people,” said Gregory, “When I think about people who do what I did, but they didn’t sell anybody anything until the sign was up and the food was in the kitchen and the staff was in the kitchen. That’s a real gamble. That’s why I think a lot of people lose. Especially if you don’t know people it would be really challenging.”