In 2021, you would have found Molly Welton serving coffee by the beach out of a converted 1960 Layton travel trailer. California Kahve marked the realization of Welton's dream, a coffee stand where sand blew through her door. Now, you'll also run into Welton at her first permanent coffee counter inside Menlo Park's cowhide-walled Park James Hotel, a seemingly surprising departure from her business's bohemian roots.
However, after an event-filled year rotating through several locations, adding a food truck to complement the Layton caravan and sparking "outrage" for bringing crowds to San Francisco's Great Highway, Welton, a Burlingame native, doesn't mind returning to her roots in luxury hotels (at least a couple of days out of the week).
Welton describes herself as a longtime coffee snob and even considered an undiscerning palate a dating red flag. When her now-husband stopped at 7-Eleven for a coffee on one of their first dates, Welton thought, "Oh boy, this guy might not be for me."
Welton's days were filled with carefully pressed and folded tablecloths and warm greetings to suitcase-lugging guests that always included their names. An experienced hospitality professional, Welton spent time at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay and the Four Seasons in San Francisco.
Throughout her career, Welton always made sure to stay close to white sands and refreshing sea breezes. Her first job in the hospitality industry was in Honolulu serving cocktails and tending bar back in 2003. Inspired by the mobile coffee carts and vans of her husband's native New Zealand, Welton saw a way to combine her passions for coffee and the coast.
When a beat-up Layton caravan went up for sale in 2016, Welton started working on converting the cramped, cream-colored trailer into a coffee counter. A few wood panels bordered what became the service window, and space was carved out inside for the espresso machine, coffee cups, pastry case and other equipment that was carefully slotted in.
Just a couple of months later, Welton learned that she was pregnant. While she had less time to work on the caravan, raising a child strengthened her desire for forging a family of customers by the beach with her son playing in the sand nearby, she says. The late nights, weekends and holidays spent under ornate chandeliers in hotel lobbies placed a heavier strain on Welton now that she was away from her child. "I just chipped away, I would just steal away for a few hours and paint something or measure something," she says about the five years she spent customizing the Layton caravan and setting up her business.
The pandemic caused another delay to the launch of California Kahve, but the mobile coffee business finally opened in 2021 and rotated through parking spots near San Francisco's Ocean Beach. Welton quickly encountered the many challenges of running a mobile business, including the art of parallel parking a trailer into a tight spot.
"You don't just walk into a storefront, turn on the lights, and everything's there. I literally have to build a cafe every time," says Welton, who would juggle repairing the generator with lugging around ice to keep the milk cold.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle Welton faced stemmed from a seemingly tremendous opportunity, a pilot program with San Francisco Recreation & Parks that placed her second vehicle, a full-blown food truck, on the city's Great Highway in November 2021. Organizers envisioned a "Great Walkway" filled with art exhibits and other vendors. However, anger about diverting cars into local neighborhoods and complaints from nearby business owners bubbled over into protests that tabled the initiative just a few months later.
Thankful for the experience of selling coffee to barefoot beachgoers under the San Francisco sun, Welton treasured her brief time on the Great Highway. She also found a crowd of supporters who learned about California Kahve through the controversy.
These advocates included the creative director of the Park James Hotel, whose restaurant Oak + Violet remained vacant during the day before dinner service. Welton found the idea of a partnership serendipitous considering her professional background, and says she had always loved meeting travelers and the attention to detail that pervades luxury hotels. She also saw the potential of creating a comfortable space for locals to gather. "There's so many places to sit in a little corner with a book. I picture people in the neighborhood, moms can come in with their little ones," Welton says.
California Kahve is known for its visually stunning specialty beverages, including the wildflower honey latte and the dark chocolate orange mocha. Welton's philosophy is to implement small touches like a dusting of dried wildflower petals that convey her care for her customers. "It just makes a normal kind of moment really special," she says.
The menu also features ceremonial grade matcha from Jade Leaf Matcha, which is harvested earlier in the leaves' life cycle and has a delicate flavor and vibrant green color. Welton sources coffee beans from Tiny Footprint Coffee, which claims to be the world's first carbon-negative coffee by donating a portion of each purchase to fund reforestation. The beans come exclusively from women-owned and women-operated farms working with Café Femenino. For those avoiding caffeine, the lineup of herbal teas from Rishi Tea & Botanicals includes flavors like elderberry, blueberry hibiscus and even mushroom.
California Kahve's Menlo Park menu also includes baked goods and quiches sourced from Belmont wholesale bakery Amour (which was featured on Netflix's "Sugar Rush") and colorful smoothie bowls like "The Pacific Blue" dyed with blue spirulina, and "The Redwood," a vibrant green creation topped with cashews and kiwi.
For now, Welton is satisfied with her trio of locations in what she calls a "cool triangle" reflecting where she grew up and her love of the seaside: the vintage trailer is up at Stinson Beach, and the coffee truck is at Ocean Beach. Even though she will never give up her vintage trailer, Welton admits there are some advantages to returning to the world of luxury hotels.
"I'm rushing down and scrambling to the hotel, and I walk in and two employees are like, 'Hi!' (Everything's) fine. I don't have to worry about the gas in the generator," she says.
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Anthony Shu writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.