With his chain of 26 Crazy Mocha locations (and growing), this ’Burgh entrepreneur loves the perks of the Pittsburgh coffee scene...without a love for the java itself!!
Photo by Jonathan Wander
As the owner of Crazy Mocha Coffee Co., a local chain of 26 coffee shops, Ken Zeff knows how to run a successful coffee business. But there’s one simple question he just can’t answer: “What’s your favorite Crazy Mocha drink?”
“That’s a tough one,” he says. “I’ve never had coffee in my life.”
Huh? “I have weird eating habits. I don’t eat vegetables or seafood, and I’ve never tried coffee.” Zeff understands how crazy that sounds. “It’s actually been a good thing. I’m not buying what I like. I’m not influenced by that. I buy what the customers like.” Obviously, it’s worked. For a local independent to build a strong chain in southwestern Pennsylvania in a space so dominated by a global player like Starbucks is remarkable.
Ten years ago, when he was just 32, Ken and his wife, Michelle, walked into Dancing Goats coffee shop on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside looking for a business opportunity. Ken was a buyer for J.C. Penney but wanted to move on. “We just had our first son, and I knew the crazy hours and traveling weren’t good for family life,” Ken says. They soaked in the relaxed coffee-shop atmosphere. “We liked it. It was comfortable. After wearing a suit and tie for years, I was ready for a change.” So Zeff bought Dancing Goats, changed the name to Crazy Mocha and his coffee career was launched.
“Family” and “comfort” are recurring themes with Zeff. He lives in his childhood home in Greenfield with Michelle and their three young children, Zak, Zoe and Zane. Ken is known for caring about his employees and customers like family, and makes “a comfortable atmosphere” in his shops a priority. “I love the environment of a real coffee shop, seeing people come in because they want a cup of coffee, want a piece of cake, want to relax or socialize or grab some free Wi-Fi and get a little work done.”
Each Crazy Mocha store has its own personality and character, both in its décor and its crowd. “The neighborhood determines what the store will look and feel like, and eventually creates a sort of culture based on the people who go there,” Zeff says. “You have a store like Bloomfield—casual, with old wooden floors and tin ceilings. It’s our most diverse store as far as the people. You have tattoos and piercings, suits and ties, doctors. You could have 25 people in there and not one has anything in common with the other. But they’re comfortable there. And that’s what we try to create.” The SouthSide Works store, on the site of a former steel mill, has a more industrial style, and in other stores the ratio of sofas and oversized chairs to table seating varies depending on whether most people will be there to relax or break out the laptops.”
Zeff says he enjoys what he does because of the friendliness of his interactions with his customers, and he loves supporting his hometown. Crazy Mocha sandwiches are from Sharpsburg, the biscottis from Greensburg, the paninis from the Strip District, and the coffee beans are roasted in Cranberry. Since 2004, Zeff has constantly been in the process of opening new stores, and this keeps his local contractors happy. “Our architect’s from Lawrenceville; our cabinetry guy’s from the North Side. We use only local.”
PM: “How do you compete with a giant like Starbucks?”
K.Z.: “I think Starbucks is important. They’ve educated a lot of people about drinking quality coffee. I think without them a lot of independent coffee shops wouldn’t exist. But our model is different. We don’t exist to have a line 15-people deep in the morning.”
PM: “You make it a policy to not open a Crazy Mocha too close to another independent coffee shop. Why?”
K.Z.: “I think most of the independents in Pittsburgh are really strong, well-run coffee shops, and I don’t think competing with them helps that community. Our purpose is to make a profit, of course, but also to be good for the neighborhood. There’s enough business for all the independents to do well.”
PM: “What’s the deal with the goat on the logo?”
K.Z.: “It comes from the legend of dancing goats, a great story of how coffee was discovered, which we have printed and displayed in every store. My brother, Joe, who’s an illustrator, designed it for us.”
PM: “You seem to be quite proud of your employees.”
K.Z.: “I may be biased, but I think our people are the best. Coffee shops tend to draw interesting people, so I have a good employee pool. Most of them are in their 20s, so they keep me young and educated on what’s popular.”
PM: “What’s your favorite part of owning Crazy Mocha?”
K.Z.: “There are so many good things that come out of a coffee shop that people don’t understand: A sense of community, for one, understanding Pittsburgh, having a love for the city and believing in it, the personal connection to the neighborhoods. Creating a comfortable gathering spot for a neighborhood is the kind of accomplishment that doesn’t have to be measured in money. It can be measured in the social value.”