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Giuseppe Leone

Coffeebar Origin Story: Chapter Three

As a ski racer, I learned that you fail a hundred times more than you succeed.

 

After you inspect the course one or two times, you go for it, dealing with whatever it dishes up: the good, the bad, and the unexpected. I credit my racing days with preparing me for the thrills and spills of growing a company. I learned how to make quick decisions with incomplete information. I learned to fall and get back up. And I definitely learned that I was far more motivated by receiving second or third place than by winning. 

I needed that mindset to get through the opening of our second store, in Reno. The location we’d found had been a local-favorite coffeehouse, but the landlord had not renewed their lease. Though we were now a local-favorite Truckee business, we were naive—and new to Reno politics. We just assumed that folks would think it was better to have another independent coffeehouse come into that space than a big-box coffee chain. 

Wrong! You’d think we were opening a Starbucks Superstore with a two-lane drive-through in the middle of the Old Southwest neighborhood. Rumor had it that we were Cali carpetbaggers who’d pushed out the old favorite and snatched their location. Folks were understandably irate; the community protected its own, and rightly so. I realized we’d have to work extra hard to earn their trust. That heartfelt “local first” attitude is exactly what I’ve grown to love about Reno and why I now call it home. 

 

As a dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneur, I loved the reinvention that came with growth. But I also knew that every step I’d taken had brought me to that moment, and I wanted our new store to honor the past, too.

 

Partnering with our building owner, the late Marvin Gruili, we stripped the 1930s building down to its original brick shell, which offered us an amazing canvas. 

I loved the European knack for mixing old and new, where the same interior might include rusty metal and gleaming stainless steel. I also loved the quintessentially Italian belief that humble, everyday objects could (and should) be works of art. So I began working with an amazing cohort of local makers and artisans, creating functional art that told our story. Our fun, art-forward, rustic-modern interior echoed the originality and expressiveness of the community.

 

 

The modernist chandelier was constructed from a heap of broken metal chair legs from the Truckee store (thanks, Target). The “dictionary tables” were made with pages from the actual Italian dictionary that I used to name my first coffee company. The Lion mosaic, created from Italian tile, incorporated all the cups from my first coffee company. Toni from Mountain Forge built our steel bar and floor, and Cline from Roundwood Furniture constructed a beautiful inlaid bar above the stairs. We upcycled trash and broken cups into a work of art.   

 

 

I wanted our design to express the history of my coffee journey and to invite guests to discover “Easter eggs” from that journey. I loved when a guest came in for the fourth or fifth time and I’d hear them say, “Wow, I never noticed that before!”  

We opened the doors of Coffeebar Reno on January 18, 2014. It wasn’t long before our warm welcome, athletic hospitality and great food and beverages won over the skeptics. The neighborhood that had resisted us now embraced us—and we loved and embraced the Reno Midtown community right back. To our delight, Coffeebar Reno took just eight short weeks to reach positive cash flow.  

In July 2014, Monique and I were married and closed on our house in Reno, in the same week. We were now officially Reno-ites, arriving just before the city acquired its new aura of cool, but pre-Tesla. 

My long-ago vision, the one I’d carried with me since Piedmont, was coming to life: Coffeebar felt like the neighborhood cafes of Italy, offering our guests something for every time of day. Customers could enjoy fresh-baked pastries and crepes in the morning, Italian panini and salads in the afternoon, and gelato and wine in the evenings. 

We extended the love for our community to our local farms and to Sand Hill dairy. In Reno, we were able to purchase almost all our ingredients (beyond the coffee beans and tea) from local suppliers, for most of the year. Becoming a supportive contributor to the local business ecosystem felt great, too. 

It felt like we were really onto something as a brand. We were serving up inclusivity and belonging along with delicious food and beverages. A few more trips to Burning Man had helped solidify that philosophy—the belief that it didn’t matter what you did for a living, but what you were passionate about and who you were as a person.

 

Wow, this is hard. Let’s do another location! 

 

The reality of operating two restaurants, each open fifteen hours per day, seven days a week, set in. We learned that having two cafes was actually four times as difficult as having one. To Monique’s dismay, I had almost no life outside of Coffeebar. I was literally stretched thin, dropping 30 pounds from my already skinny frame, and subsisting on my patented workaholic diet of Nutella crepes and espresso. 

But we were on a roll, and I didn’t want it to stop. I began thinking about more locations, certain that we could grow enough to hire a company-wide management team that would enable us to level up. 

Almost as soon as the thought of growing the company crossed my mind, three opportunities manifested themselves. They included a struggling gluten free bakery in Truckee, a vacant space in Squaw Valley, and a wild outlier...a potential out-of-market location in Menlo Park, California.

The bakery was our first experiment in vertical integration. We sold tons of baked goods in our cafes: scones and muffins and cookies and more. We used bread in our panini. Gluten-free options were wildly popular. It was time to bring that production in-house and improve our margins. So we helped Whole Treats Gluten Free Bakery run their operation for a few months, evaluating the possibilities of the space and a joint operating relationship. Then we took over the lease. We constructed a wall in the kitchen so Whole Treats could continue to bake in a 100% gluten-free kitchen, and put a conventional bakery and production facility in the front. Not surprisingly, we heard from the community that our customers wanted coffee, too, so we included an espresso bar in the build-out. It opened in March 2015.

 

 

While it’s not the most “design-forward” store of them all, the Coffeebar Bakery, located in a shopping center, has its own unique character and a “best-kept secret” vibe. And thanks to its ample parking lot and easy access from I-80, (not to mention the amazingly delicious baked goods!) it’s become a Tahoe-Donner and locals’ favorite.

 

Olympic Dreams

 

The possibility of a Squaw Valley opportunity excited me. I grew up in Winter Park, Colorado, where skiing had been a huge part of my family’s life for several generations. And while I never made the Olympic team, I skied professionally and was lucky enough to have it pay for my college education. I was also fortunate to achieve two All-American Honors as well as a team National Championship in 1995 with the University of Colorado. One of my closest friends in Truckee, Daron Rahlves, a four-time Olympian, had always been a source of inspiration and was the main reason I landed in Truckee. The chance to tie together my life’s passions—skiing and Coffeebar—was irresistible.

By the fall of 2016, I’d had numerous conversations with Squaw Valley leadership about opening a Coffeebar there, but the right location in the Village had yet to present itself. The resort was eager to get back in the good graces of locals after receiving a lot of heat for its rapid expansion, and everyone agreed that Coffeebar offered exactly the right dose of community love that Squaw Valley needed. Finally, the right spot opened up. 

 

By that time, we’d learned that, unlike a chain coffeehouse, it was better to infuse each Coffeebar location with its own distinct personality. I was excited about creating something special for Squaw Valley, a store that would pay homage to my lifelong love of skiing. 

 

I’m so grateful to Tamara McKinney and the late Jimmy Huga, two former US Ski team legends, for allowing us to use an original set of 1960 Olympic rings in the feature art piece behind the bar. If you look closely at the colorful multi-media assemblage, you’ll find skis from both Daron’s and my careers, and even a board from local legend Jeremy Jones. This one-of-a-kind artwork was co-created by Andy Cline from Roundwood Furniture and local legend (and my former CU ski teammate) Toni Standteiner, a gifted metalworker from Mountain Forge. Every time I see it, I am inspired. 

 

 

Working under those iconic rings is a constant reminder of what it means to live a life in the pursuit of excellence in everything you do. You can’t help but aspire to be a great barista, or even just a great human being, working in that uplifting space. I’d like to think that Coffeebar Squaw Valley—soon to be Olympic Valley—is one the most elevating (no pun intended) coffeehouses in the world. And we strive to do the location justice with Olympic-level hospitality. 

Coffeebar Squaw Valley opened February 10, 2017, to almost instantaneous success. Our opening weekend coincided with the Women’s World Cup races that brought thousands of people to the village. Lines wrapped around the store for hours. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best baristas I’ve ever worked with, pumping out drinks for eight hours straight on both weekend days. 

We were fueling up another new group of adventure-loving guests, not just with caffeine but with the energizing joy of human connection. Once again, our customers were telling us what we meant to them, and the role we played in their lives. Our new motto? Wake up, come to Coffeebar, fuel up, kick ass, sleep, and repeat! 

But there had been another, even more important “launch” in my life, the previous summer: the birth of my first child, a boy we named Zephyr. 

 

 

Next week: To Silicon Valley and beyond!

 

By Greg Buchheister

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