Mountain biker Marc-Francois Bradley rode around a corner on a lightly traveled trail deep in the Boise Foothills on Saturday morning and discovered an unexpected oasis. He wondered if he was imagining the makeshift, trailside coffee stand that appeared.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Matt Bishop asked, surrounded by coffee supplies packed by his mule, Richard.
“Yeah, but it’s too good to be true,” Bradley replied. “It’s like you’re a genie in the forest.”
Bishop debuted his Café Mulé concept near the intersection of the Five Mile Gulch and Orchard Gulch trails off Rocky Canyon Road, an obscure spot on the Ridge to Rivers map that fit his mission of attracting bikers, runners and hikers to trails they might not otherwise use and eluded a mess of permitting issues that have put the business side of his idea on hold indefinitely. Richard packed about 200 pounds for 1.5 miles and 500 feet of elevation gain to reach the location.
Bishop posted his plans on social media Thursday and offered to serve a free cup of coffee to a maximum of 73 people.
One trail user told him to expect about a dozen people to reach that location on a typical morning. More than 50 passed by between 8 a.m. and noon, with at least 30 accepting a cup of coffee.
Some, like Bradley, were surprised. Many others came searching for the coffee stand. Most stopped to chat — often for 15-20 minutes, with the Treasure Valley visible far below and Lucky Peak as a striking backdrop.
“If I could hang out here all day, I would,” Claire Gudmundsen of Boise said. “This guy’s brilliant, to think of this idea.”
And in an unfortunate way, ahead of his time.
Bishop, who grew up in Sheridan, Wyo., graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and was a captain in the Marines and Army during separate stints in the military, landed in Boise three years ago so his wife could attend physician assistant school at Idaho State University-Meridian. He developed a quick affection for the Foothills, taking his three young children on the trails, and built a business around outdoor recreation. He has designed gear for ultrarunners and he acquired Richard — after shopping for a mule that could handle people and dogs — with a plan to offer trailside services to recreationists and for events.
His first meeting with Ridge to Rivers — the five-agency partnership that runs the Foothills trail system — was in December. Initial feedback was positive, but then it became clear that dealing with an organization run by the city of Boise, Ada County, Idaho Fish and Game, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service was going to get complicated.
Ridge to Rivers doesn’t have a policy for permitting vendors. After much discussion, BLM was asked to make a final decision because it owns the land that Bishop most wanted to utilize — far enough from town to make the mule useful, close enough to draw a strong flow of recreationists.
The BLM rejected Bishop’s request on April 21.
“The BLM decided not to issue a vending permit to provide services along the Ridge to Rivers trail system because the activity is not in conformance with current BLM land-use planning guidance for the Boise Foothills,” said Larry Ridenhour, a recreation planner for BLM’s Boise district. “Additionally, the BLM did not want to set a precedent of issuing a vending permit prior to a formal Ridge to Rivers vending policy being established.”
BUSINESS OR PLEASURE?
The U.S. Forest Service also owns some land that would work for Bishop, but district ranger Stephaney Kerley reported at a Ridge to Rivers meeting on Feb. 4 that it would be “a minimum of three years before she could look at (Bishop’s) pack mule proposal,” according to meeting minutes.
The city, which is the lead agency in Ridge to Rivers, has started work toward creating a vendor policy for the trail system, Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said. He hopes to have a policy in place by summer 2017. However, there’s no guarantee that a global policy will be possible.
Even if a vendor system is created, Holloway expects it to be “very limited.”
“What Matt is doing is totally cool,” Holloway said. “... It’s not a matter of the idea that he has. It’s what comes after that. We just need to make sure that when we open that door, we are prepared to continue to serve the public. The public should weigh in on this, too. Do they really want to see services provided on the trails?”
Parks and Rec has offered to allow Bishop to work in the parks this summer, at events like Movies Under the Stars or at the rafting takeout in Ann Morrison Park. He is hesitant to go that direction because it limits the usefulness of the mule — you can drive to those events — and there are additional insurance and health department requirements.
So for now, he’s trying to prove that coffee in the Foothills works.
The U.S. Forest Service doesn’t require a permit for noncommercial group uses involving fewer than 75 people. Bishop’s location Saturday was on Forest Service land and he marketed his coffee with the hashtag #73forFree — limiting the event to 73 customers and one coffee-making mule owner. Mules, like horses, are allowed on much of the Ridge to Rivers system. He expected to spend $50-$60 on the outing.
“While this thing seems simple on the surface,” Bishop said, “the permitting thing is rough.”
The Forest Service even disagrees with Bishop’s interpretation that he can do free coffee.
“He’s got to have a permit to do that activity,” said Susan Blake, the acting public affairs officer for the Boise National Forest. “He’s doing a particular activity. If I’m a researcher going to the forest to do testing, I have to apply for a permit. It could be one person. I may not be making a profit off it but I’m still doing a particular activity and I need to apply for a permit. That’s the difference between a gathering and doing an activity.”
As the 34-year-old Bishop told his story Saturday to curious coffee drinkers and posed for photos bound for social media(#RichardtheMule), his customers tried to troubleshoot his business model for him. Could he create a coffee membership, like Utah bars once did? Could he sell punch cards so folks don’t need to bring money with them? Could he accept PayPal?
Others suggested trail locations that might work or other applications for “mule-side” delivery — although, technically, Richard was tethered 100 yards away while Bishop was serving coffee. At one point, there were so many ideas that Bishop joked, “I just need to start buying mules right now.”
He made pour-over coffee, boiling the water with a two-burner, Jetboil camp stove. He offered cream and sugar and was careful not to leave anything behind, even dumping leftover coffee into a reservoir and pouring that into an empty water jug to pack out.
He turned down multiple offers of payment and tips — preferring not to risk his status as a noncommercial activity.
“There’s been a lot of offers today, which makes me feel good,” Bishop said. “... I’m legitimizing the operation right now. When you’re trying to do mule-side coffee, people have to see it to believe it.”
One of the most excited customers was Kim Tower of Boise, who was celebrating her birthday with a running group. The group included about 25 people. She knew Café Mulé would be there.
“This is so cool,” Tower said as she arrived. “Thank you for being here. ... This is a perfect way to spend a birthday.”
Later, runner Rachel Rudeen visited the coffee stand. Her in-laws, visiting from out of state, hiked in with her husband to meet her.
“I thought this would be a memorable experience, to hike for coffee,” Rudeen said.
And then there was Hugo Fregoso of Boise, who was so tickled by what he found at the top of the hill that he promised to brag to “my boys in L.A.”
“Is it coffee in the mornings and beer in the afternoons?” he asked, still catching his breath.
Fregoso’s joke at once showed the potential in Bishop’s idea and why the Ridge to Rivers partners are taking a cautious approach.
For Bishop, the big picture didn’t matter as much Saturday. He finally was able to execute his plan — and it worked.
“There’s been some frustration getting here,” he said, “but it was worth it. Today was super fun.”