Walking into the cozy, light-filled space of coastal Capitola’s Cat & Cloud, you will find yourself suffused with what can be a rare emotion in coffee—genuine, sincere kindness. The attitudes of baristas in specialty coffee shops continues to be a pain point for the community, a subject I hear bandied about year-after-year at conferences and in interviews, and this outpouring of legitimate niceness is a product, a foundational element even, of the Cat & Cloud philosophy, built upon by the shop’s owners, Chris Baca, Jared Truby, and Charles Jack. The upbeat tenor of Cat & Cloud’s staff is not a happy accident; it is instead the specific product of three learned coffee veterans, putting their shared experience—the good and the bad—towards a loftier goal of employee happiness and its direct effect on customers.
Amongst co-owners Baca, Truby, and Jack, there is a lifetime of specialty coffee experience lived, but it is Santa Cruz’s Verve Coffee where the story of Cat & Cloud begins. Though Truby and Baca had known each other prior, all three of Cat & Cloud’s co-owners found themselves ensconced at the burgeoning chain in leadership positions: Truby as the longtime management and cultural compass, Baca as the head of sales, and former Wall Street guy Jack as one-half of a two-part finance team. As the company grew, Baca found himself working a job outside his comfort zone. “I ran out of room for growth,” Chris Baca tells me. “I was in a job that I wasn’t suited for or enthusiastic about. I had a huge passion for education, training, and coffee in general, and my job had nothing to do with any of that.”
Dissatisfied, Truby and Baca moved on—Truby to The French Press in Santa Barbara, Baca to San Luis Obispo to open HoneyCo roasters with Jon & Sarah Peterson—but the seeds for a future venture had been planted. A little over a year later, Baca and Truby, with Jack in tow, reconvened with one goal in mind. “We all had this dream to do our own thing,” Baca tells me. “We wanted to provide a new experience for our customers and our staff. You have to start somewhere or you never will.”
The three secured what Baca calls a “super serendipitous, dream location” in Capitola, a small surf community just a few blocks from the beach. They got to work hashing out the philosophy behind Cat & Cloud, and what they’d need to do to bring it to life for their employees. “We’ve seen baristas treated like commodities,” Baca says, “and to us, employees are these awesome ambassadors for your company. They’re more responsible for your success than you are as owners.” To start, they focused on transparency as a business. “For years and years,” Baca says, “we worked in coffee and we had an incomplete picture of what it took to be a professional and run a business.”
Paying lip service to employee appreciation and transparency is something we've all heard before. But behind the scenes and beyond the build-out, the owners at Cat & Cloud opened their doors with a trio of ready-to-roll perks already in the wings, each aimed at addressing issues the three had experienced during their own time behind the bar. To start, Baca, Truby, and Jack understand the monetary difficulties of pursuing full-time barista work in a state as expensive as California. To ease the burden on their staff, 10 percent of the retail bottom line is divvied up amongst their full-time employees. Full-time employees are also given four weeks paid vacation from the start, and Baca encourages them to use it. “It’s stressful to take a vacation,” he says. “No wages, no tips, but people have to take a little time off for their mental health.” Tanner Roark, a former Verve employee and an opening day employee at Cat & Cloud, sees both the extra money and the vacation time as both a stress relief and a way that the owners show faith and commitment to their employees. “The world and the culture we live in is driven by money,” Roark says. “You kind of get trapped as a barista. I mean, if you take time off in Santa Cruz on a barista’s wages, you can pretty much say goodbye to paying rent.” Roark finds that having and being encouraged to take paid time off allows a culture of life/work balance to be fostered.
“They want to break the mold,” Roark tells me, “and they really do believe that quality of life impacts your ability to do a good job, and that means you have to take time off. What it says to me is that I’m valued enough that they’ll trust me to not be here, because they want to build a culture around mental and physical health.”
And though Baca freely admits that as a new business Cat & Cloud doesn’t have a lot of money—the project was funded with 35,000 dollars from a Kickstarter campaign, with the rest of the funds coming through a Small Business Associate loan—giving employees a chance to take time off is enormously important to their business model, and it requires a degree of pre-management in order to take the hit on labor costs and staffing. “We don’t run this place fast and loose,” Baca tells me. “These are the sort of things that are important. Sure, you have to be a little bit creative, but we make sure our margins are where we want them to be, and once they're dialed it’s a win-win situation. You get less turnover and more loyalty.” Roark believes that this, the dedication to a good employee culture regardless of what money resides in the bank, is absolutely crucial to what Cat & Cloud is building: “These perks have already been committed to and promised to the staff. They aren’t waiting to make a major profit, they’re committing to these things right out of the gate. This makes me feel very valued.”
The third and final employee perk at Cat & Cloud is perhaps the most important. According to the shop's owners, and multiple baristas I spoke with in researching this article, all members of staff at Cat & Cloud are given free reign of any and all information related to the inner workings of the shop. Kristen Hutson, a barista at Cat & Cloud explains: “Their communication loop is phenomenal. Any questions about anything, they’ll answer. If it’s information about new coffees, or what our numbers look like, or any sort of financial questions, they encourage you to ask, and they love to provide that information.” Hutson describes the environment as collegiate, telling me that the owners “guide people like students,” with Tanner Roark adding that Cat & Cloud's employee transparency model provides a “sense of ownership” as well as consistency across the board. “They value teamwork,” Roark says. “They’ve done such a good job of communicating their values that the entire staff is on the same page, all of us going in the same direction.”
To follow through on this promise, the company has two monthly meetings where anything is allowed to be discussed, including critiques of the management. Hutson describes those meetings in glowing terms: “They’re busy doing things and they’re not in the shop all the time, so they know that if something is going on—the flow of the space, the towels, whatever—we’ll know first. They’ll listen, and then they’ll fix it.” Beyond that, Roark sees the owners actively seeking out feedback and criticism, “They’re always learning, always wanting to be better, and that attitude it’s infectious and makes the staff want to do the same.”
Adding to this, each “class” of employees hired throw their names in a hat, and anytime a coffee-related trip is planned, one name is drawn and that employee is given the opportunity to come along. Hutson and Roark are scheduled to visit Guatemala in February, with more accompanying Baca and crew to Seattle for the La Marzocco Experience in Seattle.
The end result is something like a dream achieved for Baca, Truby, and Jack—the sort of shop and work environment they longed for as kids on the come-up. And while staff retention and happiness is part of this model, they know that inevitably—the shopkeeper's lament—they'll be arming their staff to someday go on and do their own thing out in the world. That's part of the equation, Baca tells me. “It’s our dream,” he says, “to better equip people to one day open their own shop.”
It's a gentle approach to working with other humans that crosses over into the Cat & Cloud cafe experience. “If you're a 26-year-old, super-hip kid,” Baca says, “or a mom with a stroller, we want you to feel the nonjudgmental vibes.” This extends to the wide variety of drinks on the shop’s menu, from a blended coffee beverage called a “Creamy Beige” (the name derives from the Old Gregg character on the BBC’s “The Mighty Boosh”) to “Bulletproof”-style coffee (with grass-fed butter and MCT oil), to even something as simple as vanilla syrup, in case you're a vanilla latte sort of person. Cat & Cloud wants customers to have a consistent, enjoyable experience, but there are some quirks here: for example, the shop doesn’t do traditional pour-overs, instead brewing their single-cup coffee offerings through a “really big” 22-gram portafilter on one of their two La Marzocco Strada AVs. The product is a cup of coffee that finds a delicate middle ground between the more nuanced flavor profiles of a cup of pour-over and the baser, roastier flavors of a solid cup of drip.
The experience at Cat & Cloud is, in an almost undefinable way, special. There’s an energy that flows from barista to barista, and barista to customer, that’s somehow both efficient and professional, but soaked in what can only be described as a true enjoyment of the task at hand. And now that this atmosphere has begun to take root, the owners are looking towards the future—with the hope to open three new shops and a roaster in the Santa Cruz area by 2020. And to get there, they’ll depend on the employees they’re currently training to take charge when the time comes. Until then, Baca and his team will continue tweaking what needs to be tweaked to continue to grow without forgetting the appreciation and importance of their staff.
“When you make coffee your livelihood,” Baca says, “it’s a struggle. We’re still learning, and we have all these big ideals, but we’re making a commitment to the intangibles that don’t show up on a spreadsheet like how glowing your staff is. Those are the things that make work fun, and if it sucks to work somewhere, well, I’d rather work somewhere else.” It's a sentiment echoed in something told to me by Cat & Cloud barista Tanner Roark: “For me, it feels like home in this very deep way. It feels so different from where I’ve worked before, it feels so real, and it feels like a place I want to work for a very long time.”