Saturday, April 6, 2013


What a surprise to find an espresso cafe in a running store,   especially one with the unusual name of ZombieRunner.  The shop occupies the former space of The Fine Arts movie theater, where I saw  Ghostbusters in the 1980s, and Joan Baez sat in front of me.   Someone said ZombieRunner makes delicious coffee, so I was curious, but somewhat dubious that a running store would offer good coffee.   A bookstore, yes, but a running store?   It seemed like an odd combination to me.

429 South California Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 

I began drinking coffee in the l960s and was a regular consumer of Peets, long before it became a national brand.  Their second retail store opened in our town, and it was a regular hangout for me and my friends on Saturday mornings.  Making coffee at home was a daily ritual that I loved.  I ground Major Dickason coffee beans for exactly fifteen seconds, boiled water in an electric teakettle, and let the water cool to a perfect temperature,  which took about a minute.  Using a Bodum French press, I put the ground coffee in the glass cylinder, slowly poured in the hot water while I lovingly stirred with a wooden chopstick used only for this purpose.  All of these steps were essential for the coffee to burst with intense flavor.  I did this every morning for many years, and I shunned the ease of a multi-cup drip pot because the coffee tasted burnt and bitter.

Despite the devotion to my morning ritual and love for flavorful coffee, my husband and I gave up caffeine and then eventually quit drinking coffee altogether,  mainly for health reasons.  I was getting weird heart palpitations.  My husband was waking up often during the night and not able to go back to sleep.  His complaints seemed significant enough to warrant a sleep study, but the doctor said the tests were normal.  

Although no one mentioned coffee as a possible culprit,  I told Bruce we should kick the habit and switch to decaf.  He said, "I can never give up my caffeine.  It's what gets me through the day."  He was so adamant that I dropped my case, but I had another idea up my sleeve.  Without his knowing it, I started to add a few decaf beans to the caffeinated beans in the grinder every day, and because it was done gradually over a month or so, he didn't notice the difference.  Neither did I.  Some time later when friends mentioned wanting to get off caffeine, Bruce boasted, "Yes, Pam wanted me to give up caffeine too, but I told her No way, Jose."

Now is the time to tell him the truth, I thought.  "Bruce,"  I said, "you've been drinking decaf for at least two months now.  Then I went on to say how I made this happen.  Everyone broke up laughing, including Bruce, thankfully, and while I'm sorry I tricked him,  he was successfully weaned off caffeine and happy to be sleeping through the night.  And my heart palpitations stopped too.

So, for several years I made decaffeinated coffee every morning, but over time our desire for even decaf lessened.  Before long we stopped drinking coffee entirely,  and we weren't missing it a bit.  Our addiction was gone.

Then about six months ago,  I decided I wanted to drink coffee again, mainly decaf but with some caffeine now and then.   I missed having a cup to sip while reading the morning paper.  Bruce had no interest at all in resuming, so I would frequently walk up the street to Peets and have a delicious cappuccino while reading the daily news.  But Peets was expensive and also fattening,  since I often added a blackberry scone to my order.  The coffee making ritual I used to love was no longer appealing.  My coffee bean grinder became a spice grinder, and my French press was stored somewhere out in the garage.  Then I heard about the Keurig coffee maker and decided this machine might solve my one cup need.  So, for the last four months I've been using the Keurig machine,  and it works for me,  although the coffee is not as robust and full bodied as what I made in the French press or bought at Peets.  

When I arrived at ZombieRunner, the line was out the door.  Most of the people looked like computer geeks who worked nearby.  No one was dressed in running clothes or did anyone in the line look particularly athletic.  I sidestepped the coffee line, walked into the retail store and was blown away. 


There on the wall was a huge selection of colorful running shoes of high-end brands I recognized.  Over on the shelf was a plethora of energy foods like Heed,  Perpetuem, and Recoverite, products I also use for cycling.  

On the racks was a wonderful array of running clothes -- shorts, moisture absorbing tees, halter tops, tights, and rain jackets.    I saw a section with aids for injuries,  like knee straps, elasticized ankle wraps and special socks for sufferers of plantar fasciitis.  I even found some wool socks I can wear for cycling, and they also had a good supply of hydration systems, like Camelbaks, which bicyclists also use.  As I wandered around the store touching and feeling, I could smell the wonderful aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafting in the air.    This was my kind of place.

Gillian and Don, the owners of ZombieRunner, said the store has
Gillian and Don
been open about four and a half years,  but earlier they sold products on line for five.  They are both ultra runners who have participated in the Western States event many times -- a 100 mile run over the Sierra Nevada Mountains-- which is maybe why they call their store ZombieRunner.  But,  in addition to their love of running long distances, they are also passionate about coffee.  "We buy our beans from a small local business who roasts for us four or five times a week," Gillian said.    

Zach and Christina, the well-trained baristas working behind the bar, listened carefully to my coffee history, about how I ordered a long pull cappuccino from Peets, and how I enjoy a robust flavor,  but don't want the buzz from caffeine.  They smiled at me and said, "We can do better."  And they did.  Within a few minutes I was looking down at a cup of cappuccino with a beautiful creamy design.   "Hmm, this tastes a little bitter," I said, after taking my first sip.  "That will happen," Zach replied.  "Just take another sip.  The bitterness will disappear, and you will be tasting sweet, then intensity, and then you will fall in love.  And you won't get hyper because your coffee was made with decaffeinated beans from Ethiopia."  I followed his sipping directions, and he was absolutely right.  The bitterness disappeared after the first taste, and the intense coffee flavor came through like gangbusters, not ghostbusters.

Zach knew his stuff, telling me how ZombieRunners is a purveyor of Third Wave Coffee.   I'd never heard of such a term before, so when I got home I checked Wikipedia and this is what it said:  "Third Wave coffee refers to a current movement to produce high-quality coffee and consider coffee as an artisanal foodstuff, like wine, rather than a commodity.  This involves improvements at all stages of production, from improving coffee bean growing, harvesting, and processing, to stronger relationships between coffee growers and coffee traders and roasters, to higher quality and fresh roasting, at times called microroasting (by analogy with microbrewing beer).  Third Wave Coffee aspires to the highest form of culinary appreciation of coffee."     After reading this  description, I was reminded of the Slow Food Movement that started in Italy many years ago and has now spread successfully around the world.

I swooned.  While I've always loved the flavor of strong, intense coffee, this taste was different, something new, and really, really smooth.   Along with a great cup of coffee, I loved that Zach,  the barista,  gave me the background on why ZombieRunner's handcrafted coffee is unique and how it is made    "I can't wait to email my coffee-loving girlfriends," I told him,  as I scribbled down the word Third Wave.

"Hey, if you love our coffee, try the amazing chocolate at The Chocolate Garage," Christina called out to me as I floated towards the door.  I looked back at her in disbelief.  Chocolate?  Did you say Chocolate?    "You will find it on Gilman Street.  It's awesome chocolate just like our awesome coffee, " she said.    Music to my ears.

I'll write about The Chocolate Garage, I promise.  For someone who has lived in the Bay Area for more than forty years, I love hearing about new finds.

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