Valley City coffee shop operates under the honor system with no employees

VALLEY CITY, N.D. - When people walk into The Vault cafe, one of two things typically happens. Sometimes they see no barista, and so they leave a little perplexed. But other times, they read the framed sign on the counter and figure out that the ...

David Brekke
David Brekke, seen here Tuesday, July 1, 2014, owns the on your honor, self-service cafe along with his wife Kimberly in downtown Valley City, N.D. The cafe offers coffee, baked goods, ice cream bars and a place for locals and travelers to spend time. Nick Wagner / The Forum

VALLEY CITY, N.D. – When people walk into The Vault cafe, one of two things typically happens.

Sometimes they see no barista, and so they leave a little perplexed. But other times, they read the framed sign on the counter and figure out that the coffee shop has a rare business model, one that relies heavily on the goodness of human nature.

Supervised by a surveillance camera perched above the door, customers are expected to serve themselves a drink or grab a pastry and put their cash or check into a slot carved in the 100-year-old oak countertop. There’s also a machine where you can swipe a credit card.

This on-your-honor payment system has largely been a success since The Vault opened in the fall, said David Brekke, who owns the shop with his wife, Kimberly.

“I think it all just comes down to the kind of people,” he said. “I think it would work in any place that has a tightknit community of morally minded people.”


The Vault has attracted some attention from local news media, but in the past week or so, the word about the distinctive cafe has spread worldwide. CNN, New York Daily News,, the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail and other wide-reaching outlets have all run versions of the story about the coffee shop with no employees.

Brekke believes the media have missed the point by focusing on the honor-system business model, which isn’t that unusual for anyone who’s ever left behind cash for sweet corn at an unmanned roadside stand. He said the real story is about Valley City – a farming hub of 6,500 people – and how the community is honest enough to support a shop like this.

Brekke, who did nine interviews on Monday alone, said the media coverage doesn’t do much for his shop unless it prompts someone down the street to buy a cup of coffee. Mindful of that, he hopes to use The Vault’s fame as a way to promote Valley City as a wholesome town that’s worth investing in.

“A person can’t move to Valley City and live here and not be benefited by the experience,” he said. “This is a wonderful group of people.”

‘An adventure’

Sheila Dalgliesh walked into The Vault at 223 Central Ave. N. on Tuesday morning to peruse the coffee options.

“It’s an adventure,” said Dalgliesh, a 30-something from Grand Forks in town visiting relatives. “I just read on the Huffington Post that it was self-serve, and you make your own.”

She was looking for espresso, which the shop doesn’t offer. And in the end, she didn’t make a purchase, but she appreciated the no-employee concept.


“You don’t have to deal with those baristas giving you a bad time,” she said.

Sheila’s aunt, Vali Dalgliesh, who’s from Battle Mountain, Nev., came into the shop later and also left empty-handed. Did her home state have anything like The Vault?

“No, people would rob them blind in Nevada,” she said.

Soon afterward, Lorraine Curtis, who owns the Vintage Variety store next door, stopped by and paid for a coffee. She said she’s in the cafe four or five times a day getting drinks.

“I like the ambience,” she said, as jazz played faintly over the speakers. “It’s always very peaceful.”

The Vault occupies the main floor of a former bank, built in 1920 and recently renovated with the help of volunteers. The rooms that once held the safe-deposit boxes have been converted into bathrooms. There’s a stage for open-mic nights. And wooden tables, chairs and bookshelves are arranged throughout the room.

Kimberly Brekke, who’s from Michigan, and her husband, who’s from Minnesota, moved to Valley City in 2008. Looking to create a place where the community could gather, they started The Vault.

“We were hoping that just the people of Valley City would really latch onto it and have a place to hang out,” she said. “People are slowly coming more and more.”


Kimberly Brekke, 42, opens the shop at 8 a.m. every day except Sunday when she unlocks the doors at noon. In a back kitchen, she bakes pastries for the coffee shop until about 2 p.m. Every night, her husband comes at 10 p.m. to lock the doors. Kimberly also runs Kyly Creations, a jewelry shop in the same building. “Basically, I do everything, and I have fun,” she said.

The Vault has wireless Internet and, like other coffee shops, has its share of laptop squatters. But the cafe welcomes people lingering for hours to surf the Internet, play games or study.

“It is meant to be a hangout. It is meant to be ‘Cheers’ without the alcohol. And that’s really what it’s turned into,” David Brekke said.

The bottom line

A cup of coffee at The Vault costs 75 cents. A specialty coffee brewed in a Keurig machine is priced at $1.50. There’s also tea, iced coffee, soda and snacks.

The cafe has no tip jar. But David Brekke says customers have still been generous, cumulatively leaving 15 percent in gratuities since The Vault opened. Although, there have been days when the shop has come up short. That’s when he reviews the surveillance video.

“It is almost always teenagers taking pop,” he said.

David Brekke, 43, hasn’t called the police, but he has confronted teens, pointed out the cameras and told them to stop thieving. “Teenagers have also been some of our best customers,” he added. “They generally pay very honestly, and sometimes they even pay extra to make up for their stealing friends.”


Despite not having to pay employees, The Vault has not yet had a profitable month. Unable to overcome its overhead, the business was down $50 in June and down $20 in May, said Brekke, who works from home as a business consultant. He anticipates the shop will turn a profit in the coming months.

“When we first opened, we were losing a lot of money,” he said. “The cost of heating that place is incredible. It has 25-foot ceilings. It has 10-foot-tall windows.”

Brekke said he came up with the concept for a coffee shop with no staff and that he always expected the off-beat idea would bring some free publicity through news stories. But he never expected The Vault to get more media attention nationally and internationally than locally.

“In this area, I think the story is almost more about the rest of the world,” he said. “The rest of the world is so surprised at community honesty.”

What To Read Next
Get Local