Walk into Chilkoot during breakfast on the weekends or lunch on almost any day of the week and the place is packed. There's a type of hustle and bustle atmosphere that is common in most restaurants or cafes, but Chilkoot has a warm feel to it. Like you can take a book or a laptop and waste the day away in there drinking a cappuccino, nosh on a delicious homemade pastry, or sip one of the many local beers they have available - and be completely content.
I sat down with the owner Lee Stylos to find what makes Chilkoot Cafe & Cyclery so unique, why his bike shop different, and his overall passion for coffee, food, beer, bikes, and what Stillwater and the community mean to him.
Lee has been a prominent figure in the Stillwater bike scene for many years. He is the race director for Stillwater in the annual Northstar Grand Prix. Chilkoot came to fruition many years ago after a local bike shop closed. A bike club, consisting of numerous locals, asked him to open up his own shop. This was tempting for Lee, but he didn't want the run-of-the-mill bike shop. The kind of place with endless rows of bikes, gear that didn't make sense, and employees fitted customers by just looking at them or having them bend over the bike frame. He wanted it to be a whole experience where customers end up loving the bike and more importantly the ride. He also wanted the addition of a coffee shop. The bike/coffee shop combo was a concept that was just starting up in the Twin Cities. It was a chef friend who convinced him to do more a cafe style instead of just a coffee shop.
The history behind the building of Chilkoot dates back to the late 1800's. Once a grocery store turned local corner store, it made several transformations throughout the decades. Stillwater locals and bikers from all over knew the infamous 2nd St. as "Chilkoot hill" (or Chilikoot as many tend to say). Lee took over the property and after an arduous 7 months of non-stop renovation, Chilkoot opened its doors in June of 2011.
If you look at Chilkoot's menu, nothing is really that complex. It's simple, high-quality food with a slight twist. That's exactly how Lee intended it, "our style is comfort food, but done well...it's crafted after what I grew up on. Food used to be good, but now it's too much. Go find something fresh, treat it well and put it on a plate. Shouldn't have to do a lot to make it great." The croissants are homemade, they use farm fresh eggs, corn their own beef, and make their own pasta. Even the kitchen is different than most restaurants. It's right out front. Lee felt that the design of an open kitchen was important, "if you were to come over to my home, you would congregate in the kitchen, I wanted the same atmosphere here. Particularly for lunch, I didn't want people to feel like they have to leave, that the can stay here all day." The menu is influenced largely by Lee, but he says he lets the chef do a lot. "I will tell them what I am looking for and they do it." His newest chef Andrew is from New York and specializes in rustic Italian dishes.
Dinner has a different ambiance. At five in the evening, the cafe converts to table service, making it more formal, like a little bistro. He didn't want it to be a typical bar scene, according to him, "you can go downtown for that." No liquor is served on the premises, just beer and wine (and lots of yummy beer, my fellow craft beer lovers). Live music fills the air on Saturday nights with their "Wine & Dine" events. Wine flights from various regional wines around the world are paired with the cuisine of the region. Wine and food specials are also available. Perfect spot for a date night.
Nothing makes my ears perk up more than those three special words "local craft beer". The love of good craft beer can definitely be felt and tasted at Chilkoot. When it first opened, Chilkoot had one tap, which has quickly expanded into 11! All sixth barrels and all craft beer, except for one tap dedicated for Prosecco (we need our mimosas after all). The beer is on constant rotation with 3 taps dedicated for IPA's, 4 for the lighter Pilsner's, 2 for Stouts or Porters, and 1 tap dedicated for something different or "off the wall" like a barleywine. His philosophy on beer is the same for food, make it simple, make it local, and make it flavorful. Lee professes, "there are too many good beers out there, which is why we are constantly changing it up, once it's gone, we go onto the next great beer." Go there on a Friday night for their flight night tastings. Local brewers bring 4 beers to Chilkoot and are more than happy to share their passion and discuss their beer with guests. This Friday it's Castle Danger Brewery from Two Harbors.
When it comes to incredible coffee, it's a whole different world at Chilkoot. Even this self-proclaimed "coffee connoisseur" learned a thing or two. Just like the Chilkoot menu, their coffee is simple and fresh. Chilkoot only buys coffee in season, so the coffee is constantly changing, usually every three months. "I go to Cafe Imports and I buy green beans. I taste them and if I like them, I buy a lot of that coffee until that lot is gone. We have Brazillian, Columbian, North African, Indonesian coffee, whatever is in season. We roast them here and brew it quickly - within one week for the best flavor". He adds that many companies can mask the flavor of a coffee bean by simply burning the bean, but that if you buy a quality bean when it's in season, there is no sense is burning it, let the flavors of the bean speak for itself.
Chilkoot isn't all fantastic food, delicious craft beer, regional wines, and addicting coffee, it's also a full-service bike shop. Walk into the back end of the building and find the bike shop. If you are new to the bike scene, don't be intimidated. At Chilkoot Lee's mission is to find a bike that is the best bike for you for the dollar. Lee has a Ph.D. in cardiovascular physiology and if he doesn't tell you first, I will: the man knows his stuff. Legit. "We sell to all levels. My policy is to do everything different from other bike shops. We say [here] tell me what you want the bike to do. I buy the frame geometry. I measure the inseam, trunk, total height. I base the bike on the geometry of what you want it to do".
In his "fit studio", riders are asked to ride as they normally would while more load is being added. With the use of an infrared camera and various software, he can measure the riders position and bike parameters with millimeter accuracy. It's incredibly complex but astonishingly accurate. Lee includes this in the price of the bike. "The power and control are set for you. Other shops will charge you for that, but we don't. When you are done, you really like the bike. Take it to your house, take it on your trails. Take it 40 miles, I don't care. You will know if that machine works for you. You don't want to make a missed choice." If it doesn't work for you, bring it back and Lee will find another one that does fit. "I can get you on a bike in ten minutes and out the door if you want to, but it shouldn't be like that. It should fit you."
Another difference you notice right away in the bike shop is a not a ton of different brands. They carry Cannondale, Specialized, and Cervello. That's about it. When I asked Lee why the lack of various brands, his response was similar to how he views the cafe- quality with no fuss, "I believe these are the best bikes for the dollar... as soon as Cannondale doesn't make a great bike for the dollar, I will find someone else. I want to stay with the companies that are doing the best for the consumer. We tell you exactly what the tradeoffs are."
The newest adventure in the bike world is fat bikes. I am sure you have seen these bikes around town. Larger frames with giant tires chugging along in the snow - anything for a Minnesotan to get outside in the winter. At first, Lee wasn't sold on the idea of a snow bike, "I thought it would be a fad. My son first told me to look at the fat bikes. When we were able to get one of the first top of the line fat bike frames from "Moots" for a customer, [which wasn't cheap] I thought, 'Ok. Let's do fat bikes.'"
Chilkoot has been apart of many community events over the years. The most obvious is the Northstar Grand Prix where hundreds of bikers race around the state in various stages. In Stillwater, bikers come flying down Chestnut St. at incredibly high speeds and pedal back up the dreaded second street (Chilkoot) hill. Along with local bike clubs, Chilkoot participates in fundraising for the Family Means Cimarron program where they help local kids earn their own bikes. Chilkoot also raises funds for the Jon Francis Foundation, which is geared for finding people, specifically adults, in the wilderness through training search and rescue teams.
Before Afton native and Olympian skier Jesse Diggins made it big, Chilkoot used to help with fundraisers for her. In 2014, at 3:00 am, Chilkoot was packed with over a hundred people and news crews wanting to see Jesse live on T.V. make her big Olympic debut. "I couldn't believe it. A friend and I initially planned it for just a few people....then word got out and my friend kept saying, it's going to be 50 people now, then 75, then 100. I kept saying, no, no, no it's going to be at 3:00 am, no one is going to show up. When local news organizations wanted to come, I just kept saying, you know it's going to be in the middle of the night, right?" When 3:00 am did come and people were already lined up at the door, Lee was stunned. "It was so much fun, everyone was in a good mood, there were probably about 150 people here, all cheering for her. That's what makes this whole thing worth it. The community. Sharing experiences with other people. The second that stops is when I will be done." More recently, a commercial was made about that event. Keep an eye out for it.
If you live in Stillwater, you know that it is incredibly special and unique. Even though Lee isn't a particular fan of winter, he feels the same. "Where else can you find this quality of life? In 30 minutes I can do fly fishing in Wisconsin, I can go to the entertainment in the Twin Cities, I can ride for miles and miles on roads and trails, I can go riding next to cows and farmers. I can go to the airport in 30 minutes and travel wherever, and I do".
I asked Lee about what the future holds for Chilkoot, "I have no intention of franchising. It's the right size and it's still fun. I don't see a reason to stop doing what we are doing. I get to do this whole social thing that is fun and meeting new people. Community and giving are the kinds of things that happen when you have a place like this".
Photos: Courtesy of Chilkoot.