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One Dream Ends, Another Dream Begins

I always dreamed about playing basketball in the NBA. Fifteen years ago, that dream led me to open a coffeehouse called Mitch’s Java ‘N Jazz in my hometown of Newhall, a suburb in Los Angeles, California. That same year, a popular Pacific Northwest coffee chain, Starbucks, launched their well-known caffeine assault on Los Angeles. Starbucks went public in 1992, the same year I began my coffee business. To boot, our spots were located within blocks of each other. Despite all this, both coffeehouses had very different competitive advantages. 

Essentially this was my first real job outside of college. I played basketball my whole life. At 6’10”, I was a natural. Basketball opened many doors for me, including the opportunity to travel around the world and receive a full-ride scholarship to college.  After a tryout with the Lakers and a pre-season with the Atlanta Hawks, I ended up playing in Europe. I was playing in my second year as a professional basketball player in France when, in 1992, my sports career came to an abrupt end. Doctors had discovered a life-threatening heart condition and told me that if I continued to play basketball, I might collapse and die. And so, one dream ended; and little did I know, another one was about to begin. 

I came home from France, not having a clue as to what I was going to do.  Basketball was my only dream. I knew I didn’t want to work for anybody so after a long conversation with my dad, I decided to open Mitch’s Java ‘N Jazz coffeehouse. My experiences in France combined with the popular trend of small, hip coffeehouses in Encino and Hollywood led me to the coffee industry. When I lived in France, I experienced the European lifestyle, the sidewalk café. I enjoyed hanging out at cafés, where I had my first tasse de café (cup of coffee) in France. I began dipping baguettes into my café au lait. Everyone would meet and talk at the various eateries and sidewalk cafes. Conversing about politics, religion, philosophy, current events and everything else people talk about. I had not experienced this back home in America where everyone was sitting at home watching TV, instead of connecting with others in small coffeehouses (remember, this is pre-Starbucks). I wanted the same European-style hang-out at home so I decided to just do it myself. 

1993 – Pre-Starbucks –
I open Mitch’s Java ‘N Jazz –
Unknowingly entering the war


I researched the cool coffeehouses in LA – Highland Grounds in Hollywood and the Insomniac in Encino, to name a few. These hotspots were really hip. At the time, there were no Starbucks stores in the area to research. I remember checking out a Gloria Jean’s but I wasn’t impressed with the corporate look. I had exactly $93,000 in funds (which my parents loaned me), and an idea that my coffeehouse would look “Old-Country French.” It would have couches, live music, poetry, chess and…ME. I would mimic the TV show and create a “Cheers”-like environment, in an effort to breed familiarity. It all worked. Soon after opening, I had lines out the door. I worked a different shift everyday and got to know my customers by name and drink. I was friendly very personable, connecting with my customers on a level that Starbucks never could… and never has been able to.    

 1992 –
Starbucks goes public and launches full-scale assault on Los Angeles.
The same year I start my small coffeehouse in a suburb of LA.


The same year, Starbucks went public and had their Initial Public Offering, thus raising millions of dollars of working capital. They were virtually unstoppable at that point. In 1992, Starbucks launched in Los Angeles. It was backed by millions of dollars and soon developed a huge cult-like following. It was a powerful and trendy, hip brand that created instant status for those who drank it. A strong product – and even stronger management team – secured excellent real estate all over southern California. Fully armed with a war chest of cash, status and demand, Starbucks assaulted the Los Angeles market. The Hollywood elite quickly claimed Starbucks as their own, and helped cement their image and subsequent domination in virtually every market they entered.  

Arguably one of the most well-marketed companies in the world, Starbucks has completely dominated the coffee industry in this country and beyond. It is hard to find a town that doesn’t have a Starbucks on every corner. Cultures around the world have been coffee-ized along the way. (London has 200 Starbucks, and coffee now outsells tea in England!)  At $26.51 billion in U.S. annual revenues, Starbucks has over 31,256 stores worldwide, is considered one of the top five brands in the world, and is clearly the winner in the battle for coffee supremacy by demanding 73% of the specialty coffee market.   

The United States is the world’s largest importer of coffee and we consume almost 1/3 of the world’s entire coffee supply. Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee per day.  There are 146,000,000,000 cups of coffee (146 billion) consumed by Americans each year, and coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, right behind oil.

 Unbeknownst to me, the battle had just begun with the largest competitor I could ever imagine. A competitor who was doubling in size every few years, on the way to becoming one of the most recognized brands in the world. I had inadvertently and unknowingly declared war on the king of coffee. A daunting task! 

There is plenty of opportunity in this highly saturated coffee marketplace for a small micro-roaster to compete. This is the story of how one small micro-roaster competed with the most dominating foe on the planet, and lived to tell about it. In a lot of ways, starting my small coffee business during the largest growth the coffee industry would experience was a good advantage; and Starbucks with all its might and success helped to pave the way. All I had to do was differentiate. Build a better mousetrap, so to speak; and use my small size to my advantage.   

What ensued was a battle that would birth a micro-roasting company, start a Leukemia fund and ultimately get millions of cups of gourmet coffee donated to U.S. troops fighting another kind of war halfway across the planet. A battle in which I unknowingly entered when I opened my doors in 1993…and know all too well about today. This is my story…

1 comment

  • Josh Kang

    I was never able to find a replacement for Hawaiian Hazelnut ever since it was no longer available at Costco in Canyon Country. My family dispersed from SCV years ago but we still talk about our favorite Hawaiian Hazelnut as if it was some mythological elixir never to be drunk again. I am so happy that you guys are roasting again (maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough. lol). I’ll definitely be sending my family some beans when they arrive. Please keep roasting!!!

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