Meet Your Merchant: Keeping tradition at Tunnel Creek Café
March 12, 2014
What: Tunnel Creek Café
Location: 1115 Tunnel Creek Road
Max Jones pedaled up mountains, raced past farmhouses and rode through many a small village in Europe. The cafés at the end of each trail, nestled in the woods of some small town, colored his experience and inspired him to open his own coffee shop and eatery.
Home again in Tahoe, Max now owns Tunnel Creek Café, located at the end of the Flume Trail.
The athlete still spends time on the trail, but his days are also dedicated to perfecting a cup of joe.
"Trails start and end, and there's a place just like this," Jones said. "A place to grab a coffee before you start your day."
“We feel strongly that the biggest sin you can have in an area like Tahoe is to waste somebody’s day on vacation.”
owner of Tunnel Creek Café
Tunnel Creek Café is modeled after a few specific German cafés Max visited with his team.
The men, trailblazing Americans on the European mountain biking scene, rode up and down Zugspitze, the country's tallest peak at 9,700 feet and stopped at the little cafés along the way.
"All the way down there were these cafés in the middle of nowhere with decks and people drinking beer and people playing music," Jones recalled. "It's kind of like a tradition, and something that's nice and convenient for someone out enjoying the trails and enjoying nature.
"That was our vision for here, to have something like that."
FUEL UP, WIND DOWN
Tunnel Creek Café supplies fuel for both the before and the after — coffee, tea, smoothies and breakfast by morning, and sandwiches, beer, soups and ice tea by afternoon.
The café will extend its hours and patio for summer patrons looking to hang out as the sun sets after a long day on the trail.
"It's for those of us who are a little out of place in a sports bar," Jones said. "You want something quick and casual, you're done with your day and park your bike. We're right here."
Bike rentals are available through Flume Trail Bikes, Jones' other operation that runs out of the same location.
The shop rents what Jones calls "fountain of youth machines" — bikes with dual suspension that can guarantee a good day in the mountains.
A detailed map of trails in the area is in the works for summer as Jones plans to have a sort of concierge service for people that come to play.
"We feel strongly that the biggest sin you can have in an area like Tahoe is to waste somebody's day on vacation," he said. "It's those precious days you have away that you want to be guided with little local knowledge."
'NOT SHY ABOUT WORKING HARD'
Riding a bike and running a café are, as Jones puts lightly, "very different." There is a mindset and skills that do translate, however, from spokes and wheels to espresso machines.
"Mainly from a training and discipline stand point, I'm able to maintain focus on long-term goals … you'd go crazy I think in this business if you judged yourself, even though its natural to do everyday," he said.
Jones also compares his experiences rock climbing to running Tunnel Creek Café.
"You have to climb to the top," he said. "And its fun to learn — what works well and what doesn't."
Jones and his wife, Patti McMullan, said they "are not shy about working hard." The couple ran a ski shop near Spooner Lake for nearly 30 years before selling their last snowcat to buy an espresso machine.
Max and Patti's attitude toward Tunnel Creek Café is dedicated and enthusiastic.
"We figured it couldn't be more difficult that running a cross country (area) during drought years," Jones said with a laugh. "I guess you'd call (Tunnel Creek Café) an adventure because we're not sure of the outcome of that and that's the definition of adventure."
NEW TO COFFEE
Through the challenges of seasonality and learning what works, Jones has stuck to his beliefs in providing quality products to his customers.
Nitrate-free meat, homemade broth for soups, craft beer and the coffee from Hood River Coffee Company are menu items he and McMullan will stick with.
Building a menu and brewing coffee has opened up a new world to Jones. When he opened the café in August 2012, Jones was new to the restaurant business and new to one of his menu's biggest sellers: coffee.
The athlete admits that he "didn't grow up a coffee drinker." In fact, he didn't touch the stuff until riding with his most recent team, a Canadian group that seemed to live off of the beverage.
"You couldn't survive without drinking coffee," Jones said. "They were always starting a ride at a coffee shop … and ending the day at a coffee shop, you were just a misfit if you didn't drink coffee."
Being the official tester and taster of the espresso he serves at Tunnel Creek, Jones said there are days when the caffeine gives him that extra jolt. The coffee provides some added energy to push it up the next hill ahead.
Jenny Luna is a freelance reporter for the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza and Sierra Sun newspapers. She may be reached at email@example.com.
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