An interview series with Zocalo's owner Sara, and Administrative Manager, Alex Aimee Kist. In part one, Sara discusses her journey to Zocalo.
So, Sara, let’s dive in.
How did your journey lead to owning Zocalo?
This is both a really easy and fairly difficult question for me to answer. Mostly because I just don’t know where to begin.
Well, let’s start with how your love for coffee grew.
I grew up on the outskirts of Louisville, Kentucky in a fairly rural part of the City with fairly overprotective parents. I managed to participate a little bit in the punk youth music and arts scene, but coffee shops are really where I found myself.
Not being old enough to hang out in bars, I found myself in coffee shops – early mornings to study, late nights to write papers. Heine Brothers. Old Louisville Coffee Shop. I always felt that sense of opportunity for community and connection, and who doesn’t love an old building with a brick wall or two.
I’ve always worked in food service, but it wasn’t until I fell in love with a native Californian and followed him back to the Bay Area that I finally got my chance to work in coffee.
When did you jump over to the west coast?
I moved to California with my partner, Dan, in the winter of 2005 and we found ourselves living in San Leandro in early 2006. Once we were settled, I got a job at a bakery and coffee shop – Specialty’s on New Montgomery and Mission in SF. I rode BART into the City every morning and loved the escalator ride out of the station and up into the Financial District. It is here where I learned to find the swirl when steaming milk for everyone’s morning lattes.
What do you mean when you say “find the swirl”?
That is the motion you want your milk to move in when you steam milk. You have to position the steam wand just right. Specialty’s used a super automatic espresso machine, so I didn’t learn about pulling shots, but it did have a manual steam wand so I got a lot of practice steaming milk.
Oh, cool. So, what happened next?
So, there I met the regulars and made friends with the bakers. Two even became our housemates – one of whom got a job at Zocalo and is now a well-regarded award-winning coffee roaster, but that didn’t happen until much later.
Anyhow, it soon became clear that BARTING into the City every day for a cafe job was not a good financial choice. Dan told me about this cute coffee shop, Zocalo, up the street from our house. We were “borrowing” internet from our neighbors which hindered my CraigsList Job Searches, so I started going there to look for a new job online.
You weren’t considering Zocalo at the time?
I applied for a job at the library and then found out that Zocalo was hiring. I was hired for, and accepted, both jobs! At the time, however, the library was not very inclusive, and I soon learned that I would have to enact policies that were designed to prevent students and children from neighboring Oakland from using its resources.
I lasted about 3 months before putting in my notice and spent my last two weeks handing out free library cards. I am probably only one of a few people that have ever left a union government job to work full time in a coffee house, but I just could not turn away one more person from trying to access knowledge through reading and using the public library.
Wow, that’s definitely a big jump to take.
Yeah, so, there I was a full-time barista. As I showed interest in our roasting program, my boss started training me. When she went on maternity leave to have her second child, I took over as head roaster. I continued in that capacity for many years, even after leaving my barista position to start a business with my partner. I would come in a few days a week at 3:30 or 4am, roast until about 7:30, and then head to work with Dan around 8am. I did this until 2012 when I became pregnant with our first child and my bosses happened to ask if I would be interested in purchasing the cafe as their lease was up and they wanted to focus on their kids.
And, of course, you said yes.
With Dan’s help, I negotiated terms and navigated a very tumultuous lease renewal process. Then finally, the day after Iris was born, a courier arrived at the NICU and delivered paperwork for me to sign to begin taking over ownership of the cafe.
That is incredible. I cannot wait to hear more about your time as owner, but that is all we have time for today. Thank you so much for sharing, Sara!
To all those following along, don’t forget to follow us on social media and sign up for our newsletter at www.zocalocoffee.com so you don’t miss Sara’s next interview!