Downtown Boulder boasts 15 coffee shops, and Creature Comforts on East Pearl has quickly made its mark among them since its grand opening at the end of August.
Owner Jess Liu, 37, believes what sets her cafe apart is its interior — the colorful walls, numerous plants, natural light and variety of Japanese pastries.
“People were like, ‘you’re two doors down from Laughing Goat,’ or ‘there’s so many coffee shops. Why is this different?’” Liu said.
“I wake up every day and I feel different. I provide a very different space than all the existing offerings.”
Liu, a first-generation Chinese American who grew up in Houston, Texas, wanted to start her own business since middle school. But, as she put it, “what that space looked like has evolved throughout the course of my life.”
After graduating from Princeton University, Liu taught English to kindergartners in Japan. In her free time, she would visit patisseries. That inspired her to attend a pastry program in Tokyo. Later on, she worked in various roles in Japan and New York, including as server, hostess and restaurant manager. She eventually moved into an operations position at an events company, and then at a consumer packaged goods business.
After moving to Boulder for an operations job, in January 2020, Liu decided to pursue her dream and started searching for a suitable location for a cafe. She had grown to love cafe culture, she said, inspired by the sense of community she observed at these places.
But her journey was not without its challenges. Liu signed her lease at 1647 Pearl Street in October 2021, but then faced a 408-day wait for approval from Boulder’s Planning & Development Services Department. This extended period was because she was changing the use of the former Pharmaca building, converting it from a retail space to one that serves food and drink, requiring approval for both land-use and building permits.
A local acquaintance who had experience in restaurant management and operations, along with her architect, told Liu to expect the land-use review and building permit process to take six to nine months, she said.
Liu believes the unexpected extra months cost her over $100,000 in rent and other fixed costs, not counting potential revenue she lost during this period. City staff have acknowledged the permitting delays and apologized to Liu at a city council meeting. The Planning Department reimbursed her about $1,500 for her “plan check fee,” which is a fee people pay when applying for a permit to make sure the building design meets city code. However, Liu still had to pay around $5,000 for her building permit, which she received on Jan. 13, 2023.
“I thought I’d be open last summer,” Liu said. But, she emphasized, “I know this is what I’m meant to be doing. That’s what it always came down to, even in the hardest and most trying moments of the permitting process.”
With a smaller budget compared to when she signed her lease, Liu took on the role of interior designer herself. She said she found satisfaction in having complete control over creating a distinct space, especially after observing inefficiencies in other coffee shops over the years – such as a single person sitting at a table with two chairs. So Liu knew she wanted to furnish Creature Comforts with a variety of seating options, including bar stools, a community table, a couch and long benches.
She painted green stripes on the walls and benches herself and added plants. To let in more natural light, she converted three small, high-up windows into two expansive garage doors and a tall entryway leading to the patio.
Creature Comforts is open until 7 p.m., which is later than many other coffee shops on Pearl Street. It serves mimosas, beer and wine all day.
The cafe gets its Japanese-inspired desserts from Enchanted Oven, a bakery in Broomfield. These include black sesame and chocolate mochi muffins, along with madeleines, and vanilla, chocolate marble and lemon pound cake. They are joined in the pastry case by high-protein power muffins from Boulder’s Havenly Baked Goods.
Liu makes it a point to buy her products from small businesses, especially minority- and women-owned ones like Enchanted Oven and Havenly. The drink case is stocked with Mortal Kombucha and Vietnamese canned coffee from Nguyen Coffee Supply.
Creature Comforts serves three kinds of toast with toppings on shokupan, a type of Japanese milk bread from Enchanted Oven. These include yuzu marmalade toast (a customer favorite, Liu says), peanut butter and banana toast, and a combination featuring cucumber, goat cheese and smoked salmon. For lunch and dinner, Creature Comforts offers three sandwiches, made with Enchanted Oven’s milk bread, and two charcuterie boards.
Liu explained her approach to the menu, stating, “I’ve been very intentionally keeping it small. One thing that I really took away from my time living in Japan was the focus on simplicity, but being really excellent in that simplicity.”
She said she used to travel to Asia with her mom for work trips, and during these trips, she noticed the emphasis on the overall dining experience rather than just the food. For her cafe, she wanted to focus on hospitality and create a space that inspires curiosity or makes visitors think, “That’s really cool.”
Three days after its grand opening, Liu faced an unexpected setback when Creature Comforts was broken into and robbed. The suspect targeted the storage closet, along with a neighboring business, Liu said.
Despite the burglary and the lengthy permitting process, Liu said the cafe’s grand opening, and business since, have so far been a success.
“I was so floored by the response and the excitement because it was a pretty long permitting and build-out process,” she said. “I’m fortunate to be in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of residents that have been watching the space. I’m very happy to see people in the neighborhood that are regulars already in such a short time.”
Creature Comforts is located at 1647 Pearl Street and is open Tuesday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Sunday until 4 p.m.