When Robbie Kudla-Gassman visited Iowa for the first time, she never imagined she’d end up in small-town Iowa, living out her lifelong dream of owning a successful coffee shop called Aspen Leaf Cafe & Coffee House.
She made the trek from Colorado packed into a car with her then-husband, seven kids, three cats and a dog. They ended up in Fort Dodge, where she continued her passion of working for domestic violence organizations. After she and her husband divorced, she returned to Colorado before moving to Tennessee as she searched for a place to start a business and call home.
But she didn’t settle into either of those places quite like she had in Fort Dodge, and this longing inspired her to return to Iowa. This time, she landed in Pocahontas, which her sports photographer niece had suggested for its kind people and charming community. After purchasing and fixing up a dilapidated house, she decided this was where she wanted to stay.
“I kind of ended up in Iowa due to a series of mistakes and bad decisions,” Robbie jokes. “But I was looking for a different career, something new. And then I found a house that I could afford, so I moved here and ran into some old friends and just thought ‘There’s something calling me to this town.’”
She got a job with the local school district driving school buses, something she had done for years in other places, then decided to purchase an old, run-down building on Pocahontas’ Main Street in March of 2020. As a child, she and her brother had always dreamed of starting a cute little coffee shop with flowers out front, and this seemed like the perfect place to bring that dream to life.
Starting From Scratch
The building’s previous owner had done some demolition work, but otherwise the building had little value and required extensive work inside and out. However, once Covid hit and schools shut down, Robbie had nothing but time and set to work.
With help from family and friends, she invested tens of thousands of dollars from her own pockets for its restoration. They redid the electric wiring, plumbing and insulation, framed new walls, repaired the caved in ceilings, added new flooring and painted. Once the building had increased in value, she received funding assistance from various organizations such as the MIDAS Council of Governments, Pocahontas County Economic Development and Pocahontas’ revolving loan fund.
As things continued coming together, community members also pitched in. Some shared stories of the building’s past lives as a grocery store and several shoe stores while others donated furniture and dishes, a few local women made napkins, and the rest came from Craigslist.
“It was like I was playing Tetris and all the pieces were falling into place,” Robbie said. “I didn’t have anything planned, I didn’t have a designer or contractor, but we just got in here and did all the work ourselves, not really knowing what it was going to be.”
In October of 2020, Aspen Leaf Cafe & Coffee House officially opened its doors and quickly became a community staple. Robbie hired most of her staff through an Iowa organization called Imagine the Possibilities, which helps individuals with disabilities find employment. She also hired several local high schoolers and began offering them scholarships once they graduated. With a busy start of serving caffeinated drinks seven days a week, sometimes for 14-hour days, the business never faltered.
“I have the best employees. Sometimes they wouldn’t get hired anywhere else, but to us, they’re like family,” Robbie said. “The world is hard in a lot of ways, so we try to be a little refuge. When people walk through the door, we want to bless them in any way we can.”
Robbie and her new business embrace the community in a variety of ways. Aspen Leaf partners with the Elderbridge Agency on initiatives such as Meals on Wheels to provide meals for elderly residents and reconnect them to the community. She even led a campaign in honor of a local family to raise awareness and funds for the area chapter of Unravel, a nonprofit organization that supports pediatric cancer research.
She also frequently cooks at a local men’s shelter and continues to drive school buses, which sometimes requires closing the coffee house early to pick up her students.
“Small business owners have to wear a lot of hats. Our success isn’t always measured by the money that goes into the cash register or awards and accolades,” Robbie said. “The thing that keeps us going is that we’re a place that welcomes people and supports the community, who therefore has rallied around us. That’s something I love about Iowa.”
Today, Aspen Leaf Cafe & Coffee House thrives with a variety of services, including catering and rental space for events. In the spring and summer, customers can cool off with boba tea, Italian sodas and smoothies. Once temperatures drop, the café switches its menu to include Columbian tea and holiday drinks. Robbie’s 15-year-old niece also sells pies at the café through her pop-up, Lucy’s Pie Shop.
And, last year Robbie brought a baker from Wisconsin to serve delicious scones, cinnamon rolls, muffins and tarts. The baker, Erick Gassman, is now her husband and they happily run the café together.
Since Aspen Leaf’s opening and the end of the pandemic, Pocahontas’ Main Street has blossomed. It’s now home to several restaurants, gift shops, boutiques and local artisan groups.
“I had a business in Colorado when I lived there, and I’ve lived in and experienced Tennessee, but this is the place to be,” Robbie said. “Here, people really care about one another, and I’m grateful to be in Pocahontas.”