A decade-long coffee high: The Grinder brings warmth and caffeine to the north slope

It is early, it is Monday and the city is draped in stay-in-bed, don't-want-to-go-to-work fog. Yet there is laughter coming out of The Grinder - a coffee spot on Dravus just off Nickerson, next door to the original Zeek's Pizza - and for many on this misty day there is no place that they would rather be.

"I always feel like I start my day with a special lift," says a regular customer describing Kristin Wilhite, owner and operator of The Grinder, and the reason that she consistently comes here for her morning coffee. "She is always gracious and warm when I come in."

Most, if not all, of Wilhite's customers share those sentiments, and it's no wonder that on Tuesday, Nov. 1, Wilhite celebrates 10 years of brightening people's days with caffeine and a kind smile. In honor of her anniversary recently, Wilhite had done drawings for gift baskets, free coffee, mugs, sample-size syrups and a few surprises.

"I really enjoy people," says Wilhite, describing what she appreciates most about her job. "For me, this place has always been about the relationships that exist with customers."

Wilhite, an alum of SPU, began building relationships with customers in 1994. After graduating from college in youth ministry, she worked part-time for The Grinder and part-time for the church. A year later, when The Grinder's original owners decided to sell, they offered the coffee spot to Wilhite.

"There was no question," says Wilhite on her decision to buy. "It just felt so good."

And so, at the age of 23, Wilhite embarked on her first business venture. She has spent the past 10 years grinding coffee, steaming milk and steeping tea in a 10-by-12 pole-tent.

"I lease the space, but I own the tent," says Wilhite laughing. "If anything ever happened, I could take my three-sided tent with me."

Today the tent is crammed with customers, and while people wait in line, they ponder the trivia question taped on one of its three canvas walls.

"How many pounds of fresh apples does the average American eat in one year?" a customer reads aloud. The line of Grinder groupies offer up their guesses: "Not enough," "Five pounds," "50" and "37."

The answer is 19.

"I do believe that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but I don't follow my own advice," says a latte drinker on her way out the door.

Although apples are not super-popular with this crowd, coffee is. Hundreds of coffee cards are magnetically attached to the three-sided tent, and the names of Wilhite's regulars and their coffee habits wallpaper the canvas. Customers buy nine coffees and get the 10th free; some have gone through more than 40 coffee cards. Wilhite tapes them together and attaches them to the wall.

"I think that this system gives customers a sense of ownership and pride," she says with a smile.

Speaking of ownership and pride, customers pop in and out of the cozy tent in a cozy flow on their way to work, and Wilhite knows the name and drink of each individual who walks through her door. "The names don't come for awhile," she says. "But the drinks I don't forget."

She admits to seeing people on the street and greeting them as the 2-percent Vanilla Latte.

"She's the best," affirms a not-quite-awake customer. "Anyone can serve you a cup of coffee, but Kristin makes it personal. She knows about my life and my daughters."

She also works to help keep her customers healthy.

"Here is your vitamin," says Wilhite, handing one of her regulars a chocolate-covered espresso bean. This is not the first vitamin this customer has taken, and it is clear: The best part of waking up is Wilhite handing you a cup.

For an extraordinary coffee experience, visit The Grinder. You'll likethe coffee, and you just might make a friend.

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