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Giuseppe Leone

Kickass Hospitalians: Coffeebar's Store Managers

Ozie showed up at the newly opened Coffeebar Menlo Park in 2018, looking for nothing more than a decent cappuccino. She and her neighbors were excited to have a real community cafe on Chestnut Street, and she was ready to give us a try. 


The wild, all-hands-on-deck opening of the Menlo store had required Coffeebar’s fearless founder to get back behind the counter and pump out drinks. 


“Greg made my first coffee,” she says. “I fell in love with the taste of that cappuccino. I had no idea he was the owner! It ultimately inspired me to work at Coffeebar, even though I had no experience in the industry.” (Fittingly, Ozie’s “hospitalian” nickname, a Coffeebar tradition, is Regina del Cappuccino, or “Cappuccino Queen”.)


So Ozie began working at Coffeebar Menlo Park that summer as a cashier, while the new cafe was getting up to cruising altitude. By December, she was a barista, and from there it was a steady progression through Assistant Manager to Store Manager. The store soared higher than anyone’s wildest expectations. In the space of one year, she went from a Coffeebar fangirl to the woman running one of the nation’s most beautiful--and busiest--coffeehouses. 

 

 


Over the ten-plus years that Coffeebar has grown from our back alley Truckee cafe to a restaurant group of eight, we’ve built a management team that we’re incredibly proud of. We’re the first to admit that the hospitality sector is not an easy place to build a career. The hours can be punishing. The public has high expectations. And most of the workforce is traditionally part-time. It takes a very special human being to accept all those challenges, and show up wearing your hospitality heart on your sleeve every day. 


And that’s when there’s not a global pandemic wreaking havoc.


This past year, thanks to everyone’s Horrible Boss, Mr. Covid, our managers’ job descriptions were virtually torn up and rewritten. A few times. Though many businesses had to “pivot” to weather the storm, the intrepid managers of Coffeebar mastered the operational pirouette. Without spilling a drop. 


We think some of that agility and grace comes from the fact that almost every member of our management team is home-grown. Mastering new skills comes naturally to folks who are promoted from within, because promotions are recognition for taking on more and giving more than is required by formal job “duties”. 


Annette’s Coffeebar path is a perfect example. In 2019, she started as a cashier at Downtown Truckee (aka DT). After that she moved to the kitchen; then she became Culinary Team Lead...all in the space of just one year. She’s now our DT store manager. It’s the kind of advancement opportunity that’s made Coffeebar unique in the industry. 


“The aspect of the company ethos that resonates with me is, "You Belong Here," Annette says. “I strive to make sure every employee and guest feels welcome and like they belong--no matter who they are or where they're from.” 


Even committed “hospitalians” had their work cut out for them during the pandemic. (See our blog, Lessons from 2020: A Master Class in Change.) Guests showed up with varying degrees of anxiety, frustration and stress. Daily coffee was one of the few shreds of normalcy that many customers had left. Our front of the house folks, cashiers and baristas, became ersatz counselors and comfort-givers. And their managers had to be there for them, too. 

 


“One of the surprises of the pandemic was getting to know regulars that we didn't realize were regulars, because we'd always been so busy. There was an upside to slowing down--we got to know the people who came out and supported us,” observes Annette. “In summer, 2020, one of our longtime regulars told me that without Coffeebar and the staff that worked here during March and April, she would not have made it through. Coming to Coffeebar was the highlight of her day. It helped ground her and gave her something to look forward to on a daily basis.” 


Some of the biggest challenges during COVID were the ever-changing state and local mandates. 


“During the first shutdown, we scrambled to adapt: we reduced hours, streamlined the kitchen menu, and launched a "text to order" feature,” Annette says. But it could be a little eerie: “In the early days of the shutdown, we might not see a customer for two hours. We watched a lot of Harry Potter and Law & Order.” (A pandemicky combo if we’ve ever heard one!) 


Mack was hired at Coffeebar in March 2018, as a barista. Her journey to become a store manager began with a promotion to Assistant Manager of the Menlo Park store. 


“As we started to talk about opening other stores, Coffeebar wanted to promote leaders from within,” she says. Coffeebar’s epic new Facebook store was in the works, and Mack’s outstanding skills and dedication made her the perfect candidate to manage it. 

 


Then Covid hit. The Facebook campus, including Mack’s beautiful, shiny, brand new Coffeebar store, shut down. But there was no time to mourn.


“I had to get creative and figure out how I could still support the company and team without managing an actual store. I worked as a “flex” team member between our Bay Area stores, supporting them in their hiring and training. Though that was a huge challenge, it ended up being a success.”


So successful, in fact, that Coffeebar found another store manager opportunity for her. This one was in Midtown Reno, so Mack decided to make the move from the Bay Area to the Biggest Little City. It was yet another leap of faith. 


“Now here I am, a store manager in a new region with a new set of skills for my role,” she says. Mack’s willingness to pivot yet again is testimony to a core value that she shares with the company: transparency.


“From how we source our coffee to how we treat our guests, that willingness to be open and honest is where I derive a lot of confidence in Coffeebar,” she explains. “When I’m filled in on the big picture or the direction our company is taking, I can be more transparent with my own team, and that makes me a better leader.” 


Issac started his path to a management role in May 2018. Trained as a CPA, he’d  discovered that sitting in front of a computer all day didn’t agree with him...but coffee did. After a globetrotting career in specialty coffee, including time at an iconic coffee company in Hong Kong, the coffee big leagues of Australia, and Blue Bottle in San Francisco, he joined Coffeebar Menlo Park as a barista. But it was a side hustle--he was also front-of-the-house manager at a restaurant startup in San Francisco. Just when he thought he’d have to give up coffee, Greg approached him with a full-time offer to oversee the front of the house at Menlo. 


“There was a strong bond within the startup team at Menlo Park,” he says. “And I love how down-to-earth Greg is.” 


And the best was yet to come: he got the opportunity to manage the new Redwood City store in the bustling Peninsula downtown. 


And then the bustle stopped. Covid struck Redwood City hard, and the sharp decline in foot traffic during those first few months, as downtown tech workers Zoomed away, was painful. To his dismay, Issac discovered that Google Maps and Yelp were not reliably letting customers know the cafe was open, so he advocated to get Coffeebar Redwood City onto DoorDash. That visibility made all the difference in those early days of shutdown. 


Eventually the leafy street outside the cafe was closed to traffic to allow restaurants to create outdoor seating, and a European sidewalk cafe ambiance replaced the ghost-town vibe. The enormous sugar skulls behind the bar sparkled again.

 


Issac has a true passion for coffee as well as a relentless work ethic and commitment. 

“I strive to be the best at what I do,” he says. He’s constantly upping his game, learning everything possible about the business so he can serve as a good model for his team. John, our COO, sums it up: “Issac has terrific operational intelligence...and a servant heart.” 


Being a servant leader comes naturally to people who’ve experienced the front line before becoming a manager. When Ozie walked into Menlo Park for a cappuccino, she was treated to more than a great coffee. She saw the philosophy of the company in action. She felt like she belonged. 


“Coffeebar is my second home,” she says. “And sometimes it’s my first home--because I see my guests and my team more than my husband and my cat! These are the people I choose to see and serve every single day. I love to see how happy they are after their first sip of their coffee. The Coffeebar ethos, “Community is the family you choose”...I live that every day.” 


The effect of Covid on her store came as a surprise. “We were always a community place, but the pandemic turned us into a big family. As a team, we took care of our guests every morning even though the world was falling apart around all of us. And they showed their appreciation and loyalty. One guest bought 200 gift cards. Another tipped the crew $100 after every purchase. The bond between the guests and our team grew stronger and stronger every day. It’s amazing to think that we built this kind of long-lasting relationship over a good cup of coffee.”


Like the other store managers, Ozie and her team were whipsawed by constantly changing regulations for businesses. “After one of the county’s mandates, we had to move all the point of sale systems outside to take orders. And it was raining that day. While we were brainstorming how on earth to do this, we asked a nearby hardware store--regulars and good neighbors of ours--if they had a canopy we could borrow. They did, and they didn’t hesitate a second to install it for us. And that saved the day. We have countless stories like that to remember and be grateful for.”


Monica was a rare outside hire, and started as the manager for both Olympic Valley and Bakery locations during peak season, Holiday 2020. (Basically, the career equivalent of a flying mount onto the backs of two galloping horses.)


Sprezzatura (the quintessentially Italian art of making the difficult look effortless) is absolutely the key factor in creating a welcoming and enjoyable vibe,” Monica explains. “We’ve had lines out the door, the phone ringing, every person working at full speed...but my mantra is, keep calm, help the guest, and push forward.”


Managing two stores with such different personalities keeps things interesting for her. “Olympic Valley is an international travel destination so we have lots of new faces, along with our locals. We get people who see our amazing Instagram and come in because of the pastry porn or our signature Lavender Latte. But over at The Bakery it feels like home--cozy, local, and laid back. Despite the fact that our bakers are pumping out an amazing volume of pastries and bread.”


Monica has a unique perspective that’s helped her make the stores successful. “I come from a very sport-centric background and coaching is something I’ve always done. I treat my Coffeebar team as a literal team. I care deeply for everyone and always want them to succeed...but I’m not afraid to light a fire under their butt,” she smiles. “My sleeves roll all the way up--I lead by my actions, not just my words.”

 


The world of front-line hospitality is not typically known for its career paths, so helping team members grow and see a path forward is essential. Annette, who’s a role model of Coffeebar’s promote-from-within culture, notes, “If someone isn't comfortable becoming a barista, I don't push them until they're ready. I teach that failing at a task or competency doesn't mean your success is denied; it's simply delayed. As a manager, it’s my job to figure out how you learn best, to get you to your goals. I put people where they can excel, because I want my team to feel supported and empowered.”


Thanks to his ski-racing roots, our founder Greg has always understood that success is the product of trying hard, and that sometimes means failing. 


“I’ve worked with really great leaders and really poor leaders in my career, but the ones who stood out were the ones who weren’t afraid to try and fail, with the support of the team,” Mack notes. “People are more likely to support a decision or offer their input if they know there’s no shame in failing. My goal is to create an environment that’s humble and collaborative. We’re not going to fail due to lack of trying.”


Leading by example is second nature to the managers of Coffeebar stores--the fast pace offers no place to hide. “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t fly in a busy cafe, where a manager’s skills are on display for all to see. 


“Covid hit my team hard, but we learned how to survive and be successful together,” notes Ozie. “Our bakers prepped breakfast for us every morning at the beginning of Shelter in Place; we had Taco Tuesday, we played everyone’s favorite songs--we tried to find the little things that could keep everyone motivated, to remind ourselves to be grateful. We learned the importance of support and caring for one another.”


Just as each Coffeebar store has its own unique design and aesthetic, Coffeebar managers don’t fit one corporate mold. Each location serves as a community cafe and is as much a reflection of our regulars as our own brand. The customers of our Stanford-adjacent downtown Menlo Park Coffeebar probably have one of the highest collective IQs in the world--as well as a fierce passion for good coffee. The cafe’s staggering volume is matched by just a handful in the U.S. 


“Our regulars can’t quite believe that we remember their names and their orders,” Ozie says. “But we set high standards for ourselves--just like they do.” 


There’s a metaphor for the individuality of our management team members in another Coffeebar signature--music. There’s no “corporate playlist” for our stores.


“Each team seems to find their rhythm,” Monica notes of her two cafes. “Olympic Valley has a hard work ethic and cranks out the morning rushes, dances to classic rock in the afternoons, and ends the day with R&B and rap. The Bakery executes the morning bake and morning rush without missing a beat. Mornings are filled with an 80s mix, finishing the day with Taylor Swift and the Spice Girls.” (Well, it is a Bakery.) 


“In Downtown Truckee we’ve been known to sing and dance behind the counter--especially the baristas,” admits Annette. “Our team is very punny and nerdy. We like having fun and making people laugh. Guests comment about the baristas singing--usually to guilty-pleasure 80s, 90s, and 2000s pop music.”


Ozie likes to play lo-fi hip hop early in the morning to ease her guests into their day, changing it to something more energized around noon, then shifting to a relaxed but upbeat soundtrack for the afternoon. “I manage the mood of the cafe with my go-to playlists,” she says. “Music is really important. It can keep you in the cafe or make you leave.”


We believe the same can be said of great managers.

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