The intersection of Raymond and Green in Old Town Pasadena, California, is full of cute little shops. Just a block and a half away is the popular branch of the well-known coffee shop, Intelligentsia. Not far from that is the tea shop Bird Pick. Still beyond is another coffee shop located in a warehouse that boasts on-site roasting, Jones Coffee.
Enter a new contender in what is an already colorful landscape of coffee and tea shops in Pasadena. Opening this summer, Copa Vida is the vision of founder and CEO, Steve Chang, a man who comes from working in non-profit and has a vision for the shop that goes beyond just business.
With him are his partners in business, Samuel Hong (Manager of Customer Experience), Erick Lee (Manager of Cuisine) and Frank La (Manager of Product Quality).
The shop itself is a large, airy space, replacing an old jazz café, which was well known in town, as redwhite+bluezz. Steve gave me a tour of the space, still heavily under construction, while one of his partners, award-winning barista Frank La, made a cup of cappuccino.
It’s a much fancier space than I’m used to in a Southern Californian coffee shop and beautifully decorated with plenty of wood details. On this tour, Steve explained to me that Copa Vida plans to set itself apart in Pasadena by making the experience of tea and coffee something really special.
Upon entering the shop, Steve showed me the “honor bar” that will be available for people who need to get their coffee quickly and to-go. The idea is that the customers would trust Copa Vida to have good quality fresh drip coffee in self serve containers and, in-turn, Copa Vida would trust the customer to pay the appropriate amount themselves.
Next to the honor bar is an “enjoy” bar where customers with a little more time will be able to see their cups being pulled or poured or brewed. Across from that is a small stage for live musicians that’s enough to fit a six-piece band. Steve hopes to continue redwhite+bluezz’s well-loved tradition of having live music for the community. A wall in the back will be used for local artists to display their work on.
NOT JUST COFFEE
I sat down with Steve in their next-door office for our interview over a simple and smooth cup of cappuccino to find out what the vision for Copa Vida is all about underneath the glitz.
Of course, I couldn’t visit a coffee shop without asking a thousand questions about the coffee. The partners and baristas at Copa Vida seem to understand well that everyone likes their cup of coffee made a different way, and from my time with them I learned that they are truly committed to bringing the best cup of coffee to the customer, no matter what type of brewing (or “extraction”) method the consumer prefers. With a rotating coffee drink menu and a customer-focused attitude, the baristas here mean business in how they serve their customers.
But Copa Vida is not just about the coffee, or even about the good they’re planning to do with their profits. Steve has been in Los Angeles a long time. He remembers the riots of the 1990s — a time of violence and uncertainty, in which shops were vandalized and ransacked. But he also remembers local businesses that were well loved and part of the community. He recalls people having banded together to protect the businesses and business owners who they cared about as one of their own.
To him, that’s the kind of business he wants to be — the kind that the people in the community call their own. And if that happens, Steve says, “What better way to develop long term relationships?”
Though Steve is mission-minded about missions abroad, he is also aware that there are those in need locally, who need ministering in our very community. It’s not something Copa Vida is interested in advertising — they’re not investing their profits in kingdom works as a marketing ploy.
So, aside from investing their profits in the local community, how will Copa Vida create the kind of relationship they’re seeking?
Steve explained to me that aside from the “to go” honor bar, and the experience bar, Copa Vida will be offering more detailed services serving flights of coffee or a full experience tea ceremony. Copa Vida’s hope is to provide a great experience across the board no matter what level of enjoyment the customer is at. And he hopes that by building a relationship with customers, this will lead to the sharing of faith as well.
INVESTING IN THE COMMUNITY
Many big coffee chains and even local coffee shops pledge to be involved in the community they are in, but Copa Vida is not only committed to the local community, but are also committed to being fully fair trade and as much direct trade as possible, so that they can be involved in a vertically integrated process for sourcing.
When asked whether that would make the price of the product unreachable, Steve told me that the aim of Copa Vida is a demographic who would be willing to pay the small extra amount in order to support free trade coffee. Along with that, they offer education and an experience to help consumers learn about the products they are drinking. Steve is interested in telling a story — the story of how the coffee went from the bean to the cup.
Steve is well aware that to make business decisions based on his faith is a scary and dangerous adventure. But he also tells me that there are 30 or 40 people praying for Copa Vida at any given time — so he has faith God will do His work with what is happening at this shop.
The name “Copa Vida” is a play on words — a shortening of the phrase copa de vida, meaning “the cup of life”, and the Costa Rican phrase, pura vida, meaning “pure life”. The shortened meaning, cup life, is a play both on the Christian faith of the team and on their love of coffee and tea. Copa Vida is building a whole brand and experience around these words, and around that idea.
The story doesn’t end there. Beside personal ministry and small business ministry, Steve and his team are committed to donating to non-profit work. He seems to be acutely aware of his role — that he is someone who can help send missionaries abroad even if he’s not going personally. But Copa Vida has exciting long term plans for mission work as well — they want to work directly and closely with missionaries in the future. But for now, their ministry is already happening — right here and now in Pasadena.