Todd Carmichael’s Excellent Adventures

He’s worked for a Saudi prince, adopted three girls from Africa, trekked across Antarctica—and this month he’ll attempt a solo journey across Death Valley. So is Todd Carmichael—the man behind Philly coffee juggernaut La Colombe—living life to the fullest? Or just out of his freakin’ mind?

Carmichael considers it improbable that he survived Spokane, where he grew up. His mother was perpetually sick: “She had just fucking everything – heart disease, cancer, blood disorders.” His father, Carmichael says, was “crazy” – schizophrenic. “I never really met him when I was a kid. I knew of him. He disappeared for a long time. It turned out he was living in trailers. He would reach out, and by then, if you know anyone who has a father like that, it means you dig him out of a financial hole. I was there as a rescue. Later on, he just relieved himself of his life. He just shot himself in the mouth.”

In school, Carmichael immersed himself in distance running, keeping precise logs of how many miles he’d need to run every day to improve. His grandfather drove him to meets. On the ride to Seattle, he’d look out the window at the high desert and wonder how far he could go into it. His grandfather told him to find out. “So at 16, he drove me out to the desert, and I just took off on foot, two and a half days in and two and a half days back. Five days later he was there to pick me up, listening to the AM radio.”

Carmichael won a scholarship to the University of Washington as a runner. Seattle was brewing, literally. He got a job roasting for Starbucks and hung in grunge bars with his French-born pal Jean-Philippe Iberti, and they dreamed of starting a European-style roaster, where they’d do it right and not burn the beans until they nearly burst into flames. He graduated in 1986 into a job as a tax consultant at Ernst & Whinney. Then he bolted to Monte Carlo to work for a shipping company, and that’s when it all got started. In a casino, he met Prince Faisal bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and, Carmichael says, they “hung out like two dudes hang out when there are beautiful women everywhere.” Carmichael showed Faisal how to sail. The prince took him to horse races and other insane rich-guy stuff.

“He’d never had a real buddy before,” Carmichael says. “We were on a fucking major yacht in a place called Portofino, and I knew he was gonna ask me to work for him. I said to myself, ‘No matter what number he says, I’m gonna double that.’ And he said a number that just floored me. And I said ‘Double it,’ and he said okay.”

For three years as Prince Faisal’s attaché, Carmichael lived in hotels, planes and yachts, and hiked Arabian deserts. After three years, he’d saved enough salary to start his European coffee company, in Philadelphia.

Neither Carmichael nor his partner, Iberti, had ever been to Philly. “But we had heard of Perrier, Lacroix and Taquet,” Carmichael says, “so we came to take a look. When we arrived, we discovered something we didn’t expect: a major U.S. city, walkable, well situated, and on the verge of a massive awakening.”