KEOTA, Iowa (AP) — The sound of grinding coffee beans joins the rich aroma of roasted arabica inside the narrow confines of the Rural Revival mobile coffee truck as three self-taught and happily caffeinated baristas prep their stations for what will become a busy morning.
In a small parking lot in the middle of a small town 40 miles from the nearest Starbucks, the trio of former public school teachers navigate around each other in the back of their truck as people begin to arrive. Naomi Gretter stands at the espresso machine, Sky Hahn at the smoothie station. Kari Berg leans over to the window and greets the first customers — three young women.
“Good morning! Chai smoothie, ladies?” Berg asks. No. The first order is a salted caramel latte, iced. Caramel is a top contender for favorite drinks, according to Berg. Anything caramel. The smile on Berg’s face is contagious, even this early in the morning.
The customers line up outside the truck and over the next three hours the baristas barely have a chance to catch their breath. The pace is fast, chaotic at times, yet the coffee truck owners remain calm and upbeat, laughing and chatting with customers as they sling beverages, both hot and cold.
They are, in a word, revived.
“We’re trying to live a life of slowing down and having balance,” said Hahn, 33, a former fourth-grade teacher. “We also wanted to be our own bosses.”
The women keep a copy of “Growing Slow,” a book by former Des Moines Register reporter Jennifer Dukes Lee, on display in their truck. It’s a book they say they try to live by now. While slowing down in a caffeinated world may seem like an oxymoron, for these new entrepreneurs the revitalization couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We saw (the coffee truck) as our time to try to do something new and revive,” Berg, 38, told the Des Moines Register. “It’s been really rough with teaching.”
Berg, who spent the previous 15 years teaching, recently retired from the Keota preschool to pursue this new passion.
Gretter, Berg and Hahn realized their mental health was suffering as they were trying to maintain their careers in the public school system during the COVID-19 pandemic while juggling family responsibilities at home. All are married to farmers, who have demanding schedules of their own.
The decision to leave teaching was bittersweet.
“We’re sad about (leaving) all the kids and our coworkers,” Hahn said, “but we also have to think about ourselves and what’s going to continue to let us go on that path of having balance in our lives.”
The idea behind Rural Revival started out somewhat as wordplay two years ago. Gretter, 41, said she was joking around one night about starting up a mobile coffee shop. But what began as a joke quickly grew when Miss Emma (Junktiquing at Slim’s), an antique business on Broadway Avenue in Keota, posted something on social media about looking for a mobile coffee truck to set up in the parking lot for an upcoming Rural Road Trip.
Created in 2019, the Rural Road Trip is a self-guided route across various parts of Iowa showcasing the shopping and attractions in the state’s hidden gem communities.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I would love to do that,’” Gretter said. She reached out to Berg and Hahn and one night over margaritas they decided to make it happen.
They pitched the idea to their farmer husbands (selling them on the fact that there is more coffee traded around the world than corn or soybeans), expecting some resistance. Instead, Gretter said their husbands have been their biggest fans and supporters.
Berg agrees. “We really couldn’t have done any of this without them,” she said.
Like any heavy food truck, the fuel economy is poor and in these days of high gas prices the women are for now keeping business close to Keokuk and Washington counties, but they will be at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines on June 8-10, for the World Pork Expo. They keep an updated list of locations on their social media pages (Rural Revival on Facebook).
But despite the high cost of fuel, Gretter says the idea of being mobile appealed to all three of them.
“We wanted to be able to go to people in different areas and kind of market that way instead of being a brick and mortar, just stuck to one spot and waiting for people to come to us,” Gretter said.
Outside the truck in Keota, four-year-old Peyton Fagen, a former preschool student of Berg’s, slurps down a strawberry smoothie, complete with a copious amount of whipped cream and sprinkles. He gives the business owners a thumbs-up.
This is what it’s all about.
“People like drinks,” Berg said. “It’s a stress-free environment when you’re spreading happiness.”