Robin’s Café — An Origin Story

Logo thanks to SpatialK and Code Switch Labs

On April 27, 2016 I opened a cafe. And since opening Robin’s Café the most common question I receive is, “Have you always wanted to own a cafe?”

Honestly, it had never even occurred to me until 30 days before I signed the lease. For years now I’ve juggled a variety of gigs in very different industries. The closest I came to a “day job” was my work as first employee at the education tech. company Socos, and even then I was dancing ballet and performing with the San Francisco Opera. My other gigs have included a series of un-conferences, consulting on building more resilient teams, and directing the first annual Responsive Org conference.

Opening a cafe seems like a crazy decision given that I haven’t worked in food service since I bussed tables in 2004 — my first job upon moving to San Francisco. But by the end of this last April I was shocked to find myself the owner of a cafe in the Mission and the primary employer of 7 people. What’s more, I opened the cafe on 3 weeks notice.

Impetuous as it may seem, the cafe was certainly no accident. I’ll be telling the unlikely story of Robin’s Café over the next several weeks, but for now, here’s how it all began:

David Leventhal presenting at Design for Dance 2016 #DanceTech

In 2014 BJ Fogg invited me to speak at Design for Dance, a conference which BJ had founded to explore the benefits of human movement. I fell in love with the amazing collaborative spirit of the event, and offered to help however I could. Less than a year later I was offered the directorship, and then ownership of the Design for Dance conference. ODC, the largest modern dance company on the West Coast, presented at Design for Dance in 2015, and when I was looking for venue for the 2016 conference they offered their theater located in the Mission District, San Francisco. Equipped with a 175 seat theater, studios, and a conference room, I was also excited for the cafe on site which could easily provide coffee and lunch to my conference attendees.

On March 15, 2016, I sat down with the program manager at ODC to finalize details for the Design for Dance conference in April. These plans had been several months in the making, so we were just finalizing minor details, confirming the number of chairs we would need and so forth. With not a clue what was in store, I asked who to contact at the coffee shop to make sure that they would have enough coffee for my conference participants. The program manager looked at me and said, “Well, actually the coffee shop is closing, so you are out of luck with that.”

Serving cappuccino for the first time since I was first trained as a barista 15 years earlier.

I was completely floored. The cafe was one of the reasons I had originally booked Design for Dance to take place at ODC — to have my attendees get food and beverage throughout the event was an incredible perk. We spent a few minutes chatting about the cafe, but since it was independently run, I wasn’t able to get much more information.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the cafe’s closing that day. Yes, I was without a coffee for the conference, but I was also struck by what a lost opportunity it was. Who would abandon the chance to create a community hub in the center of San Francisco? More importantly, I thought, “Why would I pass up that chance?”

Obviously, there are a myriad of reasons not to open a cafe. For all the many reasons that 90% of small businesses fail. Minimum wage in San Francisco makes it hard for a small business to stay afloat, and even so those wages may not cover the increasing cost of rent in the Bay Area. With no prior experience, I’d have to learn a completely new industry with no time to prepare.

To afford the equipment being offered for sale by the old cafe, and the start-up costs associated with a new business, would cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $80,000. Not to mention that I’d also have to stop — or at least pause — most of my other projects, some of which were proving lucrative.

And all of this came just six weeks prior to the biggest conference I had organized to date!

The lively lobby of Robin’s Café during Design for Dance 2016

That afternoon, I emailed the executive director of ODC, asking about the cafe and its availability. The next day, I walked around the neighborhood to see what it was like and who was there. It was easy to see little ways to create something stable and unifying in a changing neighborhood. I ended the afternoon in the cafe talking to a longtime employee of the cafe. He stated — definitively — that the cafe was already being sold. I emailed and called my contact at ODC again to double-check this claim, with no response. Five days later, I had no new information, and moved on. There was no point in wasting energy on an impossible dream when there was already so much work to do.

Two weeks later, in the thick of preparations for the conference (now just 3 weeks away), I finally heard back from ODC by way of an email forwarding me on to the cafe’s then-owner Matt. I met with Matt the following next day, just to hear what was going on with the cafe’s new owners and was greeted by Matt and a full inventory list, with prices. The sale hadn’t gone through after all, and the cafe was mine if I wanted it (and could find a way to pay).

Our customer’s favorite food — the best-selling Avocado Toast

The next two weeks went by in a complete blur. I was working on the conference during the day, getting up at dawn to train as a barista (not to mention hiring staff and figuring out payroll and vendors in between), and then going home to refine a new lease with ODC at night. It would absolutely not have been possible without the somewhat baffled support of friends and family, the full co-operation of the former owner Matt and most especially the enthusiasm of ODC.

Somehow — bafflingly — I raised $40,000 in two weeks from family and friends for the down payment on the cafe equipment. This also meant opening bank accounts, getting a business license, health inspection, transferring a liquor license, and all of the other essentials that make a food business run. Matt generously agreed to a sales arrangement that enabled me to rent all of the equipment for the cafe for the first month, and then purchase outright the things that we really needed after the conference and re-opening were over.

Three days before Design for Dance — on April 26, 2016 — I signed a new lease with ODC to open Robin’s Café. April 27th was opening day.

The night before we opened, I woke up at 3 in the morning, unable to sleep. Eventually I got out of bed and went to the cafe. I got there around 4:00 am, set up, and cleaned until we opened for business at 8:00 am.

It was an insane experience. I was hosting speakers for the conference, people from out of town were borrowing my car, and I was running around in circles trying to be in several places at once. At one point, I actually conducted a driving staff interview, talking to an applicant in the passenger’s seat on the way to pick up supplies (He got the job when he magically talked the SFPD out of towing my car).

The day we opened, we served coffee, tea, and avocado toast and by our second day of operations we were serving a full menu to the neighborhood.

Opening a small cafe in the intersection of so many different aspects of Bay Area’s community has been — and continues to be — a powerful learning experience, full of generous and inspiring people, reflection, and unexpected growth. It’s an experience that has transported me, and left me feeling more fulfilled in my work than I ever have before, both within the cafe and beyond. I’ve had people at the startup next door come in to get coffee every day. And it’s incredible to think that they’ll remember getting coffee at their job five years later because the baristas and the experience we created for them were so great.

Opening the cafe has become an opportunity to create community in a whole new way. It is the opportunity to touch the lives of my employees and then the individual people they interact with on the ground each and every day. Being a part of someone’s daily routine is an chance to be a part of their daily habits, and to create an environment for those habits to grow. Having daily positive impact on employees and customers alike in a small, sweet, and humble way makes such a huge difference. Robin’s Café is an unexpected journey, but an incredibly empowering one.

This is the first installment in a series about opening of Robin’s Café, a cafe, gallery, and event space in the Mission, San Francisco and exploring what it means to create a Responsive Org.

Visit the cafe at 3153 17th Street, San Francisco or learn more about the Responsive.org movement.