Tucked away in a community building on Santa Fe sits a homey shop that elicits a similar cathartic experience to that of Anton Ego’s at the end of Ratatouille. Like setting foot into many coffee shops, there are the hisses and clanks of espresso hardware, but quickly setting itself apart from your run-of-the-mill coffee joint, mmm…COFFEE! Paleo Bistro has the warm greetings of Jami and Derek Fynboh.
Derek and Jami met at Grant Street Cafe, a shop Derek managed at the time. There he taught Jami to be a barista. Not long after, he tasted her food and realized she was wasting her time with coffee. The two eventually got married and had their daughter, Ferris. Around this time, they exited the restaurant business when Jami became extremely ill. Derek worked at the Brown Palace while Jami raised and educated their daughter, doctors still unable to diagnose or help her. But when Jami decided to make the switch to the Paleo diet, within a year, her health was on the upswing and the two were opening mmm…COFFEE! Paleo Bistro—the first Paleo restaurant to open in the U.S., according to the Fynbohs.
Derek had been ready to re-enter the coffee industry—only able to make it a messy hobby in the kitchen for some time while Jami was getting more invested into her Paleo cooking. Naturally, the two merged their passions. Derek said, “if you let me open a coffee shop, I’ll even go Paleo the day we open.” He did, losing 35 pounds in two months and has stayed with it ever since.
For those who don’t know, the Paleo diet is a grain-free, nutrient-dense diet—“the most nutrients per calorie that you can get,” Derek explains. The idea is to get energy as directly from the ground or animal as possible—no processing. “No grains, no soy, no legumes, no corn,” Jami says.
As the first Paleo restaurant to open in the U.S., part of their mission statement is getting more established paleo businesses to open in the country. Since their start, a movement of Paleo shops have been opening up. Even entering the shop, to the left is a book shelf of Paleo cookbooks entirely donated by the authors. “It’s crazy when you go Paleo, how different everything tastes—and smells—and how much hungrier you are. It’s a healthy appetite,” Jami says.
After being out of the coffee business for so long, Jami and Derek were eager to get back in. “We opened within two weeks of signing the lease,” Jami says, painting, prepping, and converting the closet into a tiny kitchen. The district’s First Friday was a big motivator for the location in helping business flow. Still, Derek explains, “we started too small.” For the first five years they only had the small entrance space with a few tables and the community courtyard outside.
In 2018, they expanded their space. Originally, they had planned the expansion to be a much-needed kitchen space for Jami’s cooking, but the price of the operation called for another idea. Their number one complaint had been the amount of space, so the choice for more seating seemed self-evident to them, and with walls that needed decorating, their time in the art district made that an easy fill too.
Every month, their bistro features a different local artist of Denver. It’s the first show for some artists; others are making their living from it. One of their features, Christopher Clark, has even worked in fine arts for Marvel and Lucasfilm. Jami explains, “His work is hanging in George Lucas’ home.”
The shop’s next feature in March is set to “be the most emotional show yet,” Jami says. Ndume Olatushani—a self-taught painter—spent 27 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit. Olatushani started painting at the age of 24 behind bars after his mother was killed a few years after his false conviction. “What’s as incredible as his paintings,” Jami explains, “is that he’s not bitter in any way, shape, or form.” That seems to be possible through his artistic work, where he has expressed the unimaginable rage and sadness of his circumstance in bright, vibrant colors, and emotionally depicted characters. “It’s an honor to help represent people like that,” Derek says.
Since opening up mmm…COFFEE!, getting to meet different people like Olatushani has been one of the biggest joys of their job. “There’s a person that comes in here every day and makes me cry, and there’s a person that comes in here every day and makes me laugh,” Jami says. People have come into their shop in tears, thankful to finally have a place that supports their dietary needs, sometimes like Jami, in the face of serious undiagnosable illness.
Both of the Fynbohs have been able to witness substantial changes in Denver. Jami, as a third generation native, says “I don’t even recognize Denver anymore.” She recalls driving into Denver, and the only visible building was the capitol. “If my parents were alive and knew I had a business on Santa Fe, they would kill me,” Jami says. The Santa Fe district, among many others, has undergone unfathomable change. Derek recalls similarly, saying, “When I moved here in ’89, you didn’t walk on Larimer Street. Now—million dollar lofts.”
Denver’s boom has seen many changes, and the Fynbohs say, “mandated wage has hurt small businesses terribly.” Not everyone thinks of it—as the cost of living skyrockets, everyone expects and needs a livable wage, but when local business owners must keep up with their own rising costs, the employment can be a serious financial toll, giving corporate and chain businesses yet another unfair advantage in the competitive market. From 2013 to 2017, Derek recalls strong growth for their business, but it took a hit that fourth year as new businesses expanded in the district. Still, they look to be on the up-and-up with optimism.
If anyone seems to be making do with change, it’s Jami and Derek. There’s always a new obstacle to adapt to, but ultimately, they just enjoy making daily, incremental differences in people’s lives. “Not burning the world down at this point, just keeping it warm,” Derek says. Whether in an artist’s career and community, a local coffee patron, or helping people discover the power that nutrition can have on someone’s life, Jami says, “we’re just living our passions.”