If you want to know the truth about what it’s like to open a coffee shop, Elle Jensen will be honest. Refreshingly honest, in fact. “I try not to shy away from talking about the challenges,” says Jensen, the owner of Amethyst Coffee Co. in Denver, Colorado. “People were never super honest with me about the realities of opening a shop. They would say it was hard, but wouldn’t ever tell me why.”
Aside from the perpetual lack of interest from investors and the resulting financial strain, Jensen says opening a coffee business demands a huge amount on a personal level; it’s a circus-style act of wearing countless hats. “It requires you to be so many things for so many people. You have to be a leader, you have to take a backseat when it's time to take a backseat; you have to be really opinionated sometimes. You have to be really calm and neutral sometimes. You have to be all these things, and it can be really hard to remember who you are inside all of that.”
But Jensen has thrived amidst challenges, developing a flourishing café in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Located in the lobby area of an old motel, the space combines mid-century details with a bright, minimalist aesthetic that delivers modern vibes with vintage charm. The lineup of roasters shows a serious attitude toward coffee, but the playful camaraderie of the staff, and snarky design details—such as a banner proclaiming “I am fucking awesome,”—reveal a lightheartedness that’s often lost in new-wave cafés.
Jensen got her start in coffee working as a barista in Boston, where she also studied songwriting at Berklee College of Music. She found herself drawn to the service-oriented environment of the café: “I love serving people. It’s a huge part of my identity, for better or worse.”
Knowing she wanted to pursue work in hospitality, but unsure how that would manifest, Jensen continued working in cafés, eventually moving to Denver where she stepped into a management role. At the encouragement some of her regulars, she began to consider opening her own business; a few even went as far as to offer financial help, which was crucial when the right space suddenly became available.
“It all happened really quickly,” Jensen says of the jump into opening Amethyst. “The landlord of the shop where I was working came in and said they had a space that had come open that they wanted to turn into a coffee shop. It wasn’t the right time for the owners of the other shop, so I said, ‘I think I’m going to do if if you’re not.’”
Amethyst—named for the birthstone of Jensen’s father—opened in February of 2015. “My best friend Annie was the only person that worked with me when Amethyst first opened,” Jensen says. “It was a lot of flying by the seat of my pants and feeling like I was in over my head all the time–because I was.”
By the end of its first year, the café was doing well enough to start supporting full-time staff. While many baristas view their stints in coffee as temporary, every person Jensen hires is looking to pursue a career in the industry.
Coffee experience isn’t mandatory for new employees, but an understanding of good service is non-negotiable. “If my staff is respectful of all people and treats everyone in a way where they feel seen and valued in our space, I don't really care how they get there. I don't care if you make your pour-over the same way I make my pour-over.”
Jensen describes Amethyst’s staff as part of her support network, and the foundation of what keeps customers coming back to the café. “They push you to be better; I want to be better for them,” Jensen says. “Everything changed when we were able to have a full staff. I felt much more grounded. I felt much more like Amethyst was doing what it was meant to be doing, which was supporting people.”
The tight-knit environment allows them all to work together very collaboratively and keep open lines of communication, especially when it comes to tough interactions with customers.
“When I was in music school, all you ever do is get criticized—constructively. So I figured I'd be ok,” Jensen says. “But [with customers] it comes from a totally different place. It comes from a place of anger and frustration rather than trying to make you better.”
Distinguishing what she can and cannot change, and learning what type of feedback is and isn’t helpful has helped Jensen be less affected by the criticism. But separating herself from the business has still been difficult.
“I’m 27; I’m trying to grow up and also own a business. And people look to you in a way that suggests you have all the answers, and I don’t have any of the answers. I have a lot of questions, actually. Can we talk about those?”
Moments of self-doubt are inevitable in launching a business, yet Jensen has persisted, focusing on the customer experience, and the potential for Amethyst to grow into a place that can offer employees both upward mobility and geographic flexibility.
“I want Amethyst to grow into a brand that maintains our integrity,” Jensen says. “I'd like to play around with some really conceptual things and open some more just-coffee shops. A lot of it is just a matter of right place, right time. I'd like to move into different cities, ultimately.”