Caffeinated by Gator
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Coffee, Dogs and a Nickname
The Gazette interviewed Gator, (aka John O’Leary) in his office at The Grind to learn about the business’ origins, his interest in coffee and starting work on a documentary about Girdwood dogs.
Gazette: How did The Grind come to be?
Gator: I came to Girdwood in ’07, and I had about five part-time jobs at the same time to be able to make ends meet. One of them was here. Where I’m sitting right now is where the coffee counter used to be. We used to be able to serve outside this window. There were two businesses in the building. It was a bookstore, which incorporated the coffee cart that was in here.
Two friends of mine, retirees, were looking for some supplementary income. Since they were already retired, there wasn’t a drive [to run the business full time]. Since I was working at the bookstore and here, I had figured out what needed to happen for the coffee to do better. Eventually they wanted to sell out, and in a sense, it literally fell in my lap.
I bought the coffee shop first. Myself and Chuck Hinson were in business together for about a year. The bookstore melded in with this place. Eventually, the bookstore owner sold out to me because he was enjoying retired life. Somewhere in the middle, we decided to start roasting our own coffee.
Gazette: How did you get involved in roasting your own beans?
Gator: It started with a friend my dad had in Washington State. He was hanging out with retired military buddies and old timers at this coffee shop. He was friends with a guy who goes by the name Tom Sawyer. Initially, they never really asked each other what they did. Dad asked, ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘My family builds and fabricates roasters and we roast coffee.’
He [Sawyer] was actually 4F [unfit for military service] from World War II because the Army found out he yielded 60 percent of the beans that he roasted went to the Army. They wanted him here as an asset because he and his family were producing coffee. He took that as a sign of his calling to be a patriot. We started talking about the potential of a roaster. Eventually we talked about what I needed to know.
I went to a place called Hangman Valley, Washington and went to his lab, which has a roaster about three times the size of mine and a warehouse full of beans. He worked my ass off for about nine days straight. I’d be following him around with a piece of paper. Every time I’d start writing things down, he’d make me pick up something heavy. For the whole time I was there, he just worked me. On the last day I was expecting to do what I had been doing: learning the mechanics of the hopper and the drum, doing all the blending and mixing of the beans and such.
I came in and he had coffee made. He said, ‘Sit down. Now get that paper out.’ The last day became me scribbling ratios and the knowledge he has acquired over the last 30 years, as fast as I could to write.
This guy has gone to the farms. He knows the people in Bogata. He may not know all the farmers in Kenya, where I get some of my beans, but he is connected to the whole thing. He directed me to the right distributer so I can have a fairly guilt-free conscience from where the coffee is coming from. After my internship, I’ve only used a third of the information I received. If I had more room, I could be throwing out magic that I haven’t been able to do.
I have a confined space. This thing is tedious [points to the roaster]. To do a 100-pound order, it takes me all night. I only roast at night to keep my neighbors happy. There have been a few times when I’m roasting, I burn them, and they stink really bad.
Gazette: Where in Hope will your coffee be sold?
Gator: I just got a contract with a restaurant Creek Bend Café. It used to be Tito’s. I’m hoping we’re going to make them a specific blend. That’s one of the things I can do since I’m a small business. I can take things I’m already doing at my shop, blend them, and get into a different dynamic with bean flavors, roast compositions and things like that. With the bean arrays and the temperatures, one degree of temperature for a certain type of bean can make all of the difference. I’m hoping to make them something they can knock out of the park.
Gazette: What do you want to offer someone at The Grind, whether local or a visitor?
Gator: I like offering a more cavalier approach to coffee shops. The coffee shops I loved growing up had poetry readings, somebody strumming a guitar in the corner. The staff would wear whatever the hell they wanted to. They could listen to any music they wanted.
I really appreciate what I offer staff. That would be the thing I think about first. Because of how many years I’ve spent behind a counter, I’ve been trying to eliminate the things that pissed me off when I worked for different companies.
What I offer customers is a much more welcoming atmosphere, but that always has a double-edged side to it. A lot of people are coming in from wherever, and they might not be used to how we do things here. I like to provide a little bit of the unexpected. I like that we provide a social place for people to meet. I pride myself in thinking we make the best coffee in town. Part of that trick is being the brashest.
Gazette: How did you get the name Gator?
Gator: My dad was military. He deployed a lot. Growing up, I would latch onto positive male role models around my dad’s age or military type individuals. My dad was stationed in Louisiana when I was a kid, about 14 years old. I used to go to this lake all the time called Cotile Lake.
I would go down to this levee and go fly fishing. It was a spillway. The lake would spill into this bayou swamp. I loved getting muddy and catching snakes. I would be in alligator infested waters in my shorts trying to catch brim with a net. It was a preteen’s paradise getting muddy every day and seeing bugs that looked like aliens.
This alligator was there all the time. One day I didn’t see it, and I thought it was a log when I stepped over it. All it did was flip its tail, and I fell over backwards into the bayou. Then it ran across my chest.
At the time, because I was a kid and by myself, I thought this thing was 20-feet long and had a jaw like Jaws. It was maybe three feet long, and there was no life threat. It got to one side of the river, and I got to the other. It spun around and dropped its jaw and stared at me.
The name didn’t stick until I was about 17 when I started taking survival classes with a bunch of military guys and SEAL guys I met at a coffee shop. They all had these crazy names like Tower and Wolf, Gideon. I ended up telling them the story of the alligator. They called me Louisiana Gator Boy for a relentless amount of time. Eventually it became Gator Boy.
After years of hanging out with these guys, the name got chopped into Gator. I owe it more to a really close friend of mine because he’s the one who reinforced it. He stayed with my family multiple times. He would refer to me as Gator to my mom and dad. Eventually they would call me that nickname, and it just stuck after that. I’ve been called worse.
Gazette: You’re working on a movie, a Dog-umentary.
Gator: It is my second attempt at a feature film in a small town. The first one I did on my own budget. I really enjoy that medium of art.
One thing I get a lot of joy out of is editing. One thing that feels universal in Girdwood is our love for dogs.
To make a more balanced documentary, I’ll have to do research to find people who don’t like dogs. There are a few people willing to go on camera and talk about the one time they were bit, scared, allergic. I like to build the stories around the dogs themselves and having the owners take the narrative for what those dogs do.
It’s not all beer and skittles. You don’t tell a story like this without the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s the dynamic. People thought I was going to do this ‘I love my Snookums! Here’s a picture of my Snookums!’ Right now I’ve got a cast that is willing to get interviewed two or three times. I want to be able to show the seasons in Girdwood. I want to see dogs playing in the snow. I want to see ‘Rover the days he got into bear poop, and into the dead salmon.’ That’s all part of it.
Ideally, I want it to be an even balance of all the great things that come with being a dog owner and the responsibilities that entails but also the hardships we go through and why we domesticated the wolf. I plan to go in depth on the history of dogs and narrow it down to our small, mountain town.
It’s going to cost around $10,000 to send it to the appropriate film festivals. I want to make it good enough to be stacked up against anything that goes to Cannes, Sundance or IFC. I’ve talked to a couple of people about how to shoot it and perhaps sell it to Netflix.
Gazette: What lessons have you learned from the first movie that you’ll apply to the Dog-umentary?
Gator: I need better equipment. I did everything on my laptop, and that was hard to do. I had a single, handheld Sony cam. Now I’ll go at this with more cameras, better angles. I would love to hire a sound person. I need some insight when it comes to sound. I have a better idea of how to schedule and organize. I’ve never shot a documentary before, but I can already tell that the angle I’m going after, it’s not nearly the same because you’re capturing things as they happen as opposed to making them happen. That’s the dynamic difference.
Gazette: Is there anything you would like to say to conclude this interview?
Gator: It’s because of The Grind I’m able to do this. I thank my customers for enjoying my coffee enough to where I can do other things.
Open daily 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
236 Hightower Road