Like so many independent businesses, the Coffeebar team swam to shore from the Covid shutdown shipwreck. By early 2021, we’d flopped onto the beach, exhausted...but we’d survived.
There was still a lot to figure out. Our management team members dried themselves off and got on with the business of New Normalizing.
Crisis management was the order of the day, as we tried to sort out what business would be like in the post-vaccine era. We were training our team to not only make coffee and take orders, but also become health code enforcement officers, therapists and on several occasions, referees.
You’ve no doubt heard of the Great Resignation of 2021. Hospitality businesses were among those hit the hardest, and Coffeebar wasn’t spared. We off-boarded and on-boarded over 150 employees this past year, our entire front-line workforce. And with a cost of $1000 to $2000 per team member to hire and train—let’s just say that’s a lot of cups of coffee.
Stepping off the roller coaster
Despite the much-anticipated arrival of a Covid vaccine, I went through most days in a grief-ridden fog. Spring came and went. My workday felt like an endless session of email whack-a-mole, as the crisis du jour presented itself and I flailed away with my mallet. But my heart wasn’t in it. The death of my son in 2019 and the near-death of my business had left me feeling hollow and spent.
There was some light at the end of that dark tunnel: Moni was pregnant again. It was a total mind-bender—still grieving the loss of Zephyr, whom I loved more than anything in the world, while preparing to be a new father again. But I was mentally and emotionally exhausted.
John, our amazing COO, knows me well. One day he said, “Greg, you can take a break. If you need permission, you’ve got it.” And he waved his COO wand, which kind of resembles a Swiss army knife.
I sent out an email to let everyone know I was going to spend some much-needed time recharging my batteries. As the Covid tide receded, I realized the pandemic had postponed a lot of the work that I needed to do, mostly on myself.
Grief for a lost child is not something you sweep under the rug on the daily. It’s a backpack you carry with you everywhere. I doubled down on grief therapy, meditation, and exercise. I think I ran almost 1800 miles in the last two years.
As with all things Coffeebar, people stepped up. People stepped in. Moles were whacked. And I had the chance to take a long, deep breath.
Out of crisis-management mode, I had time to get reacquainted with my family. But even as I did, there were constant reminders of who was missing. The sound of the California Zephyr, the train that passes below our home every day on its way from San Francisco to Chicago, accentuated the huge stack of what-if’s and I’ll-never-get-to’s. Trying to stay present was my full time job.
Nature abhors a vacuum
“Who the heck copied my cafe?”
It was the first thing that crossed my mind when I walked into the shuttered coffeehouse. A neighbor had tipped me off to a cafe for rent. (I might be on sabbatical but hey, I was curious.) I could actually see the building, which sits off McCarran in Northwest Reno, from my house.
Down to the smallest detail of its coffee counters and equipment, it was an all-too-familiar Coffeebar clone. But strangely, I’d never heard of it. It was brand spanking new, but looked like someone had simply walked out the door, leaving a fully equipped business behind.
I asked the realtor what had happened there, expecting a story about bad timing, another local business falling victim to the pandemic.
Turns out, it had been owned by a gambling addict who’d embezzled $40 million from the CBS Employees Federal Credit Union in Southern California during the 20 years he’d worked there. Along with $100,000 watches, expensive cars, and partying on private jets with young women, he’d set up a Reno friend in the coffee business.
In 2019 his wife called police to say he was leaving the country—apparently miffed that her $5,000-a-week allowance was ending. They arrested him with gold bullion in his bag on his way to the airport, in a “Catch Me if You Can” moment gone totally wrong.
Discovering an empty, just-add-coffee cafe in Reno (especially one with such a crazy story behind it!) lured me out of my self-care sabbatical. And when it turned out that buying the building would save us thousands of dollars in rent, we decided to go for it.
If you’ve ever applied for an SBA loan and experienced the financial colonoscopy that comes with it—well let’s just say it’s about as far from “self-care” as you can get. But it all came together, and Coffeebar has become its own landlord for the first time in our ten-year history.
There is no corporate design brief at Coffeebar. Each of our stores is unique. Clocking in at 3600 square feet, McCarran is a big space, so there’s plenty of room for our “all cookie, no cutter” approach.
A decade ago, my first trip to Burning Man stoked me with the creative fuel for the interior of our first cafe, in Truckee. So we’ve gone back to the well for this one. Friends are donating Playa art installations and local makers are helping us craft a space that inspires connection over connectivity.
While we’re not about “editing” guests’ experiences in our cafes, let’s just say that the Easter eggs will be plentiful. Hopefully they’ll inspire folks to leave their phones in their bags, drop into the present moment, and have a real conversation.
The Eagle has landed
Coffeebar in summer 2021 was the closest to its pre-COVID bustle as we had ever seen. Even though restrictions were tough inside the cafes, our patios turned out to be life-savers. The influx of people from the Bay pushed the Tahoe market to highs never before seen in these parts.
Moni was getting closer to her late-August due date when the Tamarack and Caldor wildfires erupted and business plummeted like trees in the forest near South Lake. Tahoe was in trouble. For the first time in my decade here, I was legitimately worried about what was to come. (Good thing climate change isn't real, huh?)
In late August, we decided to escape the smoke by heading down to Menlo Park. When you’re preparing for a home birth you never take such trips lightly, so we coordinated with our favorite midwife from San Francisco for a ‘just-in-case’ delivery. The sun was shining in Menlo and it was a much-needed reprieve from the oppressive air quality in Tahoe.
We’d already decided to name our next child Saena, an ancient, pre-Sanskrit name for an eagle or great bird of prey. It’s also connected to the tree of life and the mythical phoenix, the symbol of renewal and rebirth—a perfect fit for where we were on our journey as parents. (We’d also had so many eagle sightings since Moni became pregnant that we stopped writing them down.)
But this bun did not want to come out of the oven down in the Bay, the way her sister had. After a long ride home and some greasy diner food in Auburn, Moni’s water broke in the pre-dawn hours.
It was the one day we were not prepared to have a home birth.
Our local midwife wasn’t answering her phone; she had the birth tub. Our San Francisco midwife jumped in her car to start the drive to Reno at seven a.m. And of course I didn’t have the right fitting to fill the birth tub once it arrived. I ended up bailing water out of our bathtub and had six pots of water boiling on the range because our hot water heater had run out.
Our little birdie arrived on August 30th, 2021, at 11:16 a.m., just 30 minutes after the midwife arrived.
What’s in a Name
In the months leading up to the birth, we’d asked Naia what she wanted her baby sister's name to be. Without hesitation she’d said, ‘Sophia!’
We also liked the name Aura. Where the mythical Zephyr was the God of the West wind, Aura was the goddess of the morning breeze. We got what felt like divine confirmation just days before Saena was born, when a friend randomly sent Monique an email that included a picture of The Birth of Venus, the iconic painting by Botticelli with the goddess arriving on her seashell skimboard.
Two intertwined figures on the left side of the painting caught our eye. Turns out that one is Zephyr, the god of the light, warm West wind. The other is Aura, the nymph who inspires the morning breeze from the east. As Moni went into labor, she had stepped outside to a smokeless sky—cleared by a very welcome and much-needed breeze from the east.
Saena is a Virgo, like her brother Zephyr. Her moon is in Gemini—just like her brother’s. If you follow astrology, their moons are just two degrees apart. This has given us the feeling that Saena and Z share a bond—more so when we realized that in the myth of the Gemini, one twin is mortal, the other immortal.
I often look at her, now four months old, and wonder what’s in store for our little birdy in this beautiful life.
Nature Abhors a Vacuum...Part Deux
If rising from the ashes was a theme for 2021, then the story of Food + Drink seems to fit perfectly. Opened just before the pandemic hit, the midtown pizza restaurant had blown me away with its amazing Neapolitan pies. And I’d gotten to know the founder, Aaron.
When businesses were forced to close, he pivoted to an all-takeout format. Throughout the ordeal, we compared notes about our struggles as we struggled to survive COVID.
When re-opening began, I stopped by to pick up some dough balls for my home pizza oven. To my surprise and dismay, I found Aaron closing up shop—for good. The ordeal had cost him his entrepreneurial juju, he said.
I threw out idea after idea—what if Coffeebar could find a manager for it? Help staff it? Help run it? But he was done. So we did the only thing we could possibly do.
We bought a pizza restaurant.
Right about now you’re probably wondering how this whole self-care sabbatical and impending baby thing was working out. But serving pizza is an idea that’s been with me since I started Coffeebar. Pizza is on the menu of the neighborhood cafes that were my original inspiration, back when I was a young ski racer discovering the amazing food of northern Italy.
Coffee and pastry in the morning, wine and pizza—followed by a little espresso—in the evening. La dolce vita! I’d been suffering from a latent case of pizza envy for a long time. Pizza felt like the missing link in my business journey.
So we’re busy reimagining our pizza restaurant with all the energy, artistry, and creativity you’ve come to expect from Coffeebar. We’re pouring our signature Italian wines and we’ve introduced an Italian-inspired cocktail menu that features house-made bitters, syrups, and limoncello. There are some amazing new pies, along with fan favorites.
Wake up and smell the coffee
If I hadn’t stepped back a bit this year, if I’d focused on whacking moles, I would have missed these opportunities to do something new, something creative, and be reminded of why I signed up for this crazy ride.
In the past two years, I’ve gone from believing in absolutely nothing to being so deeply immersed in matters of the spirit that the goings-on of everyday life felt downright irrelevant.
But as 2021 comes to a close, it feels like everyday life is the whole point.
You’ve probably heard the Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quote, “We’re not humans on a spiritual journey, we’re spiritual beings on a human journey.” I believe we sign up for this—to experience this world as physical beings. But we don’t get that much time here, so we have to make the most of it.
My own human journey has led me into the world of hospitality and service. My purpose is sharing the small, good, everyday things that bring joy and bring people together.
The taste of delicious food shared with friends. Feeling the warm west wind on an afternoon run along the Truckee River canyon. Seeing your daughter’s face light up when she slides down a snowy slope on skis for the first time. Welcoming a friend into your cafe for a cup of coffee. Welcoming a stranger.
The poet Mary Oliver wrote,
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
As we step into 2022, that sounds like pretty good advice to me.