I started in coffee 20 years ago at a small shop called Analysa’s HavaJava. It was the only café in town. I said to the owner, I like it here. Are you hiring?
I learned the ropes with the espresso drinks. I served refills to the owner’s ex-husband’s friends who were in recovery, and sat outside all night chain-smoking. I didn’t meet any girls, but I learned enough to move on to my next gig, in Pittsburgh.
There were two cafés on the south side of Pittsburgh in 1993. On the surface, The Beehive was the cooler of the two due to its loud art and affected clientele. But the place was a shit-show of stuff hanging from the ceilings, bad light, loud music, crappy service.
Arabica Caffè was the other. It was much larger, cleaner, and “upscale.”
I filled out my application for Arabica and handed it to the unimpressed clerk. Just to be cute, I wrote “Look! He has experience!” at the top of my application. Later on, the manager saw the note and assumed his assistant had written it to him, and already interviewed me. So despite the large stack of applications, I got a call several weeks later.
I came down to the café and we had a chat. I talked about my experience at HavaJava, about my ambitions to write, how I had just moved here from Pittsburgh. I got the job.
Arabica got bought-out a year later by a Starbucks knock-off called Tuscany. Most of the staff jumped ship, disgusted by the thought of working for a big company. Tuscany had things like dress codes and manuals. I didn’t care. I needed to keep working.
Because of the success of an Open Mic night I had organized when the company was still Arabica, Pete had promoted me to assistant manager before the acquisition. One day he just said, “I want you for management,” and I said, alright!
When Tuscany took over, they moved me to another store in the small chain, by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. My new boss Mike said he needed a store manager there, and was planning to fill the position with one of his managers from Tuscany, but wasn’t sure. I said that’s fine, but I could do the job. He said, that’s what I wanted to hear, Bill!
I managed that store for a few months. Then one day, Mike pulled me aside and said they were planning to open stores in Philadelphia, and would I be interested in running them?
I moved to Philadelphia with my girlfriend, our two cats, jade plants, and mix tapes. We found an artist’s loft that one of the customers from Arabica told me about, Pepe. The loft was called the Sponge Factory and had one of those old, accordion-style elevators that seems so cool and romantic at first, and then becomes a pain in the ass after you’ve lived there a couple weeks.
We opened our first store by the University of Pennsylvania that August. I hired a short Vietnamese guy named Han to be store manager. By boss Mike called him Han Solo, unfortunately.
We were about to open the second store in center city, when things started to come undone. Mike let me know that one of the owners had offered Mike his boss’s job, intending to fire his boss and replace him with Mike, and Mike didn’t think that was right. He said I should think about looking elsewhere.
I signed up with Starbucks, and started on 9/11/95. On my first day, I met my new boss at a former International House of Pancakes and let him bully me into drinking a whole French Press of coffee.