The Sugar Shack: a hidden gem |

The Sugar Shack: a hidden gem

From left, Chaloe Barney and her son, Nick Diaz, show off some of their freshly baked pastries at The Sugar Shack in Nevada City.
Cory Fisher/ |

The first time Arion Polkinghome walked into The Sugar Shack in Nevada City, he knew he was coming back.

“I said to myself, ‘I found it — this is my home,’” he said. “I’d finally found my family coffee shop. I’ve tried every other cafe in area — this is the best.”

Years later, Polkinghome continues to come into the Sugar Shack at least once a day, sometimes twice, said Chaloe Barney, who co-owns the shop with her dad, Thomas Barney.

In 2007, Chaloe and her father sold their Auburn bakery and deli, the popular Grist Mill, which they’d run for more than a decade.

“We loved it, but after 13 years the pace was just too brisk,” said Chaloe. “We’d be up baking at 2 a.m. and working until 5:30 p.m.”

After the sale, Chaloe was enjoying much deserved time off when she got a phone call from her ever-busy father, who also owns a construction company.

“Caroline’s is closing their coffee shop at SPD in Nevada City,” he said. “We’re taking over.”

Chaloe originally told her dad she didn’t want to do it. It was just too similar to what she’d done for the past 13 years, albeit successfully. But when she learned of the intimate space and scaled-down menu, she realized she wouldn’t have to keep the pace she had for years at the larger business. In fact, the new business would include all the things she loved about the old business without the back-breaking pace.

In 2007, Chaloe and her dad, Tom, got the keys to the small Nevada City cafe, which has two entrances — one from the parking lot of the ol’ Republic Brewery and SPD Saw Shop, and the other inside the SPD grocery store. In fact, many shoppers leave their carts near the deli and pop in for a quick cup of coffee and pastry, said Chaloe.

Before opening their doors to customers in July 2009, Tom and Chaloe spent two full years refurbishing the space. The massive undertaking included new plumbing, electrical work, insulation, flooring, cabinetry, paint and furniture. Before they signed the lease, they also insisted on a new air conditioning unit, solely for the cafe. A place once known for getting uncomfortably hot in the afternoon is now a pleasantly cool escape from the heat outside.

While Tom works behind the scenes — often he’s at the cafe by 4:30 a.m. — and still runs his other business, Chaloe and her three kids are the ones who primarily oversee daily operations. Stephanie Diaz, 23, works part-time at The Sugar Shack and part-time at a local bank. Katie Diaz, 21, works part-time at the cafe and is also a cosmetologist. Chaloe’s youngest, Nick Diaz, 18, works full time at the cafe.

“I like working with my family,” said Nick. “This is a good way for me to build up my work skills, build my resume and learn about running a small business. My mom’s an OK boss.”

The menu boasts a broad selection of pastries made daily from scratch, sandwiches (including their popular BLT), daily specials and smoothies. In the winter, Chaloe makes homemade soup. Their espresso and coffee is made exclusively from the Thanksgiving Coffee Company, based in Fort Bragg.

“Slow and steady wins the race,” said Chaloe. “When we opened, people trickled in, loved it, then started to tell their friends. Our customers have become our friends. We know all about their lives — who got married and who had a baby.”

The bulk of customers are Nevada County regulars, said Nick, such as people walking over from Plaza Tires, Dave’s Auto Repair and the staff at Forest Charter School.

“Sugar Shack has some of the best coffee in town,” said regular customer Yvette Cadeaux. “They are truly a hidden gem.”

“The food here is affordable and really good,” echoed customer Rory Rundel. “And I get treated like part of the family.”

Chaloe said the most rewarding part of her job is seeing people enjoy the food she makes. Going forward, she’d like to introduce a few new items to the menu. But for the most part, she loves things the way they are. She’s finally got more free time, but she’s still doing what she loves.

“But best of all I love having my children here working around me,” she said. “It makes me feel alive.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at

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