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Saturday, September 20, 2014


Editor’s note: This is another Saturday morning posting in a series written in a coffee centric stream of consciousness about coffee, coffee bars and the folks who run them.

ATOMIC ESPRESSO--If we had not stopped at Bartlesville, Oklahoma’s Indian Coffee Co., for espresso we would not have visited the Phillips 66 Corporate Museum across the street (Frank Phillips Blvd). 

We were in Bartlesville to visit and write about the Price Tower, a 19 story hotel/office building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1950s.

Later in the week, we pulled into a Phillips 66 station on the east side of Tucumcari, New Mexico.  We still had plenty of gas in our new Lincoln hybrid, but we had to stop at the station because of our tour of the Phillips Museum and our newfound brand loyalty.  Plus, we needed a diversion especially after a mind numbing drive along Interstate 40 from Amarillo. 

Seeing the shiny Phillips 66 station was like a first jolt of espresso in the morning. The second jolt was about to come.

After a quick refueling, we drove west through Main Street, which doubles as the old route U.S. 66 highway and T-town’s business alternate route for Interstate 40 in search of coffee.

Our Eureka caffeine moment came as we drove by a vintage motel (owners call it a hotel) with a very distinctive the mid-century architectural style. Like the Phillips 66 station down the road we had just traveled, the Historic Route 66 Hotel and adjacent espresso stop was “bright and shiny” (to use an old but in this case apt phrase).  Welcoming is a better word but nonetheless, we had to stop at Catherine and Michael Fulton’s creative oasis.
Circa Espresso Bar, Tucumcari, New Mexico on Route 66.

At one end of the block long minimalist motel was the “Circa Espresso Bar.”  Only open in the mornings, the Circa, 1620 E. Route 66 Blvd, Tucumcari, NM 88401) turned out to be a beacon of coffee goodness on an already hot August morning.  Touting itself as the home of the Atomic Espresso, we had to ask about this house specialty.  Our barista, a winsome hipster drawled and reminded us “this ain’t your daddy’s cup of Joe.”  Six shots of Atomic in one cup (I tried the Trinity) put me in the passenger seat until we reached Gallup, NM. I immediately pulled on my Bose headphones and cranked up John Hiatt tunes until I returned to Earth.

The atomic espresso coffee menu was an idea that Michael Fulton says is indicative of his sometimes polemic sense of humor, as well as a nod to the Los Alamos, NM Laboratory where the atomic bomb was developed, and to the Trinity Test (the first atomic
bomb) that took place near Alamogordo, NM in 1945 at the White Sands
Missile Range (about a hundred miles to the southwest).

When they started the espresso bar, Michael asked Cathy
(who is also an amateur chef) to design three separate ice cream drinks
that would be unique only to their shop.  It took her a couple of months  before some ideas stuck.  

“First was, and is, that we serve a cold coffee drink that is not only delicious, but packs a pretty good espresso wallop as well,” Michael said. “If a customer wishes, he or she can get up to six shots
of espresso in a 24 ounce Atomic Espresso.  For their nuclear creations, the Fulton’s grind Ritual Grounds, a brand coffee beans from Vista, CA.

He continued, “The names of the drinks are all related to the White Sands Missile Range where captured German V-2’s
were tested as well.  We serve three Atomic Espresso’s:
            1. The White Sands (White Chocolate based);
            2.  The V-2 (Pineapple-Coconut based); and the
            3. Trinity (Chocolate based).  When iced they are our most popular summertime drink.

Historic Route 66 Hotel captures Mid-Century decor and architectural style
About the hotel--The hotel was built in 1964 in the popular International Style. “In typical Palm Springs fashion, each room except the suites feature curtain wall, floor to ceiling windows,” says the hotel’s website, “Just so you know, black-out curtains in each room provide privacy when desired, but can be opened fully if a guest wishes to enjoy the view of the courtyard grounds.”

Since the Fulton’s closed escrow back in 2007, travel on I-40 and Route 66 provide enough daily business for the 25-room operation.   “Since we bought it, the hotel has never been vacant or not open for business,” said Michael.

What brought these East Coasters to the high desert of Northeast New Mexico?

A second marriage for both, the couple wisely predicted their careers, which were in real estate and commercial maintenance services, were going to take a hit in the 2006-07 depression.  They sold their holdings in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area and re-invested their cash in the Tucumcari hotel and espresso bar.  The change of scenery move to New Mexico also involved the couple acquiring the automobile lot across old Highway 66 from the hotel.

Proprietors Michael and Catherine Fulton
They kept the mid-century look of the property but had to do some serious hard work to overcome the disrepair they inherited.  “Deferred maintenance was—really, everywhere.  We fixed everything, especially the draperies, which were tattered rags that looked like hell both inside and out,” said Michael, a Arizona State Grad, who prior to real estate investing spent six years in the Navy before landing an administrative post with Temple University.

“Although we do enjoy what we are doing, we are much too young to retire and the businesses that we own are not hobbies,we do depend on customers to make a living as well as build our future retirement,” he said.

“Both Cathy and I have enjoyed mid-century modern architecture and interior design long before we bought this motel, and, I must admit, we have used Palm Springs, CA as a model for our own home, as well as this hotel. 

“We too like the architecture, but not wishing to be a virtual museum, we have updated the interior to a certain extent.  I personally feel that nearly everything in the world is basically interesting, it just depends on perception.  I probably stole that, I just don’t remember where – reminds me of The Who song lyrics where Roger Daltrey sings that ‘every thought in his head, someone else has said’ – I wish that I could be wholly confident that anything I have ever done is truly original.”
“And, we did look at hotels all over the country (the financial books on small independent business are notoriously worthless fabrications – a buyer has to just go by guess-and-by-golly, gut-feel, a willingness to be a bit of a gambler, and the guts to hemorrhage cash for a couple of years).  Therefore, our decision to buy this particular motel did hinge on the “look”, which it did have, current and projected nightly visitors who pass through averaged annually, and available rooms that exist in this small, dusty New Mexico town,” said Michael.

About the airplane next to the espresso bar?-- The airplane is a 1946 Cessna 140 with a long history of different owners up until 1977 when it crashed while landing in Oregon.  “I suppose because it was deemed to be too expensive to repair, the plane then sat until 2009 when I purchased it and brought the 140 to New Mexico,” said Michael.

Added Michael, “Originally, I had planned on having the plane located directly in front of the espresso bar but the city made me move it within a couple of days to its current location.

“I also own a much larger airplane and the wings and empennage (stabilizing surfaces at the tail of an aircraft) will be used on the patio of the espresso bar.  This project will begin in January 2015.  (The wings will have recessed lighting installed and be suspended above the patio for sun and weather protection.

“Trust me, it will look outstanding.)  And yes, in case you’re wondering, I am a private pilot and I have an affinity for nearly anything that flies,” he said.

LAST WEEK IN THIS BLOG: 9/13 New Mexico Pinon Coffee Co.
NEXT WEEK: 9/27 Arbuckle's Coffee at Hubbell's Trading Post, Ganado, AZ


Vintage 1946 Cessna will soon have company as another plane will be added to the design of the hotel

There is a new look to Circa Espresso Bar in the wings after the first of the year (2015).

Main lobby of Historic Route 66 Hotel
Afternoon along Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico

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