By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2007 Gourmet Magazine
Many years ago we came across an amazing hostelry south of Bisbee, Arizona, called Shady Dell, a cluster of eight mid century trailers, each meticulously restored and available as lodging for the night. At the entrance to Shady Dell was Dot’s Diner, a minuscule hash house where chicken and dumplings cost $1.99. Dot moved on, and proprietor Ed Smith recently sold the trailer park motel, but he urged us to come back and try a new place in town called Bisbee Breakfast Club. Bless you, Ed. Pat and Heather Grimm, who ran Dot’s for a while after Dot left, opened the Bisbee Breakfast Club on Good Friday in 2005. The restaurant is actually in Lowell, which was a separate town with thriving stores and a three-story hotel before Phelps Dodge dug the gaping Lavender Pit copper mine. Most of the town was devoured by the mine, and what remained became a forsaken appendage of Bisbee. Nearly all the storefronts on Erie Street are vacant, and the village seems empty. But every weekend morning, hundreds of people make their way to Erie Street for breakfast in a community café where the posted motto is “Making your food is our pleasure. Making your day is our goal!”
The Grimms built their restaurant in a space that was first a pharmacy and then a glass company. There is a spacious kitchen, a long, curving counter, and seats for 72 people, all of which makes a dramatic change from Dot’s, where the kitchen was a two by two foot grill and a two-burner stove and where there were exactly ten seats, all at the counter. “At Dot’s, we had so many customers who arrived and then drove away because they saw people were crowded around outside waiting for a seat,” Heather Grimm recalls. “We’d pull camp chairs out of the van to fit another dozen on the patio, but that still wasn’t enough.”
The Grimms garnered a big following, adding signature items to the comfort-food menu, such as coffee-charred chicken salad (like blackened, but espresso-rich) and hamburgers topped with Pat’s intoxicating whiskey barbecue sauce. They were nervous about moving to a much bigger place in a virtual ghost town, but, as Heather describes opening day, “At fifteen minutes to seven, people were lined up to get in. It’s been like that ever since.”
BBC became a magnet for people from Douglas, and even Tucson, but most customers are regulars from Bisbee. The everyday clientele reflects the curious population of a community that has gone from mining town to hippie enclave to artists colony and is now becoming coveted Sunbelt real estate. You cannot spend more than $10 for a meal, and for $3.25 you can enjoy one of the heartiest breakfasts ever: two jumbo, oven-warm biscuits split and topped with sausage cream gravy seasoned with crushed chiles, black pepper, Tabasco, and sage. Gooey sticky buns, made weekends only (BBC is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays), have earned legendary status. The everyday menu includes broad, free-form Blue Wally Cakes (pancakes with blueberries and walnuts) and a juicy chicken-fried steak topped with the same crazy-spiced gravy used on the biscuits. It is not uncommon to follow breakfast with a lofty wedge of pie. Of the several we sampled, the most amazing was lemon cheese, a citrus-perfumed cross between lemon meringue pie and cheesecake, stacked on a soft-as-cookie crust.
We first visited Bisbee Breakfast Club in the company of Tucson tipsters Ron and Marcia Spark. As we left, Ron said, “If you like coffee, follow me.”
He took us up the road a short piece to a storefront with windows obscured by silver fabric: Old Bisbee Roasters. The interior was packed with 125-pound burlap bags of coffee that proprietor Seth Appell had carried in from the truck that morning. Appell is a red-dreadlocked muscleman whose enthusiasm for coffee is like that of a miner who has just struck gold. He invited us to dig our hands into warm, just-roasted beans of what’s called Red Sea Blend—one-third Ethiopian Harar, one-third Yemen Mocha Sanani, one-third Ethiopian Yirga cheffe. He chewed a few beans straight: “Oh, yeah! I’ve got to try this.” The espresso came out of the machine dark and syrupy. He handed us one cup and sniffed deep into the other himself. “I hope you like your shots really thick. This should be sharp.” Its impact hit as smooth as a prizefighter’s glove.
“Let’s try this Mexican coffee from Chiapas. I have no idea what to expect, but it comes in a beautiful bag.” The Chiapas coffee was shockingly different from the powerful, pungent Red Sea Blend—ethereal and impossible to pin down. “I’m going to make stronger shots. I need to know what this one is all about.” He ground the beans finer and packed them more densely. It brewed thicker, but the flavor was still elusive. “Oh, my God, this is electric! It’s not like coffee at all. It has no dirt, no earthiness. I’m going to have a real problem here.”
Tabling the quest to describe the Mexican coffee for a moment, he suggested going back to Africa with a brand-new Kenyan bean that he’d never tried before. “The most amazing Kenya I ever tasted hit the back of my tongue like a butterscotch bomb,” he said. “Oh, this is different,” he announced at first sip. “It’s light, it’s all spice and no heaviness. It’s like I’m tasting the color brown.
“I need El Salvador,” Appell declared, grinding beans from a farm in Santa Isabel. “I’ve got to have it. My taste buds are getting perverted. El Salvador will fix that. It’s like crushed black pepper, very dirty, heavy.”
The burly El Salvador may have cleansed his palate, but by this point we were buzzing beyond redemption. “I know what you need,” he said. “Chocolate!” In his “factory within the factory,” Appell makes chocolate-covered cinnamon sticks, chocolate nut clusters, Michigan pie-cherry chocolate bark, and candied ginger, candied orange, and Triple Sec-flavored truffles. “It’s good for you,” he insisted, handing over tastes of everything, along with more coffee to wash it down.
Between his coffee-roasting-tasting-packaging-marketing operation, his work as a chocolatier, and the free espressos he hands out to passersby on weekends, it’s a good thing he gets along fine on four hours of sleep. Of course, if he flags, a pick-me-up is always close at hand.