On a beautiful Sunday in early May, my partner and I headed down to Carcross and noted the signs of spring: the rapidly evaporating snow, the first crocuses and the two Holland America buses coming up the South Klondike Highway.
Those tour buses have come and gone over the last few years, but for the last 10 years, Caribou Crossing Coffee has been serving coffee, pizza, sandwiches and goodies to locals and tourists alike. I sat down with Heike Graf, outside of her shop, to chat about the last 10 years and her dreams for the next 10.
Graf has been self-employed her whole working life, but it’s not a passion for business that drives her. “I can deal with the business side, it’s part of what I know, but what I am, at heart, is a host. I want to create a place to be. I want to create community. I want to create a place where people are welcome.
“This is what I love; this is what I like to do. I’m German,” she said with a laugh, “so I have a certain drive to see things through.” Our conversation slipped effortlessly between German and English. The German influence shows itself in the numerous colourful blankets draped over the outdoor chairs and benches, a common sight in German cafes. They invite those who might be hesitant about sitting outdoors, on this crisp weekend in May, to make themselves cozy.
Graf quoted a German saying to me: There is magic in beginnings.
A little more than a decade ago, she was living in Tagish, in the bush. Having just had her first child, her mind often turned to coffee shops like she’d seen in other places: community spaces where moms, with their babies, could come together and chat over espresso and pastries.
Luck had it that a good friend of Graf’s shared the vision for a community coffee shop. Antonio Zedda, a local architect and the co-owner of the Whitehorse coffee shop Baked, mentored Graf. “It was amazing,” she said. “Because without him it would have likely just stayed a dream.”
Caribou Crossing Coffee used to be in the Skookum Jim House, a few doors down from its current location. Graf describes the humble beginnings, including a small counter and an oven that could barely fit a dozen muffins. Bean North supplied her coffee, as they do today—10 years later.
Graf described what it was like to get things off the ground. “In the beginning there were days I just sat there [in the coffee shop] and learned to play guitar.” But as word spread in town, in Whitehorse and among smaller tourism operators in Skagway, the space grew busier. They hosted children’s birthday parties, and the moms and babies that she had envisioned coming, early on, came too. Eventually they moved to the new location in the Carcross Commons, just a few doors down from Skookum Jim House.
Having a joyful and welcoming space has always been important to Graf. A team of staff who have come back over the years have ensured that this spirit has carried through the shop’s operations. The most-familiar face belongs to Daniele Siggilino, who’s been a barista at the shop for most of its 10 years in operation. He comes from the Italian village of Arco, Lago di Garda. Siggilino showed me the trick to the perfect latte, with the sheen on the milk as it’s being steamed.
The buses we’d seen coming up the highway were empty (we suspected a “trial run”), but they did not go unnoticed in Carcross. I heard several folks chatting about it as they milled about the coffee shop and Carcross Commons.
A few years before the pandemic, tourism came to Carcross and brought with it long lineups at the coffee shop. “In the middle of the summer season, during lunchtime, it also had a wonderful energy. We had [rock band] Queen running in the background [the song], “Don’t Stop Me Now.” She described upwards of eight people working behind the counter, carefully choreographed to serve the folks in line. “And we had fun, and this made all the difference.
“But now we’re getting older. We had two years of the pandemic, and feelings changed. We would not like to experience that craziness anymore and just become a little bit more Zen. Before Covid, come June, we know we’ll be hopping until mid-September, without a moment to think. We were just going with whatever was thrown at us, like a hamster in a wheel.”
Graf described a shift during the pandemic, with people from Whitehorse coming to keep the coffee shop going. “Without locals and local business, I couldn’t have kept the shop open,” she said. She spoke with pride about the supportive community of local followers on Facebook. “This is what I always wanted—a local place.
“Now it feels like we have a chance to redefine ourselves and how we want to handle things.” She described long days, coming in every day four hours before opening, to start baking, and leaving two hours after closing, to clean. “This summer will be about finding a healthier balance for myself and for my staff. We are going to think about what is actually good for us and what can we sustainably offer to keep the spirit going for another decade.”
One of the changes is a renewed focus to order from other local businesses, as much as possible, sharing some of the load of producing the goodies for sale in the shop. The shop sells local gifts and crafts, but also offers locally produced food from the Swiss Bakery, Home Sweet Home, Klondike Cakes, Sourdoughnuts and (the most recent addition) Gravy Train’s famous sticky buns.
Caribou Crossing Coffee will still make sandwiches, pizza, soup and several baked goods, in-house, all of which are her mother’s recipes. This summer, tiramisu will be added to the menu.
In addition to building a successful coffee shop, over the last decade, Graf has moved to Carcross and has built a family now, as well, with four children.
While she took another job during the pandemic, she’s proud that Caribou Crossing Coffee is still here. “We still love what we’re doing, and we want to continue to love what we’re doing.”
After chatting with her, I got some treats to go—including one of those Gravy Train sticky buns—and we drove to the pass to enjoy some sunshine (you can too!). The shop is back at full steam and is now open every day from 9–5. In addition to Graf’s German and Siggilino’s Italian, the shop is also happy to greet customers in French or Spanish. Gluten-free and vegan options are available, as well. On June 12, they will be celebrating the shop’s tenth birthday!