Editor's Note: Buchanan was interviewed via keyboard.
For many non-native English speakers, hand gestures facilitate communication. For Nick Buchanan, co-owner of Pepperbox Coffee, his hands speak his mother tongue: American Sign Language.
Story by Ashley Nava
Photos by Alyssa Flores
Parked at the intersection of 40th and Marathon streets, the first deaf-owned coffee business in Austin is redefining what it means to get a cup of coffee. Seattle natives Nicholas Buchanan and Mario Essig saw an opportunity to fill Austin’s vacant niche of drive-thru-only coffee shops and address the unemployment crisis faced by the deaf and hard of hearing community, so they opened a coffee trailer in 2016.
“I grew up around coffee—Seattle!” Buchanan says. “It has inspired me to bring their culture and way of brewing and serving coffee to Austin. Their focus is [a] quick drive-thru stand. You see those at virtually every gas station or available at parking lots.”
Buchanan, a former software programmer, realized his passion for entrepreneurship when he and Essig saw a shooting star while sitting around the campfire. That night, the vision of the quickest brew and “Coffee With a Bang!,” as their motto says, was conceived. They continued the cowboy theme with a logo depicting a pepperbox gun chamber revolver with coffee beans that was inspired by a Wild West card game.
The major challenge was getting funding because of the language barrier between him and investors. After reading books to learn how to start his own business, Buchanan decided to take the risk and took out a personal loan. “Those first few weeks were hectic!” Buchanan says. “A lot of things went wrong. Drinks were made wrong, payment methods didn’t work. Right now we are almost one year into the business and our current challenge is keeping track of books, but we just hired a certified public accountant, finally!”
Their experience defined Pepperbox Coffee’s mission and value statement, as they believe their determination and talents are not defined by the barriers in place for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
For April Alonso, who has been a barista for Pepperbox Coffee since its opening, she has felt empowered through autonomy in the labor market as a deaf individual. "My job at PBC [Pepperbox Coffee] has been amazing!" Alonso says. “How hearing people are willing to give me a chance of being their barista has made an impact on me. It makes me feel that being deaf is not a barrier.”
For Henrietta Elston, a law enforcement student at Austin Community College, trips to Pepperbox Coffee have become something of a personal ritual. While she enjoys her weekly “Gatling Gun,” a white chocolate Pepperbox specialty, Elston’s passion for supporting the deaf and hard of hearing community is what keeps her coming back. ASL became a part of her life through her childhood friend who was deaf.
“I think supporting the deaf community for me is something that’s become personal to me by knowing my professor and remembering my friend,” Elston says. “They are so strong and determined to move on when everyone is shunning them. I think it’s important to bring them to the forefront and for others to try things that are out of the norm, such as getting your coffee from a deaf-owned business.”
With more than 30 deaf-owned businesses in Austin, Buchanan hopes to further enable individuals from the deaf and hard of hearing community to become independent by franchising his business. He hopes to empower other cowboys. “I personally love the Wild West theme, it shows characters who are rogue, independent, tough, bad-ass, wielding power in their hands,” Buchanan says. “It represents America, we are a group of people who can survive, make it on our own and grow to greatness!”