It’s been a decade since Coffeebar first opened its doors as a bootstrapped, wing-and-a-prayer back alley cafe in Truckee, California.
Since then, we’ve grown into a restaurant group with eight locations that span the Sierra to the Bay. Those ten years have been filled with adventures, memories and life lessons, and over the next few months I’d like to share some of those with you—our highest highs and our lowest lows.
As Emerson said, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” It’s why we chose the road less traveled. Ralph Waldo knew what he was talking about.
I grew up in Winter Park, Colorado, a ski racer from age 7 to 25. Competitive skiing gave me the chance to leave my little hometown in the Rockies and travel the world, and it was in Italy that I began a passionate love affair with coffee. But it wasn’t just the amazing espresso—it was the Italian cafe experience that stole my heart.
And if I’m being honest, it was the gelato. In some cities, there were two to three gelato stands per block, most of them just a hole-in-the-wall with a huge gelato case in the doorway, and a few willing scoopers. Devouring one scoop after another, I think I spent most of my savings account. (That mind-blowing discovery was brought home for me a couple of decades later when my son Zephyr, not even two years old, exclaimed breathlessly, “Papa! Oh my God—gelato!”)
I still managed to fit some ski racing in here and there, but in 1998 I started my first coffee company, importing espresso from a small family company outside of Torino.
My love for the cafe scene had pulled me all in. I was taken with their welcoming professionalism, something that you didn’t get from coffee houses in the US.
There was no coffee snobbery in Italy—no fixed-gear-unicycle-riding, waxed-moustache-sporting baristas barely willing to glance your way. Instead, there was a welcome and ease that I knew I wanted to replicate back home. In Italy, the daily rituals of coffee, food, beer, and wine showed that a cafe experience could be a source of inclusivity, not a game of one-upmanship with a too-cool-for-school barista.
By 2010, I’d been back in the states for years—and in the coffee business most of my adult life. I’d owned a medium-size wholesale company and opened 15 different cafes in Boulder and Denver, Colorado, some for myself and others for friends and employers. Yet I still dreamed of recreating that Italian cafe experience that had felt so right to my DNA: a welcoming, morning-to-evening, cappuccino-to-songs hangout, one where my hard-working, hard-playing, outdoor-loving friends would feel totally at home.
The dream might have remained just that, if not for a redhead, a swami and a lion.
There’s nothing like a broken heart to kick start a life-changing journey. I was running a small group of tea cafes in 2009, recovering from a painful breakup with said redhead. I wasn’t very good at disguising my emotional state, and one of my regular customers, sensing I needed a major reboot, invited me to attend a three-week yoga retreat in India. I didn’t know a downward dog from dhaal—but I did know mountains. The yoga retreat was in the foothills of the Himalayas, an alluring destination for my untethered heart.
Two events on that trip made an indelible impression. The first was the trek to the sacred source of the Ganges, at 13,000 feet. After an 18 kilometer hike we reached the headwaters, and I stole away for some soul-searching. Rock-hopping to the center of the glacier-fed river, I found a boulder to sit on. As the water rushed around me, sweeping down to the plains and out to sea, I was struck by a powerful sensation that my old life was being washed down the valley with it.
I still had no idea what would replace that old life. Stumbling and groping our way back into the village that night, long after darkness fell, seemed like a fitting metaphor.
Other retreat participants had consulted with a local swami, sitting on the dirt floor of his modest jewelry shop to receive psychic readings. They returned to the ashram to compare stories—some were excited, others skeptical. But it was one of those “Why not?” moments, and I decided to go, too.
The swami, a regal-looking man, didn’t beat around the bush. Almost immediately after I sat down, he looked me in the eye and announced,
“You are a great leader. You need to make your own brand, and you need to move away from where you live now to do it.”
I’d expected something vague, flowery, and open to interpretation. This felt like marching orders. The next “Why not?” moment quickly followed: I returned to Boulder, quit my job, and stuffed my life into a storage container.
But not long before I left Colorado, I had an overwhelming dream. In it, I confronted an enormous lion, glowing in vivid hues of glowing red, gold and blue. As he let out a deafening roar, I discovered that I had the body, skills and tools of a Masai warrior (who knew?) and that I also gripped a spear in each hand. Before the lion could attack me, I dispatched the creature by plunging one of the spears into his wide-open mouth and the second into his heart.
It was an incredibly powerful experience, a memory that’s nearly as vivid today. I wasn’t surprised to learn, soon after, that killing a lion in a dream symbolizes conquering your fears. The brilliant beast had shown up to prove something to me: that even though I’d always been afraid to leave my home state, pursue my vision, and start my business, I was already equipped with those skills—whether I realized it or not.
This Technicolor lion came to epitomize two things I wanted in my new venture, and my new life: heart and balance. Years later he became the symbol of Coffeebar, where he’s affectionately known as Giuseppe (yes, as in “Joe”. All coffee geeks are Italians at their core). Giuseppe is more than a mascot; he’s the embodiment of everything we believe in. He inspires our quest for quality, fun and sprezzatura—the art of making something difficult seem effortless. Giuseppe is present in every cup of coffee, every fresh-baked pastry, and every interaction with our guests.
In February 2010, feeling lion-hearted, I pulled out of Boulder and headed west, to Truckee, a town I’d loved since my ski racing days and where I still had good friends. At that moment, Truckee was just a way station to me. I dropped off my things, turned south and made a beeline for Los Angeles, convinced that the City of Angels would be the birthplace of Coffeebar. (After all, wasn’t LA the place you were supposed to go to achieve your dreams?) I had $10,000 in my pocket and a fierce determination to bring my vision to fruition.
After months of research into five seemingly promising locations in Venice, Santa Monica and West Hollywood, I was almost out of money—and no closer to opening my first store. As anyone who’s ever been tapped on the shoulder by a Vision knows, they’re tricky things. One minute they hand you a blueprint, the next they’re shrugging their shoulders and muttering, “Did I tell you to do that?”
I’d already dismantled my life in Colorado, so I had no choice but to head back to Truckee. I returned to the Sierra with my tail between my legs, bewildered and discouraged. Everything had seemed so clear just a few months before. I hoped that a little spring skiing would lift my sagging spirits.
As I processed my LA crash-and-burn out loud, my friend Ephraim mentioned that there was an old coffee spot on Jibboom Street that might be vacant. It was another “Why Not?” moment. I got on my bike and rode to downtown Truckee to check it out. Pulling up onto the vacant patio, I peered into the window. And I knew at that moment this was the Place.
As I peered into the window of the shuttered Jibboom Street coffee shop in 2010, my spark of excitement reignited.
The following day I called the leasing agent. I knew in my heart that Truckee was not a consolation prize, but the place I was meant to start my company. “I’ve opened 15 coffee shops back in Colorado and I’m looking to do the same here in Truckee,” I told him. In addition to my cafe experience, I explained, I was a former ski racer from a small town and understood the ebb and flow of mountain life.
The space had been empty for a year, after the previous coffeehouse fell victim to the 2008 economic meltdown. Another cafe had failed before that. The landlord was understandably concerned about the viability of yet another coffee business, but I made a case for my Italian-cafe-inspired Coffeebar concept. He agreed to lease me the space.
I’d negotiated leases before and knew that my landlord-to-be would probably require more than a persuasive pitch—I’d have to show him that my venture was financially viable. And at that moment, I had just $100 left to my name. It was the ultimate fake-it-til-you-make-it moment. Luckily, They never asked to see my bank statement. In hindsight, the building owners may have been as desperate as I was.
It was go time! With no way to qualify for conventional financing, and with the clock ticking, I needed private money to get the business off the ground. I raised $100,000 in sixty days, securing loans from ten different investors, most of them friends and family. I put another $40,000 on my credit card. To say that I was nervous is an understatement.
With a shoestring budget to get a 2000-square-foot cafe off the ground, most of the remodel was DIY. For two months I was hands on, doing demo, painting, tiling bathrooms, and installing equipment with some locals that I’d met over the summer. I did catering gigs for Mark Estee to meet people in the industry and earn a few extra bucks.
We were getting close. After the shock of applying the first coat of bright green stain to the floors, a bold choice, I seized a few days of downtime and headed to Black Rock Desert to attend Burning Man for the first time. Burning Man reconnected me to a forgotten sense of childhood magic and wonder. I was surrounded by people who were passionate about the way they lived, and far less concerned with what they did for a living than who they were as human beings. You couldn’t buy anything, but you could trade—and hugs were legal tender.
Burning Man made me think hard about my new company’s culture. I wanted Coffeebar to be a place where a fair exchange of value would be at the heart of the business.
I wanted people to come in for a cup of coffee—or just for a smile and a friendly conversation. I realized that more than a business, the cafe would be a place where I could finally be me.
It turned out that getting our store built wasn’t the hardest part. It was finding people to work there. The day before we opened, I was still the only barista on the team, and desperate to find another one. But that very morning, Travis walked in the doors. He was an artist, he told me, and he claimed he could do latte art. The kicker? His last project had been painting a giant lion.
Mentally I shouted, “HIRED!” but kept my excitement in check, sending him unobserved behind the bar to make a cappuccino with some art on the top. A few minutes later, the drink appeared on my table, bearing a pretty decent “heart” design in the foam.
“You passed the test!” I told him. “You can start...well, now.”
The following day, October 11, 2010, we finally opened the doors of Coffeebar Truckee with a team of seven brave souls and myself. Roger Burns strolled in around 9:30am to buy our first official coffee and we were off to the races. That is to say, we were in business. Barely. I had just $10,000 left in the bank account to fund our operations, and we’d run $10,000 over on our construction budget.
The early months of Coffeebar Truckee were a blur. I was still in “whatever it takes” mode, and joked that I worked “half time”: just 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Despite the grueling schedule, I felt free for the first time in my life. I was 37, with years of experience under my belt; I was confident in my management abilities, but I sought feedback and maintained a humble attitude. I knew there was more to learn, and that excited me.
From the get-go, Coffeebar was a place that welcomed everyone with open arms, whether they were a Starbucks customer or a Bay Area hipster. I’d never wanted to be the sort of cooler-than-thou coffeehouse that dictated to people how to enjoy their coffee. I wanted to create a “YES” culture that expressed the spirit of hospitality I’d fallen in love with in Italy.
After working for forty days straight, I finally had my first day off. Though I was exhausted, it was still extremely difficult to let go and step away, even for 24 hours. I went to Oakland for a concert. It was my first official date with Monique, the woman who would become my wife.
While I was gone, the melting snow load on the roof of the building flooded the entire kitchen. Thankfully, Libby, our capable kitchen manager, didn’t have the heart to call me. She handled the disaster herself.
By the end of our first full year, I’d tallied just five days off--and missed one of the biggest winters on record in Tahoe. And it was all worth it.
Birthing the right kind of brand
I’d gone to business school and had even owned other café concepts, but until I opened Coffeebar Truckee, I didn’t know what it meant to own a “community café” I learned the true definition when one of our customers wrote me a letter, telling me that Coffeebar saved his life.
The father of two, he was in the throes of a devastating divorce and Coffeebar became his home away from home. He stopped in, at minimum, three to four times a day. A couple of those visits included an espresso or two. In his letter, he told me that those caffeine-and-conversation moments lifted him up enough to enable him to weather his personal storm. He not only remained a great customer but became an investor in our second location.
I quickly came to understand that people were just as likely to come in to see their Coffeebar friends as they were to get a cup of coffee. They dropped by for a hug or a short conversation. There was a lot of loving energy in the store, and people craved that energy—sometimes even more than the caffeine or the crepe.
I think it’s because I didn’t try to “edit” the way people used our cafes or manage the experiences they wanted to have there. Our customers educated us—showing us what they valued most about our business. It was eye-opening to witness them affirm our vision...and then expand on it. I’ve always said that Coffeebar runs more on heart and less on bottom line.
During our first three years, I made coffee almost daily, coming to know every single drink and what each customer wanted before they even walked in the door. I also knew who their kids were, what they studied in school, and what they were passionate about. We threw free parties just for fun, with live music and dancing on our patio. I cooked fresh pasta for family-style meals. We supported local non-profits like High Fives, a foundation started by a professional skier who’d overcome a life-changing injury, and the Truckee Humane Society, who held a pet adoption event in our parking lot following a month-long art show and fundraiser. We even had fancy, multi-course pop-up dinners with local chefs.
The town embraced our open-hearted, full-contact hospitality, and we became the epicenter of the downtown Truckee Community. We didn’t care if a guest was a janitor or a CEO: we treated everyone like a VIP, and our customers did all the marketing for us. That positive word of mouth became so powerful that in our ten year history we’ve only run two print ads.
Offering incredible access to skiing, boarding, climbing, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and soaring, Truckee was like Match.com for the adventurous soul. We provided the fuel to send folks out into the world ready to live their adventures. We invited them to come in, feel good, and head out believing that they could (often literally) scale mountains.
The future is melting
Thanks to our hospitality and excellent product quality, we became the go-to place in Tahoe for a cup of coffee. In 2011, the Truckee Chamber of Commerce named us the town’s “Best New Business.” As the good word was amplified by Google and Yelp, sales steadily grew. By the end of our third year, our little back-alley cafe had crested $1 million in annual revenue, putting it in the top 1% of all specialty coffee shops in the nation. We were not only sustaining a business in a small ski town, we were flourishing...until it all started melting away.
Truckee had been a wonderful birthplace for Coffeebar, but it was also uniquely vulnerable. We were affected by the usual dramatic seasonal cycles, but the seasons themselves were becoming less reliable. Three straight years of dwindling snowfall led to a shrinking supply of skiers, as well as potential Coffeebar employees. By the end of the very lean snow year during the 2012-13 season, I realized that I couldn’t have my family’s future be 100% reliant upon Tahoe snowfall. I started to look for an opportunity in Reno.
But our entrance there turned out to be nearly as bumpy as an eight-second ride at the famed Reno Rodeo.
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.
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.
My life changed forever on August 25th 2016, the day my son Zephyr Lyric Buchheister was born.
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.
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.
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.
~ Greg & Zephyr