In 2019, after serving over a year and a half of a six-year prison sentence for drug-related charges, Robert “Bobby” Yoakum found himself working at a Jiffy Lube. When he landed the oil-changing gig, he was surprised. Bobby was unfamiliar with the word “dipstick,” let alone how to use one. That’s because much of Bobby’s time had been spent at Simeran Baidwan’s Little India, the restaurant & bar where he was first a server and then the Director of Operations until 2013. Unfortunately, Bobby’s life would take a turn for the worst in 2014 when drugs and the wrong crowd altered his trajectory.
One day, as Baidwan saw Bobby walking to work at Jiffy Lube, he stopped in to say hello. The two had always had a strong bond and Baidwan was admittedly heartbroken when he learned of Bobby’s mistakes and misfortune. However, it wasn’t long after that fateful encounter between Baidwan and Bobby that the two would become business partners, completely transforming Bobby’s life and outlook. Today, Baidwan and Bobby own several restaurants together, including the two Lil Coffea Shops (the second one coming soon) where the duo assists and employs at-risk youth.
What Now Denver caught up with Yoakum to talk about his past, present, and the future of Lil Coffea Shop:
WND: When will the incoming Lil Coffea Shop open?
Yoakum: So, we opened our first location on October 7, 2021, and we’re getting ready to close on this next one pretty soon. The attorneys just called and said everything’s ready to go, so we’re ready to get the ball rolling.
I’ve been in there every day meeting with the team because we’re keeping the original staff from Keith’s Coffee Bar. They’ve all been there for years, so it was really important that I go in there and meet and talk with them. It’s a great team over there. The current owner [Keith] has been there for 13 years; he’s just a great guy. You know what’s funny? Before I even opened up the first Lil Coffea Shop, I had a vision board at home and I put down “Lil Coffea Shop #2” with the address to Keith’s next to it.
WND: Can you tell us the story behind the name?
Yoakum: When I was putting everything together, I wanted to combine “coffee” and “tea” since one of our top-selling items at Little India is our Thai tea. But after some research, I found out that Coffea is actually a coffee plant – that’s why I have the mural on the wall [depicting] the Coffea plant.
WND: What has the experience of being a co-business owner been like for you?
Yoakum: It’s actually been exhilarating. You know, my partner Simeran was my boss for a long time and we have such a great bond. I couldn’t have picked a better person to be in this with, honestly. He’s like a brother to me. We’re just doing amazing things together; in less than two years, we’ve opened four businesses, [two additional Little India locations and two Lil Coffea Shop locations].
WND: How, if at all, will this second location be different from the original shop?
Yoakum: This incoming shop will be much larger and I’d like to implement open mic nights, poetry slams, and other exciting community events.
WND: What’s your go-to drink and food combo at Lil Coffea Shop?
Yoakum: Definitely The Chronic Toast, which is avocado toast made with fresh-made avocado mash, arugula, sprouts, feta cheese, honey balsamic vinegar, and cherry tomatoes. I’d pair that with our lavender matcha.
WND: Did you ever see yourself here?
Yoakum: No, not really. I had a kid at a very young age and I dropped out of high school. Funny, you know, when I was 19 years old, I was a barista at the first Lil Coffea Shop location; it was a Starbucks back then. I started working at Little India in 2005 and I did great. Initially, I was a server and then became the Director of Operations. I left in 2014 when I started going through all of my struggles. It’s crazy, while I was in prison, I would have dreams about the restaurant and Simeran and being in the weeds during a busy shift [laughs].
[What I looked forward to most though] was reconnecting with all of the people that I had pushed away when I was caught up in the drug game. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do when I got out, but I knew I was going to do something.
Lil Coffea Shop is my first business, and I didn’t realize I wouldn’t be making any money for a while, but that’s totally okay with me because now I have this platform where I run a few restaurants and I get to help these kids who are in similar situations as I was. For me, connecting with them and letting them know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel has been the most rewarding experience and that’s what I want to continue doing because it makes me feel good. It makes me feel good to be somebody that they can look up to, and it makes me feel good to be a voice for some of them. We help a lot of trans youth who don’t necessarily have a voice and, you know, some of them have even been kicked out of their homes for being trans. Now I have this place — this community of people — where it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are or where you come from.