From Bikes to Brews: How a Former Pro Cyclist Left it all Behind to Run a Coffee Shop

Community, coffee, cycling. In that order too.

That’s how Donny Carroll, longtime owner of Donny’s Café in Bonita, CA always wanted it. Walk in for the first time and he’ll remember your name within the three minutes that your drink is delivered to you. And maybe, if you’re nice, he’ll remember it for life. 

Donny’s Café is that kind of place. It’s Bonita’s version of Cheers, where everyone knows your name. 

The coffee is superb, but the community in this shop is better. When asked what Donny values more, he made it a point to say that he values both. He’s just better at showing one more than the other. 

“It’s obviously community. It’s not coffee, because coffee is money bound. Community however is spiritual bound. It’s an entity I can’t control.”

Though as any shop regular would say, Donny is pretty damn good at connecting with his longtime coffee community. 

Jason Fischbeina regular and fellow native of Chula Vista’s Eastlake community, a suburban Southeast San Diego community now known for being home to mostly major corporate establishments—said that Donny’s is his hometown place.

“This is one of the few places where when I’m in town, I come. It’s kind of like my hometown business. That’s not something that I had ever experienced before. My whole family…my brother, his wife, my girlfriend, and even my dog (Sookie) all love it here.”

A sense of community is something that has always been present for Donny. Coffee trends, drinks, pastries, etc have come and gone, but it was always the community that was the heart of his business. And Donny learned that many years ago. 

Raised in Chula Vista, Donny left home as a teenager to race bikes professionally in Europe. Though still young and reckless as any 19-year old would be, Donny never got into a zone while in Europe. Racing bikes in a foreign country on a foreign team was hard, he said. Also no where near as glamorous as Hollywood made it out to be. 

But with lots of free time between riding, and not speaking the local language, Donny spent a ton of time in cafés throughout Europe. It was there where he caught his first glimpse of European coffee culture. You drink, you talk, you be social. For an American teenager at that time, it was a foreign concept. 

Fortunately for Chula Vistans, the self-proclaimed mama’s boy, would eventually return home after getting burnt out in Europe.

Upon returning, Donny developed a new weekend routine. It involved his cousin, his bike, and an "easy" ride from Chula Vista to La Jolla (about 25 miles apart), where Pannikin Coffee & Tea was located. 

This "easy" ride of the week was always something to look forward to for Donny. Why? Because coffee, of course. Pannikin, plus his time in all of those European cafés, gave Donny an idea. And he was in the right place, at the right time. 

With Donny’s infectiously positive personality, and knack for remembering names, Donny would go on befriending the eventual buyers of Pannikin’s wholesale division, Torrey and Kimberly Lee. San Diego coffee fanatics know them best as owners of Café Moto, also a local institution. 

That relationship, and a coffee cart that Donny soon after purchased with money from a paper route, would eventually turn into a partnership that would see Café Moto as Donny’s only coffee supplier in its 21 years of business. 

“It would be a breach of family if I ever went with another supplier,” he said. 

But it’s not just the business relationships that Donny has learned to cherish in years of managing a successful café. He learned to set aside more time for his growing family, and faith too.

For example, a few years ago, his daughter asked him why they didn’t close on Sundays, a day reserved for faith in the Carroll family. Next thing you know, Donny throws up a “closed” sign on Sundays and business triples.

Donny still laughs and scratches his about this phenomenon. Nobody really knows what it was. Do Donny’s regulars crave it more now because they can only have it six days a week instead of seven? Is the community paying their respect to a family, and family business, that reserves time for themselves and their faith? Not sure, Donny said. But what he does know is that his family, and beloved coffee community, are closer than ever before.

If you’ve never been to Donny’s, or met the man, the myth, the legend himself, pop on over and introduce yourself. Donny and his family would love to have you.

Donny was such a pleasure to interview. A true gentleman, and a true model of community respect. Thanks for the coffee and conversation Donny! 

Donny was such a pleasure to interview. A true gentleman, and a true model of community respect. Thanks for the coffee and conversation Donny! 

Want to share any any personal stories you have with Donny or the café? Let us know in the comments below, or contact us here if you want to be exclusively featured on GCC.