My life changed forever on August 25th 2016, the day my son Zephyr Lyric Buchheister was born.
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I’d worked my tail off for almost 20 years, getting my team and business to a place where I could allow myself a full two months of paternity leave, and I took it.
Z was born at home. The following day a hummingbird graced us with her presence in the house. The hummingbird represents joy, creation, music, lyrics and celebration, and our little guy quickly became all that and more, a little rock star in the making. It was one of the most magical times I’ve ever had, watching Z take in the world around him. I chronicled every day of his life in a journal, hoping someday to share the story of his childhood with him.
Fatherhood agreed with me. I took Zephyr everywhere; he became my “Mini Me”. I brought him to meetings and to early morning coffee. Behind the espresso bar, he was enthralled with latte art and fascinated by the beans in the hoppers. Z had a gift of energy and connection with everyone he met, inspiring me to change the name of our espresso brand to Zephyr.
Go West, Young Man.
Shortly before we opened the Bakery in Truckee, Jamie, one of my longtime customers, approached me about starting a coffee shop in Menlo Park, California. He had an office there and had noticed the lack of a community-focused coffee shop. It seemed like a great opportunity. Naïve mountain boy that I was, I had no idea where Menlo Park was—I actually thought it was an office park. Jamie urged me to take a field trip to see for myself what he was talking about. I prepared by binge-watching the HBO series Silicon Valley, which turned out to be surprisingly useful.
As I drove into downtown Menlo in June 2014, I was surprised to spot an outpost of Squeeze Inn, the wildly popular Truckee and Reno breakfast joint. I laughed out loud. Maybe I was in the right place.
Menlo Park exceeded my expectations—the sheer amount of hustle and bustle, and the palpable creative energy in the air. What sealed the deal for me: sitting in Peet’s on Santa Cruz Avenue and watching them serve as many people in three hours as we did all day in our Reno and Truckee stores. My competitive juices began to flow.
I returned to Reno full of enthusiasm. It was a big leap, but it felt right. Truckee, where Coffeebar was born, was the birthplace of outdoor adventure in the Sierra. Menlo Park was the birthplace of entrepreneurial adventure (including a little thing called the internet).
Between opening our Squaw Valley store, firing up the Bakery, and figuring out how to raise a son, I was once again living on espresso shots and Nutella croissants. We were in that awkward stage of growing from two restaurants to four, and now location #5, Menlo Park, was looming. We were becoming a restaurant group.
My unsustainable “fix” for every challenge was to handle it myself. I hardly slept. As a founder, I was making the transition from doer to manager to leader in a ridiculously short period. The habits that had gotten me to two stores were not going to get me to five.
Fortunately, I’ve always had an eye for talent and the ability to attract servant-minded “hospitalians” who thrive on delighting guests. Coffeebar’s positive and inclusive company culture had become our secret weapon for recruiting. Our team was growing.
Coffeebar was maturing in other ways, too. We paid off our original 15 investors, a group of friends, acquaintances and even customers, delivering them all a 40% return. Jamie, a Truckee local, athlete, and a professional investor who sat on the boards of amazing companies, became my new partner. A wise, guiding rudder and a kindred spirit, he helped prepare us for meteoric growth.
After a long year of searching, we’d found an incredible downtown location for Coffeebar Menlo Park, just a block off the city’s main street. A world-class team, Walker Warner Architects and Nicole Hollis Design, helped us create a warm, modern space with a timeless feel. The palette of steel, glass, copper and cypress delivered a sophisticated-but-industrial vibe. The terrazzo countertops and walls were a nod to my original Italian cafe muse. To honor Silicon Valley’s bike culture, our Easter eggs included a bicycle chain chandelier, chain curtains, and enamel bicycle paint.
As we approached the end of 2017 and the build-out neared completion, we began advertising for our crew. Hiring would begin about ten weeks before our projected opening date in mid-December. Four long years of dreams, plans, and hard work were coming to fruition.
We attracted exactly one applicant. (Thankfully she was—and still is—our incredible pastry chef, Jackie.) We knew that the labor market was tight in Silicon Valley, but we hadn’t realized just how tight. With opening day looming, we found ourselves with one of the most beautiful coffeehouses in the country, and no one to run it! Coffeebar, the audacious newcomer, looked like it might arrive in Menlo Park with a whimper, not a roar.
Riding to our rescue came five adventurous souls from our Reno store and our newly hired GM who gamely volunteered to come help us launch. I will always be thankful for Nikki, Blake, Nick, Chantel, Becky, and Justin. The seven of us opened Menlo Park on January 10th, 2018.
I’d done 20+ café openings in my career, but I’d never seen a coffee shop ramp up to full gas in a matter of days. As soon as we took down the paper in the windows, Menlo Park came calling. We went from opening the doors to seeing almost 600 people per day in just two weeks. With a skeleton crew, we could run just one shift, from 7:00 am to 3:00 pm. During those first few months, seven of us did the work that over thirty people do today. It was crazy.
It was tough being away from Monique and Zephyr for those four months that we were working on the launch of Menlo. The team and I crashed in a $5500 per month airbnb in East Palo Alto, and we commuted daily by bike, since driving across the congested Peninsula took too long.
Guests kept asking when we were going to extend our hours. So we placed a chalkboard at the coffee pickup counter that read, “Only 14 more employees until full hours”, and the community started recruiting for us. It still took eight months to get fully staffed.
Menlo Park turned out to be the most affluent under-served market in the country—overshadowed by the Stanford-y swagger of Palo Alto, and the glam of San Francisco. But its beautiful weather and safe streets made it a secret utopia for business. Jamie was right: Coffeebar was exactly what the people of Menlo needed to call their own. I’m humbled every day by the number of people that frequent our Chestnut Street location.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that opportunities continued to spring up during this time: one in downtown Redwood City and another on a new part of the campus at Facebook. I felt blessed, but I also found myself frequently wondering, “Am I crazy?!
Connecting the dots...finally
For the first seven years of Coffeebar, we’d worked with the famous master roaster Carl Staub for all our coffee. Carl was my coffee mentor and became a father figure to me. But we were now a five-store coffee shop chain that didn’t roast its own coffee. I knew this was a roadblock to magic-making. I wanted to create a truly great coffee culture.
Enter David Wilson and Becky Tachihara from Vertical Coffee Roasters. David had spent the previous year working for De la Gente, a non-profit importer in Antigua, Guatemala that helped communities who wanted to produce coffee.
He’d created some great connections in that country and saw the potential for real economic impact beyond by-then-industry-standard “direct sourcing”. He and Becky were also operating a small pop-up shop in Reno that focused on something they called Vertical Sourcing.
I called David one night from Reno and we wound up talking for hours, diving deep into our shared philosophies. David was committed to coffee as a force for good; he was also a certified Q Grader, the coffee equivalent of a sommelier. It quickly became obvious that our combined 30+ years in the coffee business could yield an amazing collaboration. David cut his year in Guatemala a few months short and joined our team.
We found a great location: a former 1930s motorcycle garage hidden away on a Midtown Reno back alley. We purchased a San Franciscan #25 roaster, a state-of-the-art machine with some serious Steampunk attitude, custom-made for us in nearby Carson City. In keeping with our company’s commitment to sustainability, that purchase also supported a world-class local business. In true Coffeebar tradition, we dumpster-dived in San Franciscan’s scrap metal heap and integrated pieces into the counter—another work of art by Cline from Roundwood furniture.
The Roastery has become our hub for all things coffee: vertical sourcing, training, quality control, cupping, and drink development. It’s also a bit like a coffee speakeasy, delivering our own style of hipster-specialty-drink magic at the small bar inside. I’m truly proud of our commitment to Vertical Sourcing and the lifelong relationships we’re developing with farmers around the globe. (We’ll be sharing that story in the weeks ahead.)
By late 2018, everything I’d been working toward for the previous 20 years in coffee was coming to fruition. Coffeebar had over 125 team members. We were receiving national and international recognition. We had one of the busiest cafes in the nation and two more on the horizon. We took a team of seven people to Italy to harvest our private label wine.
The poet Rumi said, “The universe is not outside of you. Look inside yourself; everything that you want, you already are.” At that moment, I was looking outside. Yes, I was grateful for what we’d created. But I was still the ski racer who hadn’t made the Olympics—who had a chip on his shoulder and something to prove.
Little did I know, I was about to have two of the biggest setbacks of my life...one of which would prove impossible to recover from.
By Greg Buchheister