Mountain View's Red Rock Coffee has been a lot of things to a lot of people. It's a caffeine fix for coffee lovers, an art gallery for photographers and painters, a cozy corner for avid knitters and a community meeting space for anyone and everyone.
But the downtown institution has been on the ropes for months, bruised by the coronavirus pandemic and the rising costs of doing business in such an expensive area. Fearing an almost inevitable, permanent closure of the coffee shop, Red Rock is making a big appeal to the community for help, launching a GoFundMe late last week seeking to raise $300,000.
"If we don't reach our goals, the funds will be applied to Red Rock's current obligations, and we will do our best to bring this season to a meaningful end as we close the business," according to the campaign page.
Since the mandatory shutdown of indoor dining and community meetings went into effect in March, the normally lively coffee shop has been a shadow of what it used to be. The bustling second-floor tables — typically packed throughout the week — have been vacant for months. Live musical performances and Open Mic events are gone, though the latter does continue online over Zoom.
It was like a ghost town during the early days of the pandemic, said Jean Boulanger, general manager at Red Rock. Since then, she said they've slowly "tiptoed" into expanding the hours and were rewarded with more customers, but it's still far from normal. Red Rock's big selling point is for people to come inside and hang out, study or host a meetup, she said, all of which is still prohibited under the county's health rules.
"Our competitive advantage has always been our second floor and the extra seating that it affords, doing open mic night, hosting music on the weekends and even renting out a section of it for groups," Boulanger said. "A chunk of our business was definitely tied to that."
The financial realities have been brutal, with revenues down by about 65%. Even after making the difficult decision to cut the staff roster from 28 people to just 10, Boulanger said the budget is still deep in the red this year. The $300,000 requested in the GoFundMe will help offset those costs, pay for rent and re-hire staff.
Boulanger said the tight-knit staff at Red Rock have been like a family since she started working there 12 years ago, often taking a chance on recent high school grads and people who have never held a real job before. Many of them use the coffee shop as a launching pad, learning how to work before moving on to new things, but they often hang on to at least a few shifts to stay connected. When it came time to slash jobs, about a dozen employees stepped forward and willingly gave up their hours.
"Right away, these sweet people said, 'Look, I live at home with my folks, my rent is taken care of. I would love to come back, but I don't need it to survive — please give my hours to someone else,'" Boulanger said.
Church ownership of the cafe, but not for long
Red Rock Coffee began at 201 Castro St. about 15 years ago as a cafe and community resource, launched by a Christian church organization called Highway Community, which has a presence in Mountain View and Palo Alto and bought the coffee shop from its previous owner. Though owned by a religious institution, the coffee shop doesn't wear its parochial roots on its sleeve.
"They never wanted it to be a, 'Here's your coffee, praise Jesus' kind of thing," Boulanger said.
Red Rock didn't make money for years, and it was up to Highway Community to support it financially. Once business started to pick up and Red Rock was finally solvent, the coffee shop was able to put its extra cash back into the community, supporting schools, sponsoring a baseball team and taking up causes to fight poverty.
Over time, Red Rock developed its own identity as a popular downtown hangout, often packed to capacity with people working on laptops or chatting with one another throughout the day. Brian Acton, one of the co-founders of WhatsApp, describes how he and his business partner had been working on their endeavor for years at Red Rock, describing it as a community resource and one of the best cafes in the area.
The broad list of events hosted at Red Rock over the years include frequent coffee tastings, motorcycle club rides, community fundraisers, board game nights, story hours and knitting clubs. Both floors also act as a rotating gallery for local artists regardless of skill or experience.
"I've had art from high school students, and they're proud to bring their parents or show off their work to people, encouraging them to keep going," Boulanger said. "I really value that. Everyone always has something to contribute, and they just need to know that someone cares enough to give them a chance."
Red Rock's financial problems cropped up again last year and got much worse starting in March when the county shut down indoor dining and in-person gatherings, raising questions about how much the church could do to subsidize the cafe. John Riemenschnitter, co-founder of Highway Community, said it's increasingly difficult to maintain a business on Castro Street with the rising local minimum wage — something he said he supports, but that has nevertheless put a strain on the coffee shop.
"In a business like coffee where the margins aren't amazing, it's made it difficult, and COVID-19 on top of that has only intensified that difficulty," Riemenschnitter said.
If and when Red Rock is able to raise the $300,000 to cover the financial losses to date, the clear path forward is to separate the entities, splitting off Red Rock from the church as its own independent nonprofit. Riemenschnitter said that would mean the church could help out Red Rock while not being entirely liable for its shortfalls, and would open up "new avenues" for grants and fundraising that are otherwise not available to a religious institution.
So what would be the nonprofit's mission? Boulanger said she envisions a world in which Red Rock is simultaneously a coffee shop but also a training ground for at-risk youth and underserved community members seeking a job. It could be four to six young people who could shadow employees, learn the ins and outs of a retail environment and better set goals for themselves — all in the world of coffee, which is pretty cool, Boulanger said.
Though Boulanger said she's an optimist and yearns to think about Red Rock's future as an independent nonprofit and all of the opportunities that would bring, she conceded that it's getting ahead of the goal at hand, which is keeping the coffee shop from collapsing in the coming months.
"If we don't raise enough money there's a chance this just can't continue," she said. "If we don't have a long enough runway to be able to try and get this nonprofit going, I just don't know if we can sustain it on our own as we're doing right now."