Photo: Bing Kirk (right), founder and owner of Trail Coffee Roasters, with his step daughter Gianna Vicari, the co-owner/creative director who also manages the Trail Coffee location in Downtown Stockton. (Courtesy photo)
Timing and self-awareness are critical factors for wannabe entrepreneurs. And sometimes it takes an outsider or a unique set of circumstances to help them see their innate abilities, and lead them in the right direction.
In the instance of Bing Kirk, founder and owner of Trail Coffee Roasters, it was a wise co-worker and the country of Nicaragua that gave him the first push to forge his own path.
“It was 1974 and I had just gotten fired from a construction job,” Kirk said. “Probably because I was not very good at listening or whatever. I was young, wild and very restless. I’m sure it was my own fault.”
After the incident, Kirk grabbed a beer with an older co-worker. “The guy sat me down and he said, ‘Look Kirk, some people are just not cut out to work for someone else. You strike me as someone who needs to find your own way.’ ”
His two best friends at Stagg High School (Class of ‘67) and the SAE Fraternity at San Jose State University were Mike Atherton and Dave Lintner. After college Dave joined the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and fell in love with the land and people. He decided to stay and began farming. He beckoned his two amigos to join him. Atherton followed in ’75. Armed with only a 30 day Visa in hand and still, a burning desire to find, well, he was not quite sure what, Kirk joined his friends in 1976.
They worked for Joe Gattner who at the time, owned the largest lumber mill in Nicaragua and farmed coffee beans and cattle.
By 1978 a civil war had started led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front to oust the Somoza dictatorship. The three amigos reluctantly returned to the US.
Shortly after returning home Mike and Bing formed Atherton Kirk Development, and began successfully building single family homes in SAn Joaquin County.
During this time the lifestyle, land and people of Nicaragua remained a powerful force for the three men. When the peace process finally began in 1988 they returned to the land they loved.
This time though they were fully armed with not just desire and wanderlust, but the confidence, know-how and work experience to set things in motion.
Dave returned first and began hunting down abandoned coffee farms to purchase. They bought property and began planting in the Cerro de Jesus (Jesus Mountain) region. By 2001 they had accumulated 1,000 acres of land and were growing their own brand, Jesus Mt. Coffee. Jesus is the second highest mountain in Nicaragua and includes 400 acres of virgin jungle. It is this unique micro-climate that allows for Jesus Coffee’s rich bold flavor and vibrant aroma.
It took about four to five years to produce their first coffee beans. Today, Jesus Mt. Farm houses some 80 full time employees. As an expression of their commitment to the people of Jesus Mt., Kirk and his partners built a school house for their children. Each year up to an additional 500 pickers join the farm during harvest from November to March. Jesus Mt. Farms is the longest standing permanent employer in the region
In the early 2000’s Kirk decided to try his hand at roasting. “The Alley,” aptly named for its quaint alley location next to Donaldson Tire on Miner Ave., attracted a loyal following from the daily downtown crowd.
“It started as just a hobby for me, roasting the beans. In the last ten years though, we have made the top ten list of “Cup of Excellence.” This is a big contest for official coffee roasters, revered by those that grow and roast coffee.”
By 2017 the coffee and roasting business were bustling. Enter Gianna Vicari, Kirk’s stepdaughter and a recent college grad. Now co-owner/creative director, Vicari also manages the Trail Coffee location downtown.
“At that time, I was inspired by the potential of the business,” said Vicari. “The building at 501 East Main St. became available. We bought it and designed our current café space. At the same time, we rebranded. TRAIL Coffee Roasters, better reflects our evolving image and journey.”
By 2018 they had opened another café, Pacific Trail, at 870 Brubeck Way across from University of the Pacific. “The location has turned out to be a great meeting place for Pacific faculty, students and people in the surrounding neighborhood. Lots of dog walkers come by for a coffee,” stated Kirk. Last year School Street Trail, in Lodi opened as their first franchise option, and the model for their future direction.
Bing and Gianna’s entrepreneurial spirit continues as Trails original recipe Cold Brew was launched this summer, followed by their instant coffee, DayBreak.
Today TRAILS wholesale specialty coffee business has grown to over 300 grocery stores in Northern California.
“All the roasting is still done locally at our Main Street location. We are currently roasting over 50 thousand pounds a year,” stated Bing Kirk, Harnessing that restless energy and recognizing an opportunity is the rare gift of trailblazers.