Kelly McDonnell was sweating in the early morning heat when she stopped to catch her breath on the Corrals Trail in the Boise Foothills
"I can't wait to see that stupid mule," she said.
Passersby assured her she was only a couple turns away. Relieved, she started pedaling toward Cafe Mule, a foothills oasis that pops up every Saturday in the summer and early fall. The "cafe" part is a card table, a keg of nitro cold brew coffee and, on this Saturday, some Guru Donuts. The "mule" is Richard, tended by coffee slinger Matt Bishop, who calls himself "Richard's person."
The idea to serve coffee packed in by mule came to Bishop, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and father of three, when he was hiking in the foothills. His kids were running him and his physician's assistant wife ragged.
"I thought the only way I could handle them was to let them burn some energy off in the foothills, but, man, I wished I had some coffee. It was all I wanted," Bishop said. "I decided that's what would make life better."
Thinking the "only practical way" to get coffee to the trails was with a mule, Bishop started looking for a proper beast of burden—even turning to Craigslist in search of one for sale. He found Richard in Weiser in early 2016 but wasn't sure he was the mule for the job.
"I really disliked Richard when I first met him," Bishop said. "He kinda tests new people. He was pretty pushy with me."
Despite a mulish first impression, Bishop brought Richard home, and they headed out in May 2016 for a trial run. At first, Bishop served hot coffee to a few dozen people at no cost, but was told he couldn't operate on public land: The U.S. Forest Service said it would take up to three years to even consider his application.
"It became very bureaucratic. Really, we just reached the point where I wanted to keep things fairly positive," said Bishop. " I have no desire to be contentious with the community." Now, Bishop and Richard set up on a patch of private land—and can accept tips.
"Those first few weekends, we would get about 30 people trickling in. Most hadn't heard about us and were just stumbling upon us," Bishop said. "We started to get 50 or more people." Bishop could no longer do pour-over hot coffees, and hiking and biking customers began requesting something cool to drink, so Bishop began serving cold brew coffee. Now, business is blossoming.
Cafe Mule Cold Brew is roasted by Seven Seeds Coffee Roasters in Emmet and bottled in Garden City. It's available at Guru Donuts, Boise Fry Company, Urban Ascent, the Boise Co-op and Whole Foods.
Bishop said he has a few more goals for the Cafe Mule, like growing into a full-blown beverage company. So far, so good. On any given Saturday, Cafe Mule might serve nearly 100 customers from all walks (and bikes) of life.
Jeff Nielsen and his wife like to take their three kids to Cafe Mule. Getting donuts and seeing Richard is the "extra incentive" they need.
"It's a good motivator to get them to keep walking," said Nielsen.
On a hot day, knowing Cafe Mule is around the next turn can inspire a boost of energy, but it can be even more exciting when it's unexpected.
"I was just riding by," said Doug Bonser. "I think it's just great. It's Boise."
That's the feedback Bishop wants to hear.
"Our goal for the trailside service is just maintaining something unique," he said. "We get to see people's smiling faces, enjoying the outdoors; and I—and an animal I love—get to be there with them."
To see where Matt and Richard will be or to learn more, visit cafemule.com.