Nancy Coupal and her whirling-dervish family own and operate Coupa Cafe. Venezuelan coffee really is the thing at Coupa although not the only attraction. The cafe serves everything from breakfast to soups, salads, quiches, sandwiches, desserts and handmade candies. Additionally, a smorgasbord of tasty house-made Venezuelan arepas (cornmeal griddle cakes) and Caribbean empanadas are also available.
Thirty years ago, Nancy Coupal and her French-Canadian husband, Jean Paul, settled in Caracas. Nancy, a Berkeley native, had earned a master's degree in public health at U.C. Berkeley. Her first job, while working in the public sector of health in Venezuela, was an assignment in rural villages, she said. She spoke French and Italian and had to learn Spanish quickly. Inside three months, she was fluent enough.
Meanwhile, Jean Paul became interested in the coffee business. Venezuela has a long and storied history of growing high-quality coffee beans, and the government is now actively promoting coffee-growing.
The Coupals were about two decades ahead of the government. They sought out specialty coffee growers. Beginning with two small mountain coffee farms, or fincas, they now have 20 plantations under fair-trade contract. In the late 1980s, the Coupals established the Arabica Coffee Company, in Caracas, to roast and distribute high-quality beans. Coupa now offers what it bills as the first certified organic Venezuelan coffee.
The best Venezuelan arabica coffee has good body and is complex and flavorful, ripe and sweet, with lower acidity than its Columbian counterparts. This makes for a perfectly balanced cup of coffee.
Arabica is one of two major species of coffee tree. The other, robusta, grows faster and yields more than arabica but many believe it is inferior in taste. Arabica Coffee Company in Caracas roasts the beans for its Coupa locations, packs them in vacuum-sealed bags, and has them flown stateside weekly.
The Coupals have three children, all Stanford University grads. The eldest, Yasmine, has her master's in international policy studies and is with Goldman Sachs in New York. Camelia, with a degree in political science and history, manages the Coupa Cafe in Beverly Hills. Jean Paul Jr., who graduated with a degree in economics last year, manages both Palo Alto's Ramona Street operation and the Coupa Cafe inside the Yang and Yamaguchi Engineering Building (Y2E2) on the Stanford campus.
Already operating a Coupa Cafe in Caracas, Nancy Coupal established the Palo Alto cafe in 2004, as another adjunct to the roasting company. And why not? With children at Stanford, she was spending considerable time here anyway.
Inside the Palo Alto cafe, the walls are French's mustard yellow with a rough-cut stone-block floor. Decorative tiles are rooted into stucco walls and floor, and wood tables and chairs huddle together. In the back is a delightful fireplace where Pedro de Lemos had embedded the Stanford "S" along with cozy, built-in couches for relaxing. There is free Wi-Fi and front patio seating in fairer weather.
State-of-the-art equipment sits behind the counter. The French-made Unic Z4 espresso machine is colossally sophisticated and capable of dispensing dozens of shots of coffee in minutes. Not only is it a workhorse, but the machine is a bit of a beauty itself. Too bad logistics dictate it to be mostly obscured behind the counter.
Adjacent to the Unic, several industrial-chic Mahlkonig German grinders pulverize beans that are then perfectly tapped to exact compactness in stainless steel filters. The coffee brewing process is quick and precise.
Coupa Cafe offers a tantalizing array of food, most of it made in the diminutive kitchen in the back. Portions are generous. I was intrigued by the arepas, thin white cornmeal griddle cakes. Arepas are Venezuela's homegrown alternative to bread or rolls. About the size of a hockey puck, arepas are crusty on the outside but airy on the inside and are stuffed with meat, cheese, vegetables, fruit spreads, eggs or fish.
One day I overheard several young women, who were queued up in line waiting to place their orders, engaged in a spirited discussion over their preferred Coupa beverages: chai versus tea, hot chocolate versus organic coffee. It's that kind of passion that fuels the business.
Meanwhile, back in Venezuela, Jean Paul Sr. is now the honorary consul of Thailand. In addition to the original Coupa Cafe in Caracas, the Coupals own a Thai restaurant and a pizza restaurant and are currently working with Venezuelan cattlemen to start a "meat" restaurant.
In their spare time, they represent travel for the Caribbean island of Canouan and organize exotic trips to Morocco and Thailand. I'm surprised Nancy Coupal could slow down long enough for me to interview her — perhaps that indefinable something is unbounded energy.
538 Ramona St.
Hours: Daily from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
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