UPDATE: The Santa Monica shop opened on Saturday, July 25.
David Asprey was nearing the top of Mt. Kailash in Tibet when he started to slow down. At 16,000 feet, the technology entrepreneur wasn't sure he would finish the climb.
Just then, a woman emerged from a guest house on the side of the mountain and offered him a cup of yak butter tea.
At first, he was put off. "I was like, 'gross,' to be honest," says the 43-year-old, sitting in the chrome interior of his waiting-to-open Santa Monica coffee shop, Bulletproof. (See a crew getting ready for the still-unannounced opening day in the video above.) But he drank the yak butter tea anyway — and something shifted. "I was like, 'I've never felt this good at altitude,'" he says. "It's negative 10 degrees, my CamelBak is freezing, and I'm like, 'I'm sailing through this.'"
Asprey — who made millions of dollars as a cloud-computing pioneer in Silicon Valley in the early aughts, then lost it all two years later — finished the climb, and after returning to the United States began trying to re-create his mountaintop euphoria.
Several years and "hundreds" of recipes later, he finally achieved it: coffee, grass-fed butter and a coconut oil extract. "I came up with something that rocked my world," he says.
After posting his recipe on his website in 2009, Asprey started selling ingredients online, and the product took off. By October 2014, Shailene Woodley and Jimmy Fallon were gushing over it on The Tonight Show. The product was featured in The New York Times in December. And now, Asprey is opening storefronts across the nation. His newest is planned to launch soon in Santa Monica, at the coveted corner of Main and Navy streets, just two blocks from the beach.
Asprey's claims about Bulletproof — which he suggests consumers drink in lieu of eating breakfast — are grand. Thanks to the fats in the oil and butter, he says the beverage invigorates the mind and eradicates mental fog. At the same time, he says, those fats make you feel full, encouraging more controlled eating habits. And, he claims, Bulletproof beans (which are trademarked) are superior to those of his U.S. competitors; lesser joes, he suggests, have dangerously high levels of mycotoxins that come from mold.
Asprey has a book, a podcast and a rabid legion of followers. Woodley told Fallon that Bulletproof coffee "will change your life!" and commenters on a recent Huffington Post story stand staunchly behind the product: "I LOVE this coffee," one wrote. "I feel energized, clear-headed. ... Plus my skin glows."
Others are less enthused. Fast Company writer Chris Gayomali tried Bulletproof for two weeks, then gave it a shrug. "I'll still drink a cup of Bulletproof coffee from time to time," he wrote. "But the truth is, I'd much rather eat breakfast."
Among the most vocal, though, are Asprey's critics. Asprey has come under fire from health experts who say that Bulletproof has too many fats and calories, and that replacing breakfast with a single beverage isn't such a great idea. Nutrition expert Christopher Ochner told Gayomali that the effects of coconut oil extract on weight loss are "very, very small," and that he "most certainly would not recommend" Bulletproof.
And podcaster Joe Rogan, who hosted Asprey on his show and initially fell in love with Bulletproof, turned detractor after learning that most coffee producers in the United States do not, in fact, sell products containing high levels of mycotoxins. "Good coffee providers know how to eliminate this from coffee," Rogan said. "They've been able to" do so for decades.
It's worth noting that Asprey comes from an unusual background. He was raised outside of Albuquerque, where both his parents and grandparents were architects of the Manhattan Project, the secretive government operation that brought together some of the world's most elite scientists to design the atom bomb. Living together in a federally closed-off town, the scientists and others had no contact with the outside world.
It's a fact that Asprey breezes over, though, using it to prop up the notion that he has science in his blood: "I come from a family of deep scientists," he says.
Critics have dismissed Asprey's nutrition claims as uninformed. "All of the controversies that I've heard come from armchair nutritionists," says the former technology guru. "These are people oftentimes with degrees minted in the '60s or '70s. ... Most have never taken the time to read [my] book."
Meanwhile, the store opening date should be any day now, but the company has been waiting nearly six months to get final signoff from the city of Santa Monica. A Bulletproof spokeswoman attributes this to normal red tape. "It's always just been that we're 'hopeful' that it will open on a certain date," she says.
Meeting Asprey in person, it's not hard to see why he spurs such strong reactions. He seems 110 percent committed, leaving no room for self-doubt, waffling or capitulation to the opinions of others. In casual conversation, he lets fly with the occasional indelicate remark. About his tendency to gastronomically overindulge, once bringing his weight up to nearly 300 pounds, he says: "[It's] what all fat people do."
But he lives by his headstrong commitment. Along with his wife and two young children, he resides on a 32-acre organic farm in British Columbia, where the whole family drinks Bulletproof coffee daily.
And his Santa Monica shop is an architectural testament to everything in which he believes. The floors are coated in a shiny metal, which is "electrically grounded," Asprey says. "When you walk in, you're grounding yourself." The tables, he says, are electrically connected to the wall to "grind out" static charge that builds up in your body and contributes, he says, to inflammation.
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The chairs carry electromagnetic coils in their backs, which "increase nitric oxide in the body." And the lights in the shop change color in accordance with the time of day, to sync up with patrons' circadian rhythms.
"The idea is that this changes how you feel. We are building an environment where people perform better," he says, "and food is a part of it."