When Brandon DelGrosso moved to Portland in 2007, he thought he had found his ideal city. He appreciated the urban energy, the walkable city blocks, and the local coffee shops. While he completed his second master’s in Education at Multnomah University, he was also working part-time as a school recruiter, which meant that part of his job was to hype up the city to prospective students—an easy task in a place he loved.
Then he graduated and had to leave. After applying to 54 teaching positions and receiving rejections from each one—most schools had already filled their fall positions by the time he graduated in May—DelGrosso decided to take the only opportunity on offer. He moved into his in-laws’ basement with his wife and newborn daughter and got a part-time gig refereeing middle school soccer at a Colorado Springs YMCA.
The city was a sprawling suburb that wasn’t walkable and had terrible public transit. The food and drink scene was dominated by chains. “I didn’t want to move to Colorado Springs,” DelGrosso admits. When he lived in Portland, DelGrosso had taken prospective students on tours to third-wave coffee shops, where baristas brewed pour-overs with beans that had been roasted in the same building. In Colorado Springs in 2010, Starbucks was still most people’s idea of high-end coffee.
Of all the areas that might be lacking in Colorado Springs, coffee was one that DelGrosso felt he could do something about. He and his friend Kyle Collins drafted a business plan, found a few investors, and bought a tiny, eight-pound roaster. They set it up in Collins’ garage, along with a couple couches and a small retail bar. They sold beans to friends and family members willing to spend a little extra on craft coffee, and DelGrosso educated them on the finer details of home brewing. Even when he made rookie mistakes, weighing beans with a scoop instead of a scale—”What an idiot!” he says now, laughing—he still loved it.
“We were just having fun,” DelGrosso says. “Roasting coffee. Building relationships.”
Beyond their garage business, the broader Colorado Springs coffee scene was evolving. New coffee shops started springing up throughout the city, the Principal’s Office, Urban Steam, and Wild Goose all opening within six months of each other. DelGrosso moved to a bigger garage, then a warehouse, and in 2015 opened the coffee shop that would later be known as Switchback Coffee Roasters. Third-wave coffee was arriving in full force.
Still, DelGrosso dreamed of bigger horizons. Even after he had his own shop, he continued to think about leaving town. Despite the growing community in coffee and beer, Colorado Springs still lacked many of the cultural elements he had admired in Portland. He would talk with college students studying photography or graphic design and hear over and over that they planned to leave town once they graduated. They couldn’t find opportunities in Colorado Springs, so they were headed to bigger cities.
Then DelGrosso’s mindset shifted. He had been noticing problems as if he were a passive observer, waiting on factors beyond his control. But what if he could be a part of the change he hoped to see in his city?
“The problem ultimately created a desire to create the solution,” DelGrosso says. “So that’s where we started trying to collaborate with as many local folks as we could and start to see each other as each other’s champions.”
DelGrosso began implementing the changes he wanted to see. He wanted a city where excellent coffee was available for everyone, so he included a “Pay What You Can” option for Switchback’s drip offerings. He wanted to live in a city where up-and-coming talents are supported, so he started mentoring younger baristas—including a young woman who plans to open a coffee shop in southern Colorado Springs in the next year. He wanted to live in a city where collaboration trumps competition, so he forged connections with other coffee shops in town.
When Sam Neely and Evan Schubarth (now Browning), two Switchback baristas, started preparing for USCC, the premier coffee competition in the US, they joined other local baristas as allies instead of adversaries. Experienced baristas from Hold Fast and Loyal came together to lend their expertise and prepare. Don and Carissa Niemyer of Story Coffee had experience as USCC judges, so they lent insider know-how. So when Neely and Schubarth placed in the 2018 and 2019 competition, DelGrosso knew it was a win not just for two baristas, or even for Switchback—but for Colorado Springs.
This breed of slow, collaborative work is what DelGrosso now sees as Colorado Springs’ DNA. During COVID, when many small businesses were in danger of closing for good, business owners fought to retain that collaborative spirit. When things were at their worst, Brandon DelGrosso teamed up with a local videographer, Stephen Martin, to develop a “thank you” video to Colorado Springs. Rather than only featuring Switchback, they chose to feature as many small businesses as possible.
But COVID also pinpointed underlying challenges for Colorado Springs, including a broken supply chain. While individuals may get a CSA or shop at a farmer’s market, the local food industry is largely disconnected from local farms. Funding for small businesses continues to be scarce, and any person wanting to start something new must have a high capacity for risk. DelGrosso hesitates to speak negatively of any other business in town. Still, he admits that he wishes there were a Colorado Springs Biscuit Company rather than a slew of new Denver-owned restaurants. He notes, “The capital doesn’t stay in our city.”
Once again, he’s experimenting in that same spirit of exploration and excellence that characterized his initial efforts. DelGrosso is working to open a bakery in late spring of this year, and his goals are lofty. He plans to connect with local farms that use regenerative practices, allowing for ingredients that are nutrient-rich and sustainable. He sees this as another opportunity for education and a chance to help people understand where their food comes from and how their money influences the supply chain. He says, “We can potentially be a part of changing the way that Colorado Springs eats.”
Ten years ago, Brandon DelGrosso wanted to live in a different city. Ironically, he is now keen to keep Colorado Springs from becoming another Portland. He doesn’t want to see our city become more gentrified, and he wants us to keep our collaborative culture.
“I don’t want to leave Colorado Springs,” he says. “I’ve fallen in love with this city, and I want other people to love it as much as I do.”