Story last updated at 7:35 PM on Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Small business stays afloat in cove

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer

Drive-up service without a road? No problem for entrepreneur Jim Nardelli. In fact, that’s part of the charm of Nardelli’s Espresso Bar, located in the small, roadless community of Halibut Cove. The espresso bar has been attracting cove residents and visitors for four years. All of them arrive by water.

  Photo by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News
In its fourth season, Nardelli's Espresso Bar in Halibut Cove is a popular stop for cove residents and area boaters from Memorial Day through Labor Day.  
The idea of a floating espresso business dawned on Nardelli several years ago when he was working as chief mate on a tug in Valdez.

“I couldn’t stand being gone all the time,” said Nardelli, who lived in Halibut Cove, but was frequently away, making his living at sea. “I didn’t have a life, didn’t know people. So I quit, went on vacation a little bit — Cuba, the Caribbean, just kind of traveled around — and thought about what I wanted to do.”

Returning to the cove, he considered owning and operating a bar as a way to stay home.

“But I don’t like cigarettes and drunks, so I decided on an espresso bar,” he said.

Originally from Rhode Island, Nardelli came to Alaska in 1967, and lived in Anchorage and Homer. By the 1980s, he had grown tired of an environment where everything froze in the winter.

“I was leaving Homer and Alaska, headed to Seattle on my (30-foot) sailboat and decided to look at this side of (Kachemak) bay before I left,” Nardelli said.

One look at Halibut Cove changed his future.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is what I’m looking for. This is the Alaska I want,’” he said.

Settling into cove life, Nardelli lived on his sailboat at first, then built a floating dock with a cabin on it. Then he built the business.

Originally called the “Mug Up” — a saying that at one time heralded a coffee break for Alaska cannery workers — it eventually became known as Nardelli’s Espresso Bar due to public pressure convincing the owner that his last name was perfect for an espresso business.

A skiff, complete with an “espresso” sign, floating in the cove’s protected water in front of Nardelli’s business attracts attention. A blue “open” sign lets passersby know the welcome mat is out. The menu includes espresso, a variety of other beverages including Nardelli’s homemade root beer, and a hot dog bar with all the fixings — chili, caramelized onions, sauerkraut, cheese, chopped sweet onion, relishes and mustards.

Nardelli’s put-the-customer-first approach keeps the people coming back.

“Everyone gets treated like a million dollars,” he said. “I learned years ago to treat people the way you want to be treated, even if it’s the next door neighbor.”

Kayakers receive float-side service. Others climb out of their boats and lounge in chairs scattered around the float. Cove visitors, such as former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel, rub shoulders with cove residents who run their skiffs over for a cup of something hot or a chance to kick their feet up and watch the world pass by.

“You never know,” Nardelli said of who will show up.

Being open from Memorial Day through Labor Day gives Nardelli the winters to follow other interests. In mid-September, he will take over the concession stand in the Homer Ice Arena. The menu will include Captain’s Coffee for brewed coffee, KBay coffee for espresso and hot dogs from McNeil Canyon Meats.

Halibut Cove residents and other mariners that make it a point to frequently stop at Nardelli’s Espresso Bar needn’t worry that this new venture will change anything in the cove.

“Everyone (in Halibut Cove) is really supportive and I’d be afraid to close,” Nardelli said. “It’s really become a part of the community and no matter what kind of work I was doing, that would be my summer gig.”

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at