Getting Good at Coffee: A Personal Reflection on Working with Nick Cho
I’ll begin with my descent into specialty coffee: I lived in Washington, DC briefly after college, pursuing “serious things that a serious-minded young woman should care about” — but really, just working at a defense think tank and drinking too much. I needed more money (don’t we all), so I was working part time at a little coffee shop called Chinatown Coffee Company. I was immediately aware that my years serving up batch brew Batdorf & Bronson in college weren’t gonna pass muster (still love you B&B) and that I was unequivocally the lamest employee of said coffee shop. I’m the kind of person who won’t do things that I’m not good at, so I was going to get good at coffee… I don’t think I ever stood much of a chance of getting more cool, but I fucking tried.
Over the course of a year, I slowly learned that most of the employees of this shop had worked together at a place called murky coffee that had been shut down because of an explosive confluence of bounced paychecks, allegations of tax fraud, and chaos. At the heart of everything was the owner, Nick Cho. So, I knew of Nick before I ever moved to the Bay Area and I had heard all of the warnings. The warnings don’t need repeating, you’ve heard them all, too.
I stayed at Nick Cho’s house in Redwood City before I ever met him. My first paycheck in specialty coffee was from a company called “Wrecking Ball,” which seemed super strange when the name of the business was “Chinatown” and literally no one else made mention of this phantom company. It felt like Nick was this ghost of a person, a legend even, bopping around the periphery of my life and everywhere I went that he should have been, he had just left. He loomed large.
The most indelible impression I have about the murky and Chinatown years is that despite all of the purported flaws of leadership, the community of people who worked for and with Nick was incredibly strong. And much to my amazement, many of the former murky baristas had “real jobs” in coffee in real places like New York City (no, DC is not a real place). Here are a few reflections from some of those murky baristas gone coffee professionals:
“Nick is accommodating, generous, and kind of a ham. I had a complicated relationship that he was very sensitive about, but didn’t hesitate to give me some pretty honest, strong opinions and still managed to give me space and be supportive.”
“I think of Nick as a rare type of person whose reaction to crisis isn’t emotional, but also isn’t emotionless/incapable of understanding sensitivities of the situation. He’s the perfect filter: you can put your all your reactions and feels to a certain situation through him and he will actualize the reality and ideal way forward from the matter.”
Even without his direct influence, I want to credit the values that Nick instilled at murky that continued to hold strong in his wake with my decision to drop the think tank schtick and get myself one of those career coffee jobs.
As it turns out, a lot of those “real jobs” don’t pay a living Bay Area wage and are really multiple jobs smashed into one; I was burning out. I didn’t see a path forward but by the time that I had been in SF for a year I had finally met Nick and Trish. Nick went out of his way to cultivate a friendship and because I don’t trust men I was like “what does this creep want.” It didn’t seem like he “wanted” anything, so I was even more suspicious having learned at this point in my life that nothing is free.
Nick introduced me around town and was trying to help me find my next job when he had an idea. He sent me a text on a Saturday morning — I remember I was in bed with my then-boyfriend who was like “why is this dude texting you all the time” (a refrain from many more boyfriends to come) — with a proposal. Nick said that he had a contract with a Japanese coffee company for two years to be the exclusive importer and distributor of their products in North America. He had been running it, but was afraid that he was going to “inevitably fuck it up,” so if I wanted to run it like my own business and I thought I could make enough sales to pay myself, that the opportunity was mine. I was 25 and didn’t have shit going on, so after a brief consult with my dad, I was in.
My first week with Wrecking Ball/Kalita USA was spent in Shanghai, alone, working for World Coffee Events to run a brew bar at HOTELEX. Within the span of a week, I went from working for someone asking me to pitch why I should be allowed to go to SCAA to working for someone who believed in me, or at least was willing to give me a chance to fail majestically. Nick’s biggest strength is probably his almost child-like commitment to considering “why not.” Why shouldn’t I be the one to go? Why shouldn’t my title be “Director, Kalita USA”? We slapped an IKEA desk together in my bedroom, secured warehouse space in Emeryville, and I was off.
I have had incredible work relationships with former colleagues (sup Farley/Brandon/Bear), but they had all been with my peers, finding solace in the trenches. Working with Nick was the first time in my life that I had someone take serious interest in mentoring me, actively challenging me to grow, and pushing me outside of my comfort zone.
We took every meeting, even when Trish was frustrated with us spending our time following the scent of trails that ultimately went nowhere. But in taking every meeting, sometimes you land on something that you never expected and that ends up being a great opportunity that you couldn’t have dreamed up on your own.
We opened a cafe. We opened another cafe. We opened a roastery. We hired people and fired people (ugh) and throughout it all Nick was committed to considering every creative possibility, every option.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing — I’m an anxious person. When inevitably the business was cash poor and the bills were piling up, I lost sleep. When we uncovered that we had assumed incorrectly that our accounting software was sending money to relevant tax agencies, I lost hair. When there was a strike at the port of Oakland and our Kalita shipment was tied up for months, I started grinding my teeth at night so much I couldn’t turn my head. But throughout it all, Nick in maybe his world-weary “I’ve seen worse” way would ask me to consider the actual worst case scenario. We were privileged enough to even be in a place to have these problems, and he kept me grounded in that reality.
The most valuable thing that Nick has given me is the emotional support to become a better version of myself. I’m still not perfect; I’m still the kind of person who clamors for revenge and is quick to anger and even quicker to panic and also I sweat a lot and wear shorts too much, but he forced me to be accountable to my goals and desires in my personal life.
When shit hit the fan in my aforementioned relationship, Nick came with me to collect my things out of my boyfriend’s apartment; he wasn’t going to let me change my mind about leaving. Nick has picked me up from the airport and driven me home to the East Bay almost every time I have flown into SFO (Bay Area people know this is a big deal). When I was breaking up with yet another boyfriend, Nick and Trish opened up their home to me (and my snakes!) whenever I needed to escape from our shared apartment. They have hosted me for Thanksgiving and Christmas and have always shown up when I have needed them.
It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I am a person who is mentally ill. I have a mood disorder and had (gonna stick with the past tense here) PTSD from a violent assault that happened in 2012. Nick and Trish were patient with me as I went through years of therapy, sometimes needing to leave work early to make it to the doctor, and countless psycho-pharmaceuticals in search of some solid ground. Also, they have provided full coverage of my health insurance from day one. I’ve felt really, really good for about a year now and I couldn’t have done it without their flexibility and support.
Nick is willing to be wrong. He is brave. He will get right in the middle of a fight (usually on Twitter) or provoke people just to see what he can turn up. He is endlessly curious about other people.
And I know it isn’t just me. Here are some more quotes from people who have worked with Nick.
“Generally, Nick can be a hard boat to rock. He has juggled court issues, being a parent, being married to his business partner, and every struggle that besieges a small coffee company. Along the way, he has been nothing but caring and sympathetic to those around him, never limiting access or turning down an opportunity to help. When called upon, Nick always picks up the phone, does what’s needed to help those who make up his community. Nick is one of the most giving people I know, regardless of what personal or professional crisis he or others find themselves in.”
“Nick, without fail, responds with empathy. In my experience, he responds with surprise and understanding when people come to him. Nick is kind. Even if he cannot understand what someone is going through, he shows he cares (and he cares bigly).”
“I came to Nick needing accommodations for mental illness, and he met me with empathy and help. He not only accommodated my needs, he asked what else he could do. Nick not only listened, he showed me love when I needed to see love the most, when I was not seeing it anywhere. And now I’m crying. Thanks, Nick.”
“Nick is able to approach unknown situations with openness, and he has a true talent for understanding the needs of the individuals around him, whether it’s work, or family, or friends. Also, and I don’t know if this fits here, but Nick has a knack for jumping in to situations and helping people, and he makes it fit, and you kind of don’t notice how great it was until after the fact.”
Sydney Finkelstein is a professor at Tuck School of Business at my alma mater, Dartmouth, who wrote a book called Superbosses. The following quote probably most sums up who Nick is as a leader:
“Superbosses aren’t like most bosses; they follow a playbook all their own. They are unusually intense and passionate — eating, sleeping, and breathing their businesses and inspiring others to do the same. They look fearlessly in unusual places for talent and interview candidates in colorful ways. They create impossibly high work standards that push protégés to their limits. They engage in an almost inexplicable form of mentoring and coaching, one that occurs spontaneously with (apparently) no clear rules. They lavish responsibility on inexperienced protégés, taking risks that seem foolish to outsiders. When the time is right, superbosses often encourage star talent to leave, after which these acolytes usually become part of the superboss’s strategic network in the industry.”
And so, when I said that I thought I wanted to go back to school to get an MBA, I had the full support of Nick and Trish. They wrote my recommendations, let me take off work the week of the GMAT, allowed me to go to campus and class visits, and cheered for me the whole way.
I asked a bunch of people what they “really want Nick to know.” Here is what they said:
“I want Nick to know that he makes me LOL a lot. Like the belly laugh kind. I appreciate the hell out of him. He is one of a handful of people in my life who I will take criticism from, without being hurt. I truly value his opinion. I love him and I love and admire his partnership with Trish, a couple I very much look up to. I’m lucky to have a friend like Nick. He’s my family too.”
“His friendship is so valuable to me. I have grown so much as a result of it. I’m genuinely better because I’ve been lucky enough to know him.”
“To be honest I’ve learned so much from him so far and most of what I’ve learned has nothing to do with coffee. I appreciate his friendship and mentoring thus far. I hope to keep learning from him and making YouTube videos with him.”
“That the time that we worked together has changed me for the better. I’ll be a more complete and compassionate person due to the time that we worked together and I am inspired to share that gift with others throughout my life.”
“How lucky I am to have worked with someone who shows his employees unconditional love.”
“Just that I appreciate him and that I will consider myself a success as a human if I can show up for him in 1/3 of the way he has shown up for me over the years.”
Today is my last day at Wrecking Ball and I don’t know what my life looks like without it. I’ll take with me the relationships I have formed and the lessons I have learned, but Nick Cho has changed my life. Forever. Getting good at coffee can mean a lot of things, but the most meaningful way that I have seen it manifested is in getting good at being a leader and friend. You can always choose to take the path of kindness. To give the benefit of the doubt. To find compassion. I don’t think I really knew what all of that meant until I worked with Nick.