Alan Hebertson losing his job in 1992 may have been the best thing that happened to him, and a great thing to happen to the East Liberty Park neighborhood and, indeed, Salt Lake’s LGBT community. He and his husband Dieter Sellmair decided to go into business for themselves and Coffee Garden was born on the northwest corner of 9th and 9th in May 1993.
The neighborhood was a hippie haven from the late 60s when Cosmic Aeroplane opened its music and head shop there. Nature’s Way Kite and Sandwich Shop was still running when Coffee Garden opened, a final holdout from the days of blacklight posters and sprout sandwiches. The Tower Theatre, of course, was there as well.
At the time, you could get a bottomless cup of coffee for a quarter at the Nordstrom Cafe, but that was about to change because of some coffeehouses in Seattle. Hebertson and Sellmair drove to Seattle and saw the burgeoning businesses and knew they were going to sweep the nation. They took advantage of the fact that Starbucks didn’t see good-ol’ Mormon Salt Lake City as a viable market. In fact, the couple approached Starbucks about opening a location in Salt Lake but were laughed out of the offices. They did, however, say they could sell their coffee.
They sold Seattle’s Best coffee in a warm, cozy atmosphere that included a corner for Ray King’s Twigs Flower Company. The vibe was casual and relaxed. You never feared being kicked out for wanting only to use the restroom — a feeling that still exists today.
As Starbucks locations spread across the country, they finally saw Salt Lake City as a viable market. They approached Coffee Garden in 1996 to buy them out. The couple declined, and Starbucks opened kitty-corner to them, but eventually closed when corporate turned the focus on locations with drive-thru windows.
In 2003, when Starbucks acquired Seattle’s Best, the couple decided on Caffe Ibis from Logan, which they continue to sell. Having a long, close relationship with Caffe Ibis, they loved the idea of using coffee that was sustainably and organically grown and uses fair trade practices.
In 2006, Hebertson and Sellmair moved the coffee shop across the street to its current location. Cahoots, a few doors west of Coffee Garden, moved into the other half of the building at the same time.
The clientele followed the coffee shop, Hebertson says, because of his employees, whom he loves like family. Many people come for a specific barista to make their favorite coffee. Hebertson also says that the neighborhood — a walkable, tight-knit oasis — has contributed to Coffee Garden’s success.
Others might say, however, that Coffee Garden has contributed to the walkable tight-knit oasis of a neighborhood.