By Laura Gossman

“What do you usually drink?” asked the owner, Steve Chang of Copa Vida coffee shop at the start of our interview, as I settled into my seat by the window in old town Pasadena. As I explained my latte and milk-free preferences, he recommended a drink I was unfamiliar with called a cortado. As Steve explained its balance between milk (in my case soy), and espresso, I was struck by the passion and care he articulated the product as well as his joy in how this drink “shows off” all the barista’s skills.

Steve Chang, owner of Copa Vida coffee shop in Old Town Pasadena, California.

Steve Chang, owner of Copa Vida coffee shop in Old Town Pasadena, California.

Steve, along with other like-minded partners Frank La, Erick Lee (Chef), Sam Hong and his wife Elena Chang, opened Copa Vida just this past August after extensive travels around the country and globe, gathering the unique cultural experiences of coffee shops from Seattle, Italy to Costa Rica.  For the last ten years or so, Steve had been the VP of two food manufacturers, and a director of race relations in non-profits, but was restless to do something that integrated all components of his life – hard work, family, faith, and personal passions such as his love for coffee and community life.

“This business started out with selfish motives. I was frustrated with the three or four different hats I was wearing and how to be one person…I wanted people in each facet of my life to recognize me as the same person,” reflected Steve. Now, almost five months after opening, these personal motives have also grown into ambitions far beyond his own integrative growth.

After much discernment and what he considers eight conversations that were divine in nature, he left his family business a year and a half ago to research coffee shop models and culture. As we dived into this part of our conversation, I realized that he must have eyes not only in the back of his head, but on the sides as well. In the first twenty minutes of our talk, he noticed the mother struggling with her three year-old son and quickly jumped up to get her drink when they called her name, as well as the girl next to us wiping up a few crumbs from the table, which prompted him to apologize as he made haste to get a rag.

Somehow, despite these movements, he managed to still make me feel like he was completely focused on our conversation and my questions. Steve’s dream is two-fold. First, he wants Copa Vida to be a vehicle for community engagement and relationship building. Various groups from anti-human trafficking organizations to local faith congregations have used their shop to host fundraisers or meetings. But on a more organic level, there is a certain coffee culture he wants to foster. “Getting buy-in on this unique culture from both the employees and customers has been one of the hardest things about opening this business,” shared Steve.

Steve and his partners have put money where their mouth is on this one. The concept that facilitates this culture is “Go, Enjoy and Experience” and there are literally three separate coffee bars set up to reflect each value. First there is an “honor” bar that is offered during commute hours where patrons can self serve their own coffee, trusting that they in turn will drop a couple of bucks into the basket on an honor system.  He is trying to improve their signage with this, as most people still line up for their made to order drinks while they are in a rush and probably don’t realize this honor system is available given the culture we live in.

Copa Vida signage during commute hours telling customers they trust them to drop in couple of bucks in the basket since they trust them to make good morning jo.

Copa Vida signage during commute hours telling customers they trust them to drop in couple of bucks in the basket since they trust them to make good morning jo.

Next, there is an “enjoy” bar for made-to-order drinks while one waits for the Barista to make it in clear view. Lastly, the “experience” bar is for those folks who, on the weekends, might want to linger a little longer with specialty coffee/food pairings and tastings with seasonal flavors, live music and some brunch.

Copa Vida "Enjoy" barista bar. There are 3 separate coffee bars to reflect its 3-fold concept: Go, Enjoy and Experience.

Sam Hong serving at Copa Vida’s “Enjoy” barista bar. There are 3 separate coffee bars to reflect its 3-fold concept: Go, Enjoy and Experience.

The second component of Steve’s dream is to eventually give one-third of the profit  back to like-minded individuals that are willing to start-up other Copa Vida type businesses around the globe for the sake of redemptive relationships. Another one-third of the profits will go back into his business and the remaining one-third to the owners. His goal is to have three coffee shops, one roasting facility in the next five years and a business in at least one country within the next 10 years.

Copa Vida's "Experience" bar where longer, weekly experiences are provided. During this holiday season, they have coffee flight tastings paired with various foods alongside weekend live music and brunch options.

Copa Vida’s “Experience” bar where longer, weekly experiences are provided. During this holiday season, they have coffee flight tastings paired with various foods alongside weekend live music and brunch options.

After some research, Steve discovered various “pop up” containers that unfold into mobile coffee bars so that owners can have the flexibility of moving it to another location should one not work out. Like other major franchises, he intends on creating a “Copa Vida manual” that acts like the business company bible so that the best practices financially and operationally are maintained to set each owner up for success.  Steve shared, “when local businesses like ours begin to make a profit and you practice the values in the shop that espouse what you are about, the community accepts and likes you!”

A sample version of a "pop up" container coffee shop that can be used in various cities around the globe. Photo courtesy of Tongheshanzhi Landscape Design Co.

A sample version of a “pop up” container coffee shop that can be used in various cities around the globe. Photo courtesy of Tongheshanzhi Landscape Design Co.

The idea is these cross-cultural workers would only have to raise money once to help fund part of the pop-up shop and this income would sustain them abroad so they can focus on the business and building relationships in and outside of it.

While most coffee shops take at least a year to begin making a profit after opening, Steve projects that Copa Vida will hit profits in the first six months, which would be this coming January or February.

Post-interview coffee cake overlooking Raymond Ave in Pasadena. It quickly disappeared along with this laptop owner beside me.

Post-interview coffee cake overlooking Raymond Ave in Pasadena. It quickly disappeared along with this laptop owner beside me.

This is no small feat considering Steve also pays his staff significantly more than the average Barista, as well as charges higher prices to his customers due to his fair-trade commitment. But he does demand a considerable amount from his employees, which is why he hires a smaller, higher qualified pool so he can invest in finding the right people for the long term by giving them enough hours to sustain a living. “This is not a place to work for the short-term. I am looking for people who see this as a career or are committed to being here long term while they pursue other endeavors on the side. Because of their three-fold approach, baristas here have to have worked at least a year in a specialty coffee shop to qualify. Steve admitted that finding the right people has been another one of his biggest challenges.

The name “Copa Vida” was inspired by a common saying in Costa Rica, “copa de vida” or “pura vida” and while there may be a few different facets to his business purpose and approach, ultimately it is the day-to-day ordinary ways in which his business brings life to others.  This “cup of life” is not some magical fountain of youth found in an Indiana Jones movie. From the struggling mom, teething baby, starving student to the hollywood star from Parenthood that sat next to us, each person is treated with the same level of warmth, dignity, appreciation and excellent cup of their choice.

My son, Benjamin, as he teethes on his first cup of Copa Vida...water.

My son, Benjamin, as he teethes on his first cup of Copa Vida…water.

Laura Gossman lives in Pasadena, California. She is the Director of Operations at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and a recent new mother to son Benjamin and wife of Adam Gossman. She received her M.A. in Cross Cultural Studies from Fuller in 2006.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.

 

2 Responses to Copa Vida – A Spin on the Cup of Life

  1. Jack Groot says:

    I really like what Steve is doing with his store. After checking out his FB page and seeing the expression of excellence combined with the apparent quality of product, and then having a great focus on community, I am sure Copa Vida will connect with those around.

    Connecting with the community is such a critical part of being a long term successful and profitable coffee shop. From where they are located (strip mall vs. downtown mainstreet), to how they connect with those in their local community, to how large a store and how much seating it offers, as well as other community facilitating ingredients present or not present in a store, community is what is missing in a lot of America and the desire for it has set the stage for a resurgence of such things as buy local, coffee shops, farmer’s markets and the like.

    Thanks for highlighting what looks to be a gem in the rough. I wish them much success and prosperity in the future.

    Laura, on a side note, a friend of mine (possibly you know him) named Mark DeRoo sent me a link to your article. He and I talk leadership and coffee all the time. I own a coffee shop in Holland MI and “community” and “leadership” are two of my “hot buttons”. As an interesting twist, Kris DePree, Max DePree’s son, comes in my coffee shop every day, and has for about 20 years. You also look very familiar. Have you ever been to Holland?

    • Laura Gossman says:

      Jack,
      Thanks for your comment. I am so glad you enjoyed the article and the many connections it had for your own life and business. What a small world with the De Pree connection! I have never been to Holland, MI but a Fuller friend of mine, Christy Statema is from there. I believe my previous pastor and his wife are from there as well (Jon and Sarah Dephouse). I’m not sure why I look familiar, however. Strangers on the street often tell me I remind them of someone they know! All the best to you and your work as you help deepen community in your neck of the woods.