Posts Tagged: benji nichols

Community Builder: Mike Ashbacher

Community Builder:
Mike Ashbacher / Decorah Fire Department

By Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Fall 2017 Inspire(d)

For some, it’s the thrill of riding in a fire truck, adrenaline pumping, or feeling the intense heat that a fire gives off, but for Decorah Fire Chief Mike Ashbacher, it’s the thriving community of volunteer firefighters and the service they provide that has kept him involved.

With deep ties to Northeast Iowa, Mike’s family moved back to the region when his father was offered a full-time position in law enforcement. Mike was just about to start kindergarten, so Decorah has been home for most of his life.

After school, Mike followed in his father’s footsteps at first, in criminology and law enforcement, but it was a chance EMT class that sent him in a different direction. He now sits at the heart of what has been – and continues to be – an incredible and professional group of emergency service responders. He has been a full-time Winneshiek Medical Center paramedic since 1987, and also a flight paramedic for Gundersen Lutheran since 1994.

On top of work life, he and his wife have two grown sons, and are also new grandparents. So one could easily see the day-to-day schedule overflowing, yet Mike has been a dedicated member of the Decorah Fire Department (DFD) since 1991, and Fire Chief since late 2001.

“I’ve always felt it was important to be involved in service, and the Fire Department allows me to give back to our community,” he says.

Decorah, like many small, rural fire departments, is staffed mainly with volunteers. There are just over 30 members – a tightknit community of firefighters who give their free time for numerous hours of training to keep the region safe in case of fire or emergency.

These men and women are called out for a variety of emergencies – from fighting fires to helping folks in trouble on the Upper Iowa to, yes, even rescuing a beloved family dog from a limestone cliff’s edge at Palisades Park in Decorah.

The group works hard together, and shows pride in that work, and the camaraderie that is built through training and service is what makes the organization so worthwhile.

“It is a large time commitment, and families sacrifice all sorts of time while a member trains, serves, and is called out on a moments notice,” Mike says. “It’s the support from those families, as well as employers, that makes a volunteer organization like the DFD work.”

All of that time spent together is what makes it a real community. It also makes for some fun times within the department. The firefighter’s skills spill out in ways that serve the larger community through social events, fundraising, and community service – like the popular DFD Red Hot Bucket of Color In Your Face 5K run each spring.

In the post 9/11 world, the risks and realities of responding to emergency situations are very real. “Having a driven, and educated group of individuals who want to keep learning skills, techniques, and technology makes for a great department,” Mike says. “Our guys do the training and know what to do when we are sent on a call. It makes my job as Chief easy.”

Sum of Your Business: Impact Coffee

Impact Coffee roasts and brews a great cup of joe.

Interview and photos by Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Summer 2017 Inspire(d)

In a world that seems to move faster with each passing day, a true attention to detail is something that stands out. A perfectly matted and framed piece of art; a beautifully honed bench in a compact space; coffee beans transported halfway across the world, to be roasted, brewed, and served to perfection. These are traits of a craftsperson – or, for this story, craftspeople: Decorah husband and wife team Jeff and Anja Brown, and their sons Sean and Kai.

Impact Coffee Bar and Roasters is a young business, but for almost three decades Jeff and Anja have served the community through The Perfect Edge, now in its fourth downtown location, where they offer high quality professional art framing and matting services. It makes sense that the level of skill needed to frame literal works of art would follow through to anything else the couple touches – from the careful remodeling of old buildings to the roasting of a specialty batch of Yemen coffee beans.

Arguably one of the greatest adventures of owning a small business is that inspiration (and opportunity) can strike at any moment. It was one of those chance opportunities that eventually led Anja to move the framing shop (for the third time!) to the beautiful space at 106 Washington Street, a former century-old cobbler and shoe shop (rail ladders still intact). Meanwhile, just down the block, 118 Washington became home base for the now-expanded Impact Coffee, a “third wave” – as they say in the business – roaster and coffee bar.

Much the way microbreweries have grown in recent decades, “third wave” coffee has shifted the bean business from mass commodity to a craft that honors the product’s finest nuances. From grocery store tins to the mid-century rise of Italian-influenced espresso cafes to the onset of worldwide café chains, a culture has grown, giving the utmost attention to fairly sourcing, processing, roasting, and serving single-origin coffee beans.

This transformation of a rather humble agricultural product into a truly artisanal beverage is indeed an art, and Impact Coffee captures that. Beans are coaxed through the roasting process to bring out the subtle flavors of their source – from Kona, Hawaii to the Lake Kivu area of Rwanda. The differences can be immense, much like grapes to wine, and result in a truly stunning cup of coffee.

Jeff Brown is the man behind (well in front of, really) the roaster at Impact’s processing facility, jumping through multiple regions and batches of beans on any given day. He’s also the preparer of beautiful amounts of cold-brewed coffee – a process that can take more than 12 hours before it is kegged. These cold brews get served over ice through a nitrogen-charged tap system at the café, which produces a coffee with rich mouth-feel, smooth, yet exact flavors, and a great kick. The Brown’s sons, Sean and Kai, are both involved in the business, and can often be found behind the counter serving up single origin pour-overs, frothy lattes, locally baked goods, tea, and more. The Brown family has clearly found their sum in Downtown Decorah, and we’re Inspire(d) by that!

Tell us about your “leap” moment. When/ how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?

Our “leap” moment was a gradual one. We met our former partners through The Perfect Edge three years ago. They were selling their roasted coffee at the farmers market and we offered them a retail space so they could have a permanent outlet in Decorah.

From there, the idea grew to replace the gallery space with a small coffee shop. Shortly thereafter our partners got an excellent job opportunity and sold us their roasting equipment. Impact Coffee Bar & Roasters was born. The name refers to the asteroid that hit Decorah 470 million years ago and created its distinct crater.

The decision to take over a new business was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. But we could see that we had the enthusiastic backing and support of the community. When you look at the coffee bar now, it is full of pieces offered by the community and friends: the old archway, the tin ceiling pieces, the barn wood, a humungous old photograph of Decorah, etc.

What is the best thing about being your own boss?

The best thing is that when you have a crazy idea for your business, you go ahead and do it. You own it. Making your own way, seeing it through. The satisfaction of knowing you did it and have sustained it, making it into a thriving business.

And we are lucky that Sean and Kai joined us and are running the coffee shop. Who knows what the future holds, but for now we can say we are a family-run business.

How about the worst?

Some days you just don’t want to be responsible for anything. You just can’t hand it off. Again, you own it.

Being a small business owner means you don’t get to clock out at 5. Whatever the issue is, you need to deal with it for as long as it takes.

Was there ever a hurdle where you said, “I just can’t do it!”? How did you overcome it?

Loosing our partners shortly after opening the coffee bar was a stressful time. While we had crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s, we had not worked on an exit strategy, which is an important factor when going into business with someone.

But we are so lucky to have a wonderful community and friends who gave us great advice and moral support. That gave us the energy to move forward. And we could never have made the transition without our two sons.

Mentors or role models?

Anja: Watching the way of life of my grandmother and my parents. Even through difficult times, the goal is always to do your job well and with pride. Maybe that is the infamous German trait I’ve heard so much about since coming to this country…

Jeff: I’d say all the entrepreneurs and small business owners were and are an inspiration. Hard work, integrity, and good customer service… the heart of any business.

What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

Sometimes it’s probably best that you don’t know! It forces you to be creative, to keep an open mind, and to trust yourself. We had been running The Perfect Edge for the last 28 years when the opportunity to get into the coffee business presented itself. This transition happened fairly quickly but things seemed to fall into place one idea at a time.

We knew that running two businesses was going to change our lives, but now that we’ve settled into our separate roles, we’ve adjusted well. With Jeff running the roastery and coffee shop now, we can finally come home and say: “How was your day, honey?”

Tips on managing work life balance:

It’s good to have passion for life AND for work. The satisfaction of loving what you do carries over into life. And when things get crazy it’s the small moments of joy that carry you through: a hug, a nice walk through the woods, getting your fingers dirty in the garden soil or making dinner together with friends.

A few moments with Dawes…

Dawes will be performing at the Cavalier Theatre in La Crosse, WI on Tuesday, October 17, 2017. Catch a ticket here if it isn’t already sold out.

Dawes is:
Wylie Gelber – bass
Taylor Goldsmith – guitars
Griffin Goldsmith – drums
Lee Pardini – keys

Interview by Benji Nichols / Inspire(d) 2017

The Cavalier Lounge & Theatre in La Crosse has been working hard the past few years to create a space that can house national shows on a regional level. Owner Jason LaCourse has poured much into the club and lounge, and caught a few breaks along the way – including an evening with West coast rockers Dawes coming up October 17. Here at Inspire(d) HQ we’ve been fans of Dawes since around 2009, catching them at Gabe’s Oasis in Iowa City, after enjoying their first Daytrotter.com session. Dawes played on 2016’s ‘Gentleman of the Road’ festival hosted by Mumford and Sons in Waverly, IA as well and continue to reach new heights as the they pound the road. They’re latest release “We’re All Gonna Die” is out on the band’s own HUB Record label. They play the Cavalier Theatre in La Crosse on Tuesday, October 17. (Click here for tickets – if they aren’t already sold out!) Inspire(d) was given the opportunity to catch up with Lee Pardini, keyboard player for Dawes, while he was en route to San Francisco for the Outside Lands Festival in Golden Gate Park. Lee has been with Dawes for the past two years and has played an influential roll in the bands growth with his tasty key chops that reach far beyond rock and roll.

Roll the tape…

I(d): You guys keep –good- company. We saw Dawes play on the ‘Gentleman of the Road’ show in Waverly, Iowa with Mumford and Sons. The band has a history with artists like Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Robbie Robertson, Elvis Costello, and Dave Rawlings. You’re staring down tours with John Mayer and Kings of Leon this fall. What’s it like knowing you are working with some of the most revered musicians in the world?

LP: We couldn’t be more excited – and these are all really different experiences. When we do the “evening with” shows (like the upcoming La Crosse show), it is us for two and a half hours with the crowd – its really intimate, and we’re excited to bring that to the audience. When we’re on the road supporting larger tours of this stature – musically speaking, its great to be around artists of this caliber – but then its also exciting playing in front of a lot of audiences that maybe don’t know us so well – or at all. Being able to craft a 45 minute set to capture an audience is a really great challenge, and ultimately, it is all about the music first – so it’s quite an experience. We couldn’t be looking more forward to it.

I(d): We’re All Gonna Die, came out last September on your own ‘HUB records’ label. It was

produced by long time friend of the band Blake Mills. How has it been watching an album take life?

LP: Its been amazing – there were a lot of new sounds and textures on this record, and the recording process itself was a really great process. It’s a new sound that has developed – and its been exciting to see people really accepting us pushing things forward. Watching the audience in the live shows be familiar with a new record is kind of crazy too. One of the first shows we played after the record came out – like a week after, people in the crowd knew all the words to ‘One of Us’ – and that was such a great feeling. Over the past months playing the songs live really helps us grab ahold of how fans are connecting to the songs in so many different ways. Its been a great year – and we’re always trying new things, pushing ourselves to be better and make the most out of the shows.

I(d): We were checking out the “Custom Vintage Keys” trio session video that you did, and it is so tasty. Its clear you enjoy vintage key gear. What’s your jam these days?

LP: I’ve always been a big jazz fan – and studied a very broad world of jazz that I’m constantly digging into. I’ve also been listening to a particular set of Herbie Hancock records from the 70s – lots of textures. I’ve been digging into a lot of synthesizer stuff – which is something I’ve been working to bring to Dawes. You know – t’s a life long study. I know it sounds a little like a California stereotype, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Marly lately as well. The keyboard work on every single one of his records is just incredible. Its economical, its groovy, and the songs are so good. From an education standpoint, the players he had on his records were so great. There’s always Dire Straits – the guys love Mark Knopfler. Allen Clark from Dire Straits is unbelieveable – and the way that band could extend their songs – really incredible. And always, there’s a decent amount of Grateful Dead that I’m listening to.

I(d): The upper Midwest is a funny place – and a lot of people still don’t give us much thought, but with outlets like Daytrotter, and the Codfish Hollow Barnstormers (Maquoketa) – we have some authentic stuff happening out here. La Crosse is right on the Mississippi River in the heart of the “Driftless” region – have you been to this area before? Any thoughts on the Midwest?

LP: Oh Yeah, absolutely. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Midwest over the years – I love it. There’s just an – its like another version of Southern hospitality. Everyone is so sweet. Take Codfish Hollow – the people there really care – they’re hip to what’s happening, and they care about being hospitable. You don’t get that everywhere. What strikes me is the amount of pride that people take, especially in the Midwest, in creating a great space for music and making people feel welcome and comfortable – its great. •