Storyteller and barista Cassie Cushing. Photo courtesy: Cassie Cushing
Storyteller and barista Cassie Cushing will open Kaleidoscope Coffee in Point Richmond this year. Photo: courtesy Cassie Cushing

Point Richmond has the Richmond Plunge, Keller beach, an historic downtown, and a vibrant local arts scene. But it has lacked its own dedicated, independent coffee shop — until now.

Meet Cassie Cushing, a barista and trained storyteller who moved to the Bay Area from Phoenix in 2012. Cushing is in the midst of building her dream coffee shop smack dab in the middle of the Point Richmond historic district. The shop, called Kaleidoscope, will serve great coffee, of course, but it will also be much more than a watering hole — it will also be home to performers of many stripes.

Cushing starting working as a barista, as many do, in college. “I fell in love with it and by the end of college I thought, some day I’m going to have a coffee shop,” she said. At the time, however, Cushing wasn’t sure how long she would stay in the area; her husband was in graduate school and would likely need to move after graduation.

Instead of simply biding her time making espressos, Cushing decided to learn as much as she could about the industry, and that meant diving into the world of sourcing and roasting. “I realized that as much as I loved being a barista and all of the craft that goes into preparing a beverage, I also wanted to learn about the roasting aspect and where the beans come from,” she said. So Cushing called around and eventually landed at the Cortez Coffee roasting facility. She learned how to roast by helping owner Ron Cortez roast sample beans for cupping before graduating to a larger commercial machine.

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At this point, Cushing got curious. “After a while, I began to wonder, what happens if I start tweaking his recipe? So I started doing experiments. But at that point, it’s not his coffee anymore,” she said. Cushing was roasting far too much coffee to drink herself, so she began selling to her friends and family, at cost.

Cassie Cushing at Kaleidoscope. Photo courtesy: Cassie Cushing
Cassie Cushing at Kaleidoscope. Photo courtesy: Cassie Cushing

Then her business began to grow. “As I got more confident and honed in on how I wanted to treat the beans, I slowly started raising my prices and trying to get more customers,” she said. “That was the very, very beginning of Kaleidoscope.”

Storytelling came later. Cushing’s passion for performance took her “by surprise,” but she has always been interested in traditional stories. She studied religion in college, focusing on Irish mythology. “I looked at the relationship between these really strong, proud, fierce, intense warrior heroes and their community and how there’s tension, dialogue and space that’s constantly being negotiated.” It would seem, then, that the transition to performing would be a natural progression. But Cushing was hesitant at first.

She learned of a storyteller training program at a local community college, and, at the urging of her friends, met with the director to learn more. “I was looking for a very rigorous program full of academic deep-digging,” she said. “But they focused more on the craft of storytelling and actually how to be a storyteller. … Research was not their primary focus. So I left very disgruntled.”

Later that day, Cushing sat down and took a closer look at the course offerings. She saw classes on mythology, multicultural folktales and introduction to storytelling. “I ended up getting really excited and signed up for way more classes than I should have,” she said. “The first time I stood up and told a story, it blew me away. I already knew that I loved these stories, but I did not realize just how much they can come to life when you take them off the page and use your voice, your body, your presence, your gestures. And it’s fun.”

Storyteller and barista Cassie Cushing. Photo courtesy: Cassie Cushing
Storyteller and barista Cassie Cushing. Photo courtesy: Cassie Cushing

From that moment on, she knew that she was a storyteller at heart. “People have different impressions of storytelling,” she said. “When they hear ‘storytelling,’ what they frequently envision is a bunch of five-year-olds sitting around a librarian who is reading from a book. That’s not even remotely what I do. What I personally focus on and get super excited about are traditional stories — mythology, folk tales, fairy tales — stories that used to exist in an oral culture.”

Cushing learned that she could incorporate her love of research into her craft and that this “geekiness” could make her stories even better. “A lot of these stories were written down by people like the Brothers Grimm, who were wandering around, talking to people, and telling familiar stories,” she said. “A lot gets lost in that process. The characters become flatter, the scenes become truncated. Part of what I do as a storyteller is to put that flesh back on the bones. I will find a story that I like and then I will research the story, the culture behind it, and what some of the other variants are. Then I’ll try to put some of the meat back on the bones.”

Her versions of these folktales are not children’s stories, though. “These stories have some darker meanings,” she said. “They can give a catharsis to all of the struggles that we’re constantly pushing against in our day-to-day lives.”

The best part of her new-found craft? Cushing realized that she could easily combine her love of coffee with her love of performance. “I didn’t have to put the coffee shop on hold and go become a grad student and a professor and maybe open a coffee shop later. Storytelling allows me to be a little bit academic, a little bit geeky, and still create this sense of community around coffee that I’ve been so excited about for so long.”

Cushing rebranded, and in October of 2012 launched her first series of storytelling and coffee events. She partnered with four different Phoenix-area coffee shops to serve coffee and tell stories once a week for the month of October. Then she moved to the Bay Area.

As soon as Cushing settled in the East Bay, she began looking for locations to open her own shop. “I spent a lot of time just walking around. I would just explore neighborhood after neighborhood,” she said. “When I’d walk past a vacant space, I had to walk up and look through the windows just to see, even if I was in a neighborhood that I knew I actually wasn’t interested in pursuing. I still kind of do it, even though I’ve pinned down a location. Once you get used to looking for potential, you kind of see it everywhere.”

The future location of Kaleidoscope Coffee. Photo: Cassie Cushing
The future location of Kaleidoscope Coffee in Point Richmond. Photo: Cassie Cushing

After consulting with friends and exploring locations in Berkeley and Oakland, Cushing surprised herself by choosing Point Richmond. “As someone who was new to the area, all I knew were the stereotypes,” she said. “I thought, Richmond is not really what I’m looking for. The high crime rate, and that sort of thing, is all I knew. But as soon as I stepped into the downtown area, it just seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. They’ve got posters up for upcoming music events, they’ve got art on display, and it’s very clearly this community of people that care about small business and supporting the arts.” Luckily, there was a vacancy right in the middle of downtown and the property manager was open to her business plan.

Cushing is now in the process of renovating the space, and hopes to be open in a few months. In the meantime, she has been exploring food and drink options for the café. Every business with which she has partnered is also a small upstart. “As someone who started small, I have a little bit of a soft spot for small businesses who aren’t necessarily the really big popular names,” she said. So instead of partnering with a larger coffee company like Blue Bottle and Four Barrel, Cushing will be serving Wrecking Ball coffee. “We are on the same page in so many ways. It’s going to be a really great fit,” she said. “They’ve been wonderful to work with.”

On the food side, Cushing will serve a mix of colorful house-made dishes like red beet hummus and green avocado toast. She also plans to bring in a few pre-made items like quiche from Emeryville’s Quiche & Carry, brioche and savory pies from San Francisco’s La Fleur de Lyon, and chocolates from Oakland’s Endorfin Chocolat.

In addition, Cushing will be pouring beer and wine; serving alcohol will help increase her revenue, which means she will actually be able to pay her performers a decent wage. “I want to be able to promote and supporting the performers and the artists who are coming in and trying to use the space to do their craft, whatever it is,” she said. “It helps send a message that we know this art is valuable and worth paying for.” Plus, beer and wine help make the performance events a special evening for guests.

Cushing ultimately hopes that she will be able to host a range of performers. “I get really geeky and excited about these old fairytales but Kaleidoscope is going to be much more than that,” she said. “I definitely want to have open mics, I definitely want to have poetry slams, I definitely want to have acoustic music. Once you have a stage, the possibilities are endless.”

A Kaleidoscope sneak-peek event, Mirrors and Pieces of Colored Glass, will be held on Saturday, March 28 at 4 p.m. It will feature visiting storyteller Darci Tucker. $15 at the door; $12 in advance. More information available here.

Kaleidoscope Coffee will be at 109 Park Place (at Washington Avenue), Richmond. Connect with the coffee shop on Facebook.

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Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...