The death of her brother was the catalyst for Vicky to take that leap of faith. She left her high tech career behind and opened Mazama Coffee Co., a specialty coffee house and micro-bakery in the suburbs of Austin, Texas.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up mainly in Southern California but also lived in Nebraska, Minnesota, and Illinois for a few years each while growing up. I graduated with a B.S in Business Administration, emphasis in Finance, from San Diego State University (SDSU).
Directly after university, I went to work for Club Med—my conversational French got my foot in the door—and was able to travel the world as part of that three-year adventure. After leaving Club Med, I spent a year getting my Commercial Pilot’s License. I thought I wanted to fly, but eventually found out that flying really is a pretty boring occupation. You don’t find that out until you spend hours and hours sitting on your ass in the cockpit. So once I got my licenses, I decided not to pursue this avenue.
At this point I was completely out of money and took a temp job at a smallish company in the Pacific Northwest. This turned into full-time employment and I spent the next 15 years at Microsoft while it experienced amazing growth. It’s a phenomenal company with incredibly smart and wonderful people.
After leaving Microsoft, I took a year off and my husband and I moved the family to Dripping Springs, Texas (an Austin suburb) to get more sun, reduce our living expenses, and enjoy life. I went back to work at AMD, another high tech firm that designs microcomputer chips, this time on the hardware side. During all of this time in high tech, my primary position was as a Program Manager.
I am married with two kids, both at university. My son is studying Engineering at University of Texas and my daughter studies Computer Science at Texas State University. They both come home on the weekends to work in my business and earn money for living expenses.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I have wanted to own and run my own business for a very long time, literally decades, but the fear of failure and giving up the security of a paycheck and health benefits always held me back. My husband, Bruce, was a stay-at-home dad for over a dozen years and didn’t know how he was going to get back into the job market. So really my paycheck was sustaining our family and if that went away we had no life preserver. Bruce was not in favor of me quitting and “trying” to start my own business. He was dead-set against it in fact. So without that encouragement, the decision just lingered on and on and on, until one major event occurred in my life.
In 2012, my brother, Gary, had just gone through a terrible divorce. He went on a vacation, alone, and came home very ill. He was in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for most of the next six months, including months in a medically induced coma. It got so dire that I flew in to Seattle and said my goodbyes; he didn’t even know I was there. Months later, Gary began to get better and he woke up; all indications were that he would recover. And then the day before we were to fly in for another visit, he was gone.
I was traumatized because I hadn’t been able to speak with my brother while he was awake and say goodbye. Because of the tubes down his throat, he couldn’t speak over the phone. This experience flipped the switch for me. My brother had spent 20 years in a horrible marriage, was finally on his own, and then gone. No amount of fear was going to stop me from pursuing my dream. I told my husband, with you or without you, I’m going for it.
What is your next act?
I opened Mazama Coffee Co. in the fall of 2012, at the age of 47. We are located in historic downtown Dripping Springs, a bedroom community of Austin, Texas. Our space occupies 2000 square feet, including a cozy indoor area as well as a large outside patio.
We are a community-oriented specialty coffee house and micro-bakery and are open seven days a week, 360 days a year. We serve the highest quality specialty coffee and we handcraft every drink. We started out offering just a few food items and now we bake in-house in our commercial oven and have a full-time baker on payroll, one of fourteen employees.
The community is made up of ranchers and rural folks as well as white-collar workers who commute into Austin. We have become the place in town where people meet to exchange news, grab a coffee after dropping the kids off at school, and sit quietly to get some work done. We know our regulars by name and have become part of their everyday lives.
I love owning and running Mazama Coffee Co., and knowing that decisions I make can positively and immediately impact my staff and the customers. I love that I know if my decisions “worked” or “failed” almost instantaneously. I can adjust and try again if necessary. I work incredibly hard and rarely get a day off but I love our staff, our customers, the products we deliver, and being one of the best parts of the day for hundreds of people.
Why did you choose this next act?
I chose a coffee house because this was a gaping hole in Dripping Springs. We moved from the Seattle area where coffee houses were on every corner and there just wanted any place like that to hang out in our community. It was obvious that this was needed and I love coffee. I’m a purist and generally drink my coffee black. We really do have the best coffee available, so why doctor it up. If I’m going to have an espresso drink, I might have an 8-ounce soy latte with a splash of vanilla syrup. We make our vanilla and lavender syrups in-house.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
It was without a doubt the hardest, most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life. Once I’d made my decision, I spent the next six months preparing, before I quit my job. My husband and I cut our variable expenses and fixed expenses as much as possible. We paid off our car loans and the only outstanding debt we had was our mortgage. I also began storing up as much cash as possible, but really we only had four months of cash flow. It was sink or swim.
The name was very difficult to decide. Mazama is a small town in Eastern Washington State, where our family built a cabin to get away from gloomy Seattle. The entire family has fond memories of the cabin and it was the only name that everyone could agree upon. It means “mountain goat,” which we incorporated into our logo.
We chose the location because it’s located in the heart of the historic district—and it didn’t hurt that it was only five minutes from our house. We knew it needed to be in town and there were very few suitable locations so it was pretty much just the task of finding something that would work.
We did all of the layout work on our own, including the initial drawings, and then worked with an architect to put it into formal plans and get the lighting and electrical schematics right. Our coffee roasting partners also gave us some great input regarding workflow, which we incorporated as well. I attended the Texas Coffee School prior to the build-out and the instructor gave us some sample layouts, which we were able to leverage.
I based our menu on what existed in the Austin market and built the pricing model to reflect our costs. I wanted to come in a little lower than Austin prices, but we still had to make money. The menu was developed with input from Texas Coffee School and by visiting dozens and dozens of coffee shops and seeing what sparked our interest and what we thought would work in our community.
How supportive were your family and friends?
Co-workers at AMD were extremely supportive and would confess to me in private that they wish they had the courage to do the same thing.
My husband, on the other hand, was reluctant to lose the security blanket of a full-time corporate job, which I was ripping out of his hands. He did eventually get on board and was 100% involved in the build-out as he has a lot of construction skills; he continues to be heavily involved in the business. He will also be heading up our roasting operations, which will begin in December 2015.
My daughter and son work most weekends behind the counter. I jokingly told my daughter she should drop out of college and work full-time; she’s that valuable. She’s part efficiency expert, part creative director. My son just needs spending money and he shows up for his shift, works, and leaves.
What challenges did you encounter?
I felt like I was completely at the whim of your community—and I was. I wondered: Will they come? Will they buy? Do they have the same vision? Will they support this? I would wake up in a cold sweat every single night. I lost 30 pounds because I wasn’t eating. I was completely exhausted from the build-out and from the fear of the unknown. When I would say to my husband, “I’m so tired.” He would respond, “Well, this was your dream.”
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What/who kept you going?
Absolutely, every single day. I kept myself going. I’m not a quitter. My daughter, who was 17 at the time, was my biggest ally and cheerleader. My mom, who also ran a successful real estate career for 40 years, was on board and kept me motivated. My dad, however, kept telling me I was probably going to fail. Geesh.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I feel like I can do anything now. It’s shown me that failure is not the worst thing that can happen and if you fail, it’s not the end of the world. It might really suck to fail, but a lot of people want you to succeed; help comes from the places you least expect. Our community has been amazing with their support, then and now.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Have a support system. Have people who will talk you off the ledge and keep your strength up, who will pitch in and provide guidance and a warm meal when you’re too exhausted to feed yourself.
Sock away money so you aren’t feeling like every setback may create a financial disaster.
What advice do you have for those interested in opening a coffee shop?
Make sure you know what you’re getting into. The coffee shop business requires high volume, high customer interaction, as well as early and long hours. Is that what you’re suited to? I created a fantasy of what it was going to be like. I was going to work at the counter and chat with customers for a few hours every morning and then sit at one of my own coffee house tables and do paperwork and then go home at the end of the day.
Reality did NOT equal the fantasy in my head. I have never worked so hard, for so little, for so long. I made about ¼ of my original salary the first year. The second year, about the same. This year, about ½ of my original salary. Don’t think you’re going to get rich quick by owning your own coffee shop.
When it comes to employees, I feel like I’ve been pretty fortunate. I have a couple of employees who have been with me since almost the beginning. I try to be super flexible and include them in decision-making when it makes sense. We have some turnover, but it’s almost exclusively because the employee has graduated from college and is moving or going to graduate school or something to that effect.
We use Facebook a lot to promote our business. I pay to boost our Facebook posts as well. We have a mailing list (a simple sign-up sheet at drink pick-up), which just keeps growing and growing. We also use Instagram, but not very regularly. I spend almost no money on print advertising.
Our local Chamber of Commerce has been great and sends us referrals. We participate in a few local events, like First Thursday when the historic downtown stays open late on the first Thursday of every month. We host one of the outdoor stages on our premises for the annual Dripping Springs Songwriters’ Festival. We also participate in the Holiday Gift Tour, Christmas on Mercer, and Founders’ Day. These events happen in historic downtown and that’s where we’re located so there’s some obligation to participate. We don’t look forward to a few of the events because they close the streets and droves of people come in along with vendors. Our bathroom bears the brunt of the onslaught and our regulars stay away.
What resources do you recommend?
I stumbled across several LinkedIn groups for coffee retailers:
After monitoring and reading the posts for a couple of months, I started asking questions and the other coffee retailers were amazing with the amount of information and resources they offered up. It was a virtual mentorship for me. Texas Coffee School (2-3 day business course) was also instrumental to putting me on the right path.
We attend SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) events, usually one a year. It gives us some new ideas to bring back to our company in terms of new retail items, new processes, and employee training; we also get to check out the latest new espresso equipment.
I also like Startup Nation and Mr. Money Mustache. Mr. Money Mustache is the “bomb”! He is all about saving money, being smart about money, and working for yourself. If you’re trying to reduce your expenses so you can launch your own business, I highly recommend reading his blog.
For my website, I use SquareSpace. I used to do some web design/development work and Squarespace is just so good that I use it now.
What’s next for you?
We’ve added coffee roasting this year. Our roaster arrived at the end of last year and we expect it will cut our coffee costs in half. We’re pretty excited about this new opportunity for our company and for our employees. My husband will be managing this aspect of the business and I think it suits his skills and talents perfectly. We’ll be using our own beans in house and selling them in our shop as well.
We are also actively seeking a second location and are in talks with a couple of different developers.
Contact Vicky Stevens-Lewis at email@example.com