By Julia Purdy
For several months the traveler on Route 4 has had nowhere to take a lunch/coffee break in the 10-mile stretch between the Killington Deli and Mama T’s at the bottom of the pass. The former Bridge’s Country Store on Route 4 in Mendon, vacant and on the market for several months, is about to reopen in May as De Palo Coffee, a mom-and-pop café and roastery with a Nicaraguan accent.
The Mountain Times encountered Dennis and Amanda O’Connor at their spot in the Winter Farmers’ Market on West Street, where they serve up home-brewed Nicaraguan coffee and hard chocolate.
Until now, the couple has been roasting and selling coffee out of their home in Pomfret as well as at area farmers’ markets.
In their new permanent location in Mendon, they will roast coffee and sell the beans, hot coffee, espresso-based drinks, cold brew and baked goods as well as lunch “Nica style” with fresh fruit juice and smoothies, “just like in Nicaragua,” Dennis told the Mountain Times.
The O’Connors closed on the property last fall. “Mendon was a strategic decision,” Dennis said. “The location is great, the people are great, Rutland is the third biggest city in Vermont, just minutes away. The state has been really nice about it,” he added.
“De palo” means literally, “from the tree,” O’Connor explained. “When you ask someone in Nicaragua, what coffee is this, if they reply, ‘It’s café de palo,’ then you know the coffee was grown and harvested by the family themselves. We say ‘seed to cup’ here to describe this idea.”
Why Nicaraguan coffee in particular?
Amanda O’Connor grew up in a community outside of the small city of Jalapa, Nueva Segovia, where her family has grown coffee since she was a child. Amanda graduated with an associate degree in animal husbandry and agronomy from a state polytechnical college in Nicaragua.
The couple met and married during Dennis’ Peace Corps service there, 2009 to 2012. Since 2013 the couple have owned and operated a 22-acre farm outside Jalapa, growing fruits and vegetables and reforesting the land with mahogany and fruit trees. Amanda’s mother works on the farm with one full-time and several seasonal hands. The O’Connors return to the farm once a year.
“Our connection to the farmers there is strong,” Dennis said.
Dennis returned to the U.S. in 2014, and Amanda and their son finally got their papers and came in 2016, he said.
Dennis attended Woodstock Union High School and graduated from Champlain College with a degree in international business. Before entering the Peace Corps, he worked as manager of a Subway and a gas station in White River and got to know the business end of things.
The family plans to live in the apartment above the store. The couple are optimistic about the condition of the building, which dates from 1810. It was already a store, Dennis pointed out. It needs some work but has been kept up “here and there,” he said.
The O’Connors do not plan to hire employees right away.
“For now, it’s just us,” Dennis said. “We are not going to hire employees until we get off the ground.” Finding reliable employees is “a major difficulty in most businesses,” he said candidly. “The costs and making sure they show up and do what they’re supposed to do is a major problem.”
Photo y Julia Purdy
Amanda and Dennis O’Connor, owners of De Palo Coffee, serve up fresh-ground Nicaraguan coffee at the Winter Farmers’ Market in Rutland.