2019 looked like it would be an amazing year. Not only had we opened our sixth location, we had another bun in the oven: Moni was pregnant with our second child. She and I finally got a place of our own in the Bay, and our daughter Naia was born in our rented apartment in Palo Alto on January 13th, 2019.
Menlo was blazing, and we were hard at work on both the Redwood City and Facebook locations. Then Redwood got bogged down in the permit process. To my frustration, the start of construction was delayed until early summer. These were the big leagues, and I was learning huge and costly lessons in the challenges of Bay Area construction planning and budgeting.
After working with our amazing designers and architects for Menlo, I’d lost a little confidence in my personal design choices. But in Redwood City I went with my gut: the cafe would be edgy, gritty, and over-the-top. So the interior design featured a bronze bar and high, exposed-brick walls; three huge glitter skulls towered over the bar. It was a far cry from the refined warmth of the Menlo location but equally on-brand: all cookie, no cutter.
Every launch is stressful, but the white-knuckle Redwood City opening in late 2019 was in a class of its own. I’d applied for a line of credit back in April and had worked weekly with a banker. But just a week before opening, our bank denied that funding, maintaining that we didn’t have enough operating cash in reserve. That left us with a $350,000 shortfall—and we still had to pay our contractor and get the doors open. After two miserable, sleepless weeks, I finagled an entrepreneurial way around the obstacle.
The Redwood City location finally opened on September 18th. It was the first time that I did not have to make a single cup of coffee on opening day, let alone the first month. I rolled in mid-morning with my family in tow to hang out, enjoy some coffee, and watch the team get after it with our new guests. It was a very special time for me, allowing me a brief pause to muse over what I’d been able to create with my last $100, nine years before.
I’d grown the company substantially during that time, financing expansion with private loans, credit cards, cash flow, bootstrapping and the sweatiest of sweat equity. I’d plowed virtually all our profits back into the company, investing in our team members, adding health insurance and a 401k. I’d developed a talented, resourceful management team.
Redwood City was barely two weeks old when we pivoted to focus on the opening of the next location. This store, on campus at Facebook, was aptly dubbed Menlo 2.0. Even though it was in the heart of FB Land, it was also open to the public and our largest store to date. We focused on connection over connectivity in the design; rather than filling the space with private seats where people would just commune with their devices, we created an open, flowing design that inspired conversation.
Even as our company blasted off like a caffeine-powered rocket, I was adamant that we maintain our local vibe and humble work ethic, and pushed hard to ensure our hospitality was extended to everyone, no matter who they were. This was the heart of our ethos of radical inclusivity.
Menlo 2.0 opened on November 11. I thought to myself, eight down and two more to go. As I watched indy coffee companies like Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown cash out to high valuations and plush exit packages, I realized that my path was different. I hadn’t gotten into the coffee business with “exiting” as my goal—it was my calling. I loved building, improving, innovating. I loved the journey. My scoreboard wasn’t based on increasing my own wealth. The scoreboard was the positive impact we could have on our team, our communities, and our vendors.
Not that I minded a little glory! In September 2018, Wallpaper Magazine named the Menlo Park store one of the Top 10 best-designed coffee shops in the world. In early 2019, our coffee bag packaging, launched as part of our in-house roasting program, garnered a national Addy award, a prestigious honor from the American Advertising Federation. Little Coffeebar went up against the country’s biggest creative agencies and took home a silver for coffee packaging! Our creative director Leah Chew had knocked it out of the park.
In September, we received another incredible honor. We were named to the Inc. Magazine 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies in the US. In the food and beverage industry sector, we took the #73 spot. It was heady stuff. We achieved the honor again in 2020, coming in hot at #2611, boasting a three-year average growth rate of 156%. The sky was the limit, and I was on cloud nine.
A perfect life
Despite the fast pace of life, one of my biggest pleasures was taking Zephyr to work. He loved going to our stores. On every visit, he watched the baristas intently. In Menlo, he practiced latte art every day with our manager. At night in the bathtub, he’d practice with a mini pitcher and cup. “Pour, shake, up and away!” he’d say again and again. At Squaw Valley, he was a fixture at almost every dance party; the ladies swooned over his chubby cheeks and the solid dance moves he displayed even as a toddler.
At only three years old, Z remembered customers’ names and the names of all our baristas. He had an incredible way with people and would enthrall them for hours. We even named our new espresso blend after him. He’d pick the bags up from the shelf to declare proudly, “This is Zephyr!”
On Friday night, November 15th 2019, we had a birthday party for Zephyr’s godfather, Ben. He was Coffeebar family too, an original investor in our Reno store. I stood in my kitchen watching three-year-old Zephyr, clad in his Spiderman Halloween costume, rock out on his guitar to karaoke classics including “Eye of the Tiger”, “Caribbean Queen”, and “Back In Black”. He captivated a group of 30 adults with his air-guitar skills and larger-than-life stage presence. I was in awe of the charisma and confidence he possessed at such a young age.
As I stood there imagining my son’s future as a rock star, Ben, who’d been privy to the successes and the challenges of my personal and professional lives, sneaked up beside me and whispered in my ear, “Some people would say your life is perfect…a beautiful wife, two perfect kids, this house, your friends, and a company that‘s killing it.” And he smiled a knowing smile. I looked at him, smiled back, and thanked him, thinking, Yes, I am lucky…
But all that was about to change.
Three days later, the 18th of November, Zephyr had a slight fever, so we kept him home from pre-school. On Tuesday, he had some flu-like symptoms in addition to the fever. I worked just half a day, came home, and we watched Spiderman on the couch while he was still in his pajamas. I spent the evening with him, and when his fever didn’t seem to break, I called his doctor and gave him some kids’ ibuprofen. His fever was gone by 9pm and he was gone 8 hours later…
The morning of November 20th, was something out of your worst nightmare. Zephyr died from complications of the flu. He went from being totally fine to gone in less than 36 hours. Life as we knew it stopped abruptly. Our ship, seemingly able to sail through the roughest waters and through any challenge, had crashed on the rocks. Moni and I floated in the wreckage, crushed by wave after wave of pain and grief.
Losing my child is the most surreal and painful event that I’ve ever experienced. There is no way to prepare for such an experience, and there is no way to recover from it. Your life is permanently altered in a split second, and you have zero say in the matter.
It’s like being a fighter pilot and getting ejected from your plane: once you’re out, you can never get back in. I will never be able to return to my old life.
The day we lost Zephyr, a part of me died as well. Life slowed to a snail’s pace. Moments seemed to last forever. Minutes felt like days and weeks felt like years. The first six months after losing Zephyr seemed more like a decade. Grief forces you to be present, whether you want to be or not. You notice parts of life you’ve never seen before.
A bit over a year later, I’ve learned this: a child’s death is out of sequence; it impacts us as profoundly cruel and unnatural. Zephyr’s passing has affected not only our family and friends, but also thousands of people in our community.
I’ve also realized that in creating these community cafes, in treating my team and guests like family, I had woven a resilient web of friendship and support that would hold me through that unspeakable tragedy. In the darkest hours of my life, the Coffeebar family and our communities have held us closer than ever before. So many people have reached out with support: notes, messages, dinners, and even electric guitars. We’ve experienced more love than we could have ever possibly imagined.
I loved and continue to love Zephyr more than anything in the world. The grief I feel corresponds directly to that amount of love. At first, it felt like I’d been given a life sentence for a crime I didn’t commit. I desperately tried to figure out how I got there—and how I could possibly live the rest of my life in that bleak cell. With some time, my grief transformed. What began as bewildering despair became a dull, relentless weight on my shoulders and my heart. It’s like carrying a one-hundred-pound backpack: it will never get any lighter, but over time I will get stronger.
Friends and family painted this suncatcher and added photos and notes of love at Zephyr's memorial.
A good friend who suffered a similar loss told me this: “One day you will start to see the beauty in life again. It’s a shift that will just happen one day when you are ready. Amidst all the grief the magic will begin to reappear.”
Only The Present
I’ve learned through Zephyr’s death that the past is a dream and the future—even one as full of plans as ours had been—is a mirage. All we truly have is the present moment—nothing else is guaranteed. Fortunately, hospitality is all about living in the moment. I’ve long believed that you can’t be any more present than when working as a barista during a morning of busy service, living life one latte at a time. It’s an artistic, meditative state that can provide true fulfillment.
I’m thankful for the countless photos and videos of Zephyr that fill my phone. He is so vividly alive in those captured memories; it’s as if he’ll walk down the hall at any moment. But that won’t happen. Instead, I look for my son in the first light of day and always as the sun begins to set. I see him surfing the Washoe Zephyr in the form of the hawks that now frequent our backyard, and I listen for his voice in the trains that pass. He is all around, but most of all he is still present in my heart. When grief at last releases my memories, I’ll be able to meet him there again and smile.
The one-two punch
Then COVID-19 hit. The pandemic forced me out of a cocoon of grief and back into my seat as CEO, to save the company that I’d worked so hard to build.
March 2020 was a scary time for me and for everyone in our Coffeebar family. Sales plummeted to just 20% of normal revenue. We threw ourselves into an existential battle to survive. Thanks to the creativity and hard work of our incredible team, and the amazing support of our communities, we were able to stabilize our operations.
A major casualty, though, was our plan for growth. Two projects already in the works, a new roastery in Palo Alto and a second Reno location in the new Rancharrah development, had to be scuttled. It was painful to pull the plug on those dreams.
As we embark on a new journey in 2021, much remains unknown—not only for Coffeebar but for our world. The age of excess is long gone; the sun is rising on a new era, with a new appreciation for so many of the everyday joys we once took for granted. Among those simple human pleasures is the ability to gather and to connect in person—the soul of a community cafe. For now, we continue to operate at half speed, with takeout only and outdoor dining, biding our time as our society starts to figure out its new normal. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we know it’s going to illuminate a profoundly changed planet.
I hope that I’ve offered you some inspiration with this story of success against the odds. Even better, I hope we’ve inspired you with a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, something special from our kitchen—or maybe the warm smile of one of our team members on a morning when you really needed it.
We could not do this without you. And we’ll be here for you, now and as the world reopens: to help you seize the day and fuel you up for the adventures that will become the story of your life.
As a thank you for reading this series, show this blog page at any of our locations for a FREE drink of your choice when you purchase of a bag of our delicious coffee. See you soon! Love, Greg (Effective Wed 2/10-Tues 2/16)
~ Greg & Zephyr