Apr 28, 2017 07:23AM
By Anthony Flott
Like many who guzzle black gold, Sagar Gurung started downing coffee purely for utilitarian reasons.
The taste—he could have done without.
“I started for the caffeine,” Gurung says. “When I took that first sip, I said, ‘What the hell is this? It’s bitter.’ I would add a lot of sugar, milk, and cream to it.”
Gurung has come a long way in his java journey. He is the founder and part-owner of one of Omaha’s newest non-chain caffeine joints, Himalayan Java Coffee House. It launched in June 2016 at 329 S. 16th St., across from the Orpheum Theater on Harney Street.
Not that long ago, what Gurung knew about coffee didn’t amount to a hill of beans. He has worked as a business analyst (currently for Valmont Industries) after earning a degree in computer science from Bellevue University in 2004. Gurung was born in Chitwan, Nepal, but lived mostly in India until he moved to Omaha in the 10th grade to live with his older sister. He graduated from Omaha Gross High School.
He took regular trips back home to Nepal, and it was during one of those trips that he went from coffee novice to coffee aficionado. The spark was a visit to Himalayan Java Coffee, a franchise launched in 1999 by Gagan Pradhan and Anand Gurung in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.
Nepal is mostly a tea-loving country, but Pradhan and Anand Gurung were changing that with a concept utilizing small coffee farmers whose harvest had mostly been going outside the country. Nepalese farmers were more likely to grow millet or maize than they were coffee, which wasn’t introduced to the country until 1938 by a hermit who brought seeds from Myanmar (then Burma).
By the 1970s Nepalese farmers were beginning to pay attention to coffee as a serious cash crop. Today, it’s grown in nearly three dozen districts, thriving in one of the highest elevations in the world.
Pradhan and Anand Gurung, according to Sagar, “introduced coffee to Nepal,” showing countrymen how it should be planted, raised, roasted, brewed, and imbibed. Their efforts resonated—today, more than 20 Himalayan Java shops have been introduced in Nepal.
On Sagar’s first visit to Himalayan Java Coffee in Nepal, “I instantly loved everything they were doing,” he says. He began to lobby the duo to let him bring their brand and their coffee to his adopted homeland. He also proposed the idea to Nepalese friends who lived in Omaha, asking them to join as partners.
Finally, the founders relented. “I think they just wanted to make me stop bugging them.”
The Nepalese founders are more like “strategic partners” than they are franchisees, Sagar says, but the Omaha Himalayan Java buys all its coffee from its Nepalese counterpart.
It’s a competitive market in Omaha, dominated by national and local chains. Sagar says such competition only gave him more reason to launch Himalayan Java here. And none of the others in Omaha can offer the distinct Arabica flavor available in his store.
“Coffee has a natural tendency to embody its environment,” Sagar says. “So the taste you get is very unique to the area you grow in.”
He appears to have picked an ideal location for the startup. Customers come frequently from the Orpheum across the street, of course, but Himalayan Java also gets employees from nearby Union Pacific, First National, OPPD, other downtown businesses, students from Creighton and UNMC, and downtown denizens.
Himalayan Java offers a full complement of caffeinated beverages—espressos, cappuccinos, mochas, lattes, and more. The No. 1 seller, Sagar says, is the “Dark Roast 4.” The menu also includes sandwiches, soups, and salads.
Sagar says customer retention has been strong and that word-of-mouth marketing has helped Himalayan Java enjoy 15- to 20-percent growth month over month. Enough that he’s had at least preliminary discussions about expanding to a second store.
He’s also heard from enough customers that he plans to introduce some home-cooking with a menu that should include Nepalese goat and chicken curry; “thukpa,” an intensely flavored noodle soup; and “momos,” spicy Nepalese dumplings typically filled with marinated minced meat.
“I want to introduce Nepali items you can’t get anywhere else in town,” he says.
For now, though, he’s intent on making sure Himalayan Java makes a name for itself with its roasts — something customers should recognize just steps inside.
“We are a coffee house, and it is a beautiful thing to walk into a store and the aroma hits you,” he says.
It took him a while to get there, but he says the taste is even better.
“Now I like my coffee dark with no sugar, no milk, or cream,” Sagar says. “I just love the way our coffee tastes.”
He’s hoping more and more Omahans will agree.
Visit himalayanjavausa.com for more information.
This article was published in the May/June edition of The Encounter.