The Return of the Café Kid

Tamarisk Wood is trying to fund her startup coffeehouse the old-fashioned way: by putting out the tip jar

Tamarisk Wood and I are Las Vegas café kids. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we frequented the same now-defunct Valley coffeehouses—Café Espresso Roma and Café Copioh, formerly on Maryland Parkway across from UNLV, and my beloved Enigma Garden Café, formerly downtown at Fourth and Hoover. We didn’t really know each other then, but we knew the places, and we knew the crowds that frequented them. We spilled our cappuccinos on the same pedestal tables; we attended the same poetry readings and gallery openings.

So when Wood tells me, over a table at Bar + Bistro, that she wants to open “a coffeehouse, not a café” in the Arts District, I completely get her meaning. She’s not talking about opening a restaurant; she’s talking about reviving a community. But I confess that I’m surprised by the way she’s going about opening her Avant Café: She’s calling on that community, wherever it may be, to help fund her startup costs through an Indiegogo campaign. In essence, she’s just put out the tip jar.

“Banks don’t give loans lightly, especially to coffeehouses and/or art-related businesses,” says the 33-year old barista and gallerist, whose Indiegogo campaign is at “Add in the stress on the café’s income, and on me personally, to pay back the loan on top of the constant expenses, and it’s a recipe for failure.”

Wood, who has been working as a barista since 1999, knows how modest a coffeehouse’s daily profits can be. And she’s seen how a crisis can cut into those profits. She doesn’t expect to get rich running Avant; she only wants to bring back the community she knew.

“This isn’t just a lark; I want this place to be around for years,” she says. “I want to represent Vegas’ underground to other cities, I’d love to leave it to my daughter when I retire.”

Still, asking someone to pay for a coffee they haven’t yet ordered—and, let’s be honest, may not be able to order if the fundraising campaign fails—is asking a lot. And Wood knows it. As is custom with all crowd-sourced cultural endeavors, she’s offering premiums in exchange for contributions, ranging from Avant Cafe stickers (a $10 donation) to free beverages daily for life (a $1,000 donation). But the main thing she’s offering can’t be held or consumed: nostalgia, a sense of place and a cup of coffee that’s worth crossing town for.

“You’d think I’d say customer service makes a great coffeehouse—and I plan on fostering an inviting, positive environment and staff—but even if you can have the hippest and nicest staff in the world, if your product is crap or your barista has no idea what they’re doing, I’m never coming back,” she says. “Enigma really is my inspiration. It was the perfect coffeehouse. I plan on having amazing art shows, awesome live shows and super-cozy and cute decor, but the entire reason for me wanting to open Avant is because I love making great coffee.”

After our meeting, Wood walks the Arts District, looking at likely spaces—and even though I have my reservations about crowd-sourced cultural funding in general, I find that I’m pulling for her on the basis of her underdog status, and her promise of a decently foamed latte and “super-coziness” within walking distance of my Huntridge District home. At the time of this writing, Avant has only raised $1,685 of its $50,000 goal, and Las Vegans are traditionally wary of investing in dreams not wholly their own.

But Wood remains doggedly optimistic.

“I’m a café kid from the ’90s who stayed in Vegas and watched it grow. I know what we had, what we want and what we need,” she says. “I’d love for people to be as excited as I am to have a space to become a home for artists, musicians, writers, thinkers and friends to come together.”