After 17 years in the grocery department at Whole Foods in Boulder, Alex Maloof made a career change in late 2020, citing a desire to move on after Amazon’s revamp of the grocery chain and a passion for coffee and espresso.
“I’m happiest when I’m making people coffee,” Maloof, 51, said.
Post-Whole Foods, neighbors began gathering at Maloof’s Boulder condo in the mornings for mochas made with his Izzo Alex espresso machine.
“It grew into a bigger thing, almost like a micro-business, a small cafe out of my place,” Maloof said. He realized, “This is it. This is what I want to do when I grow up.” But “under my own terms and in my own confines,” he said, not “serving people behind the counter all day long.”
Since mid-August, Cafe Alejandro has been operating out of a purple truck parked at the Valmont Skatepark and dog park lot from Tuesday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to around noon, and on weekends in Tom Watson Park, across from Coot Lake, from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
For three years, Maloof explored various options for launching his business, relying on his savings and 17 years’ worth of accumulated paid vacation time. After considering a coffee bike, a motorcycle with a sidecar or a trailer, he ultimately chose a truck as the best way to provide espresso drinks, given their need for water and electricity.
Maloof cashed in his 401(k) from Whole Foods to buy an 18-foot-long diesel truck, the first vehicle he ever owned. Although he learned to drive years ago in Chicago, where he grew up, it had been decades since he’d been behind the wheel, so his fiance helped him brush up on his driving skills so he could open for business.
Cafe Alejandro’s menu includes espresso shots, Americanos, cortados, lattes and hot chocolates. But the side of Maloof’s truck, which he and his fiance designed, features the words “everyone could use a mocha” — Maloof’s specialty. Even his license plate reads “mocha.”
Maloof makes mochas by combining his pre-made powdered mixes with shots poured from a La Marzocco Linea Mini espresso machine. The powder mixes, available for purchase on his website, start with cocoa powder. For the Mexican mocha, Maloof adds chili powder, cinnamon and sugar, while the peanut butter mocha contains peanut flour, sugar and salt.
Maloof plans to expand Cafe Alejandro’s menu by adapting his favorite at-home recipes so that a stove pot of liquid ingredients — like melted butterscotch chips or a can of pumpkin — becomes powder, making his mochas easier to produce in large quantities and store without refrigeration.
Uncertain future at Valmont
Tuesdays are typically the slowest day of the week for Maloof, with only two or three customers an hour. The weekends bring in more business, but there is still great potential for expanding his customer base.
“Twenty people an hour would be phenomenal,” Maloof said, though he doesn’t see that happening unless he begins serving at food truck events or diversifying his route. This appears to be a likely next step, considering the ongoing permitting uncertainties at Valmont City Park.
“I absolutely love that area,” Maloof said. However, he added, unclear communication got Cafe Alejandro off to a rocky start.
In December 2022, Maloof made a verbal agreement with Mike Rossi, Valmont City Park supervisor, that Cafe Alejandro could use its parking lot. Communication with Rossi continued as Maloof finalized his permitting and licensing paperwork with the city’s Regulatory Licensing Division.
But a few days after Maloof’s first day in the park in August 2023, Boulder’s urban rangers — a four-person Parks & Rec team that started in summer 2022 — asked him to leave, according to Maloof. Though he was in the Parks & Rec system as a licensed vendor, in order to sell at Valmont, he needed a special events permit from a separate city entity, the Community Planning and Permitting Planning Division.
“I was under the impression that, as long as mobile food vendors were fully licensed through the City of Boulder, it was okay for them to sell at city parks, with prior approval,” Rossi told Boulder Reporting Lab. “I apologized for that oversight and was glad that we were able to determine the full process and move forward.”
Maloof collaborated with Rossi, other Parks & Rec staff and the Community Planning and Permitting Planning Division’s Office of Special Events to develop a policy to accommodate Cafe Alejandro.
“We all agreed that Valmont City Park would be a great place to have mobile food vendors on a regular basis, due to the location and popularity of the park,” Rossi said.
To grant Maloof a special events permit, the city created “Valmont Park Community Food Truck Days,” from Sept. 15 to Dec. 1, 2023, 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on weekdays. It’s now looking for other mobile food vendors to join Cafe Alejandro in the parking lot.
This “event” aims to gauge how receptive the community is to food vendors at Valmont. If it’s successful, Rossi said, the city will add Valmont City Park to the list of parks approved for regular vending.
‘Every single day, still, is a struggle’
In case Maloof can’t sell at Valmont come December, he’s searching for new locations while he continues to grapple with the ongoing challenge of managing business costs.
“It was definitely trial and error in the very beginning,” Maloof said. In his initial cash flow projections, he calculated the espresso yield from a five-pound bag of beans, milk quantities for various drink sizes, ideal closing times and the coffee sales for breaking even.
“Every single day, still, is a struggle because it’s $20 in gas here for the generator, $12 there for milk,” Maloof said.
Maloof still hasn’t figured out what he calls the “people’s algorithm.” On some Wednesdays at Valmont, for example, the truck is three times busier than on other days, and he can’t quite pinpoint the reasons for the fluctuations.
“Some days I’m leaving at noon, and some days, it’s still happening at noon,” Maloof said. Still, he finds it all worthwhile. “I feel totally energized when I’m serving people and it’s more than one person in a row. Time doesn’t matter.”
Cafe Alejandro is open at Valmont City Park’s parking lot, just North of Valmont Road, Tuesday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to noon. On weekends, Cafe Alejandro parks at Tom Watson Park in Gunbarrel (across from Coot Lake) from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Licensed food vendors who are interested in joining Valmont Park Community Food Truck Days should contact Parks & Rec’s community access administrator Rosa Wright at WrightR@bouldercolorado.gov.