The Camp Fire destroyed much of the Paradise, Calif., community. We talk to Geoffrey Greitzer, who lost his café and cold-brew business in the fire, about Paradise, community, and rebuilding from tragedy.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Geoffrey Greitzer
In November 2018, the Camp Fire wreaked unprecedented destruction in Butte County, Calif., spreading to 153,300 acres, destroying over 18,800 structures, and causing at least 86 fatalities. It is the most destructive wildfire in history, leading to $16.5 billion in damages.
The destruction of the Camp Fire was felt most acutely in Paradise, Calif., a town of over 26,000 people located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The fire destroyed the vast majority of the homes, businesses, and other structures in Paradise, displacing thousands of people. The town of Paradise is in the early stages of recovering from the destruction, but it will be a very long haul.
Amid this tragedy, the specialty-coffee community has banded together to help the affected Northern California communities. Six Degrees Coffee Service & Distribution, based in nearby Chico, Calif., launched a fundraising page to help those who have lost their homes and businesses. Elizabeth Goldblatt, who owns Six Degrees with her wife, Amy Louis, says companies throughout the specialty-coffee world have contributed to the fundraiser, as well as sending product for those affected. Chico-based business Klean Kanteen has also been conducting fundraising efforts, donating 100 percent of proceeds from its Butte Strong mug to Camp Fire relief efforts.
One of the coffee professionals hit hardest by the Camp Fire is Geoffrey Greitzer, owner of the Juice & Java café and cold-brew business NorCal Nitro Coffee, both in Paradise. Geoffrey and his wife, Nicole, lost an unfathomable amount in the Camp Fire: their home, their businesses, and many of their prized possessions. In the weeks following the fire, they lived in short-term locations around Northern California before finding a longer-term residence in Chico, where Geoffrey is now working to restart NorCal Nitro. “His passion and tenacity are inspiring,” Elizabeth says. “I find myself spinning at times under all this duress, and he has persevered.”
We spoke with Geoffrey and Nicole about the Camp Fire’s impact on their lives, and the long process of rebuilding from the destruction it caused. For information on supporting them and others affected by the Camp Fire, visit Six Degrees Coffee’s fundraiser here.
Chris Ryan: First, can you please give me some background on your businesses and the Paradise community?
Geoffrey Greitzer: I started Juice & Java 23 years ago—we were the first drive-through coffee shop, juice bar, and roaster in Paradise, and we served coffee, breakfast, and lunch. It was an old, humble building when we started, but we made it nice—Nicole and I got married 12 years ago, and we renovated it together, adding beautiful mahogany booths, Tiffany lighting, a saltwater fish tank, and more.
I started NorCal Nitro around 2014. Being a roaster for around 20 years, I started playing around with cold brew—first with kegging, and then with canning, as I realized the product lasts longer in cans. We built a canning line about a year and a half ago, and we were doing cold-brew cans and supplying them to local grocery stores and other businesses.
Paradise is a really cool small town—beautiful outdoor spots and hiking, fresh air, and you can see a million stars at night. It’s a great place to live and raise children. Everyone knows each other; we never even locked our doors.
CR: I know you lost a great deal in the fire. Can you please tell me your experience on that day?
Geoffrey: The fire hit on Nov. 8; I got to the shop around 4:30 a.m.—my normal time—and made soup to serve at lunch since I wasn’t roasting that day. We opened at 6, and at 6:30 I went outside and could see a black plume of smoke from our main road. For the next couple of hours, we talked to everyone who came in about the fire, but we didn’t think to leave at first.
Nicole: We get a lot of fires in this area in general. We aren’t complacent when we see a fire, but we also don’t run down the hill immediately.
Geoffrey: It kept getting darker, and the traffic started backing up in front of the shop. Around 8:30 we decided to close so we could send our employees home safely. We drove to our home five minutes away—I had to drive on the sidewalk because the traffic was so backed up. At first we weren’t going to leave our home, but then we started hearing explosions from propane tanks, and we knew it was getting bad. We left our home in two cars, which ended up being a bad idea, and were stuck in traffic immediately.
Nicole: It took us two hours to go a quarter of a mile leaving Paradise. There were explosions everywhere, ash raining down, and it was so dark—it was 10 a.m. but it felt like midnight. I was getting discombobulated from all the smoke, and it was getting hot inside the car. We could see houses and trees on fire … it felt like Armageddon.
Geoffrey: I don’t wish anyone to go through that. We did eventually get to Chico, but Nicole and I got separated. It was the worst two hours of my life not knowing if she got out, and such a relief to find her.
We found out that night that virtually everything in Paradise had burned down, including our home. To say we lost everything is an understatement. For the business, the roaster and espresso machine are melted, the canning line is completely gone, and the building is destroyed. It’s now an ash-filled mess, as is the entire town.
CR: How do you begin to recover from this? Where have you been living, and how will you restart the business?
Geoffrey: When it first happened, we bounced around several places over the weeks—Roseville, Orville, some nights in our van. There were no hotel rooms available because so many people were displaced, so whatever you could get, you took. Every couple of days we’d find the next thing. Everyone was so incredibly giving in trying to help us out. Shady Coffee & Tea in Roseville helped us find a place to stay. Six Degrees found someone’s brother-in-law’s house we could stay in.
Nicole: It was beautiful to see the community share this love, come together, and try to help each other.
Geoffrey: We are now renting a house in Chico, and we’re using a temporary warehouse space to work on NorCal Nitro. We’ve been driving to the Bay Area to check out roasters, and I hope to get back into the cold-brew kegging business soon. We won’t do canning yet because it takes so much space. We will be getting insurance money eventually that will help us rebuild the business, but we’re not sure when and where our long-term business will be. We’ll be in Chico for a while at least. It will still be a long time until Paradise is inhabitable—a minimum of six months, but most likely a lot longer. So we’re still in the middle of a long process, but we feel incredibly fortunate. It could be so much worse.
CR: Have you had any other takeaways from this awful experience?
Geoffrey: One sad thing for me is just missing the personal interaction my wife and I had on a daily basis with our customers at Juice & Java. There are ups and downs in the coffee business, but we had a really tight-knit community. We don’t see those people anymore, but they’re still there in our hearts, and we hope to someday re-create something like that.
On a positive side, I can’t say enough about how supportive the coffee community has been of us. Six Degrees, Bay Area CoRoasters, Cropster, Royal Coffee, Scott Rao, Filtron, and Bunn are just a few of the folks that have been so kind and generous to us during this process. It has meant so much to us. One of my main takeaways from this experience is that I want to be more involved in the coffee community in a global sense than I was in the past. We were in Paradise roasting and running the juice bar, but we haven’t ventured out much beyond our community. I’d love to assist further now, as I’ve just been so blown away by the help and support others have given.
Geoffrey I don’t think you will remember me but I was a friend of your moms in Wilmington Delaware we all went to Gettysburg one weekend including my daughter Lemaine
I was so sorry to hear about this tragedy unbelievable but glad that you and your wife and daughter are safe. I think of this situation often since it happened I just can’t imagine what that experience must have been like, I’m so glad you are well, stay safe and have a wonderful future!
knowing the best for you and your family. Linda Patton
I am so glad I found this article! My name is Lisa and my sister Mari and I used to spend Fridays at Juice & Java 6 in the morning before work playing cards. Juice N Java was the first espresso kind of coffee shop in Paradise and I’ve always gone there. If somebody can get this message to Geffrey, please let him know he is in our hearts. Very sad…loved the prople there.