Peace, Love, and Coffee

A diary of the wonderful and wacky goings on at Coffee to the People, an independent coffeehouse located at 1206 Masonic Avenue in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, California.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Haight Street Fair

Enough about how it all started. Let's start talking about the wacky and wonderful goings on.

COFFEE TO THE PEOPLE had originally intended to open its doors in time for the annual Haight Street Fair so that we could take advantage of the free exposure (over 100,00 people attend the fair annually). Due to construction delays, however, we weren't ready on the day of the fair and so we were largely excluded from participating. Still, we did manage to pull together a little promotional activity in front of the store where we gave away free bags of chocolate-covered espresso beans. It was great to start meeting people in the neighborhood and we were able to generate some anticipatory exitement.

The event also gave us our first taste of some of the more peculiar aspects of being a business in the Haight. Two events were particularly memorable. The first involved a man dressed in a Star Wars costume and carrying a plastic light saber who wanted us to give him one of the balloons we were using to decorate the shop. Since we only had a few balloons and we needed them to draw attention to the store, we told him no, but that he could take as many balloons as he wanted at the end of the day. Apparently, this offer was not sufficient because he kept coming back and asking again every hour or so, growing increasingly demanding and angry until at one point he started cursing me for my stinginess. Shortly thereafter we discovered the balloons were missing, having been stolen while we were talking with some of our other visitors.

In another strange incident that same day, a rather scruffy looking man (scruffy even by Haight standards) paused in front of our shop, opened his backpack, and pulled out a giant bottle of propane and a cigarette lighter. Thinking we were about to be firebombed, I jumped back and demanded to know what he was doing. Fortunately, it turned out he was *just* filling his lighter. How's that for strange?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

How it all began. . . (Part 3)

Ultimately, COFFEE TO THE PEOPLE turned out a lot different from other coffeeshops because of my involvement. While I continued to let Bob and Megan worry about the coffee and the money, I worked on the theme. Since we had already committed ourselves to being a values-led business, the next logical step, I decided, was to carry that message into our decor.

The slogan for COFFEE TO THE PEOPLE is "Empowerment. In a cup." because we empower people by giving them choices that are environmentally and socially responsible. I wanted to make that message of empowerment and responsibility extant in everything we did, so I decorated the shop with posters of leaders of great progressive social movments from history--Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, etc.-- and inspiring quotations on the importance of social activism. To mix it up a bit, I also covered one wall with progressive bumperstickers. To help people become more politically involved, I set up a "community action center" where we post information about current events and tell people how to contact their elected representatives.

At first I was anxious about how people would react to seeing such a strong political message in a place of business, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It might not work everywhere, but in the Haight people seem to appreciate the sentiment.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

How it all began. . . (Part 2)

From the beginning, I tried to keep my distance from the coffeeshop enterprise, determined to be an owner on paper only. I declined coffee tastings and lessons in the art of cupping. I didn't want to hear about all of the different types of beans or roasters or brewing equipment. I didn't care about the relative caffeine content of coffee and tea. And most of all, I wanted to know nothing about the money--where it came from or where it went-- that was for someone else to worry about. But as time went on, no matter how hard I fought it, I found myself being sucked into the coffeeshop vortex.

One major reason I couldn't extricate myself from the process of building the business was because of the parameters I set on the project at the outset. I told Bob that I didn't want us to profit in any way from the pollution of the environment or the exploitation of workers. If we went ahead with the business, all of the coffee had to be organic and fair trade, and our employees had to receive a livable wage, health insurance, and opportunities for profit sharing. In addition, we had to give back to our community in the form of charitable contributions to progressive organizations. To his credit, Bob quickly agreed with all of these demands even though he knew they would make it more difficult to get the business off the ground. As a result, COFFEE TO THE PEOPLE became a values-led enterprise and I suddenly found myself in the role of guardian of those values.

The second reason I got so involved in the business is that I took nearly a year off from school following the birth of my third son, Leo. With no need to study I had more free time than usual and I started helping out with various projects. Eventually, theose projects metamorphosed into me handling all of the interior decorating of the shop (a laughable result since I know nothing about interior decoration beyond what I've learned from watching "Trading Spaces").

Friday, August 26, 2005

How it all began. . . (Part 1)

I never intended to open a coffeeshop. To begin with, I am not the entrepreneurial type. I hate worrying about money. I hate selling things. I never read the business section of the newspaper. I don't even like capitalism. Beyond that, I don't have the time to own a business. As a medical student and the mother of three small boys, the only time I expected to spend in a coffeehouse was while hovered over my books, studying. But my husband, Bob, had different ideas.

Bob has always had a strange entrepreneurial impulse that I can't comprehend. Apparently, being a high-powered litigator at a major law firm doesn't satisfy his need for new challenges. When he started his own online service for attorneys ( I thought that might be enough, but after that was up and running he started talking about opening a retail business--first a bar, then a pizza parlor. Fortunately, I nixed the first idea and other family members nixed the second. I told him the only type of retail business I would ever be comfortable with was books or coffee.

For awhile, as our family grew, Bob stopped talking about starting another business and I began to think he had wisely given up this particular dream, but it resurfaced when his sister, Megan, came to live with us during my first year of medical school. At the time, Megan was a recent college graduate having trouble deciding what to do with her life. She had spent some time working in coffeeshops, which she enjoyed, and she and Bob began to discuss the possibility of opening a place together. Eventually they worked out an agreement where he (we) along with other family members would provide the financing and she would provide the management.

For the next year they wholeheartedly threw themselves into the coffee business while I tried to quell my anxieties about the project. Megan went off to Starbucks for a year of intensive barista and coffeeshop management training and Bob began to learn everything there is to know about the world of coffee. Although I still wasn't keen on opening a business, at least it was only a coffeeshop. Besides, I liked the idea of helping Megan get a start in life.