Ken Zeff

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.”

Q+A

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.”

Crazy Mocha Latte Art

Crazy Mocha Latte Art

Added: 2010-02-18

Show all channels

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Two years after Chuck Noll’s death, University of Pittsburgh Press prepares to publish the first definitive biography of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach. Pittsburgh Magazine is proud to share an interview with author Michael MacCambridge and an exclusive excerpt of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” scheduled for release in October.
The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

Renovation is under way at nearly all of our area colleges and universities. For students heading back to school this fall — and their parents — we offer this crash course on the highlights of these projects and their projected benefits.
Fall Fashion: In the Black

Fall Fashion: In the Black

The little black dress, and shirt, and pants, never go out of style. Add mystery to your wardrobe with these easy-to-accent autumn staples.
Apteka: A Taste of Home

Apteka: A Taste of Home

Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski bring top-notch vegan, eastern European cuisine to Bloomfield.
Talk of The Tahn: City of Beer

Talk of The Tahn: City of Beer

There are plans afoot for a international museum of beer to be built and staffed right here in Pittsburgh.
Pitt vs Penn State: Resumption of Hostilities

Pitt vs Penn State: Resumption of Hostilities

After an extended hiatus, the storied rivalry between the Pitt Panthers and Penn State Nittany Lions returns in September to Heinz Field.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Zing Basket Promises Speedy Grocery Delivery to Your Door

Zing Basket Promises Speedy Grocery Delivery to Your Door

The online grocery delivery service opened this week, promising delivery in 45 minutes or less to selected neighborhoods.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Where to Go at the Three Day Blow

Where to Go at the Three Day Blow

Our dining critic (and Three Day Blow organizing committee member) has a roundup of some open to the public events.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The 5 Best Comic Shops in Pittsburgh

The 5 Best Comic Shops in Pittsburgh

These comic book shops offer more than just your casual Batman or Spider-Man choices.

Comments


New Industry Public House Location Up to Par

New Industry Public House Location Up to Par

If you’re in need of a dining option that’s not a national chain while visiting the Robinson area, this is one to keep in mind.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Le'Veon Bell Talks The Talk But Can’t Walk The Walk

Le'Veon Bell Talks The Talk But Can’t Walk The Walk

The Steelers running back emphasized his latest suspension resulted from missed random drug tests, and not a relapse into the marijuana-induced haze that got him jammed up last season. But if you lack the maturity to grasp the consequences of your actions (or, in this case, inactions), does it really matter?

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Custom Made: The Surmesur Suit

Custom Made: The Surmesur Suit

Straight out of Canada, the custom menswear store opens its first U.S. location in Pittsburgh.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Hipsters in Iraq, Cops and Robbers in the Old West

Hipsters in Iraq, Cops and Robbers in the Old West

Reviews of "War Dogs" and "Hell or High Water," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
The Lucky Ones: Katie Doré and John Potter

The Lucky Ones: Katie Doré and John Potter

Want even more Real Pittsburgh Weddings? We'll be bringing them to you throughout the fall, beginning with this lovely and lucky couple.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Put a Lid On It! The Container Store Coming to Pittsburgh

Put a Lid On It! The Container Store Coming to Pittsburgh

The store famous for carrying storage and organizational products is set to open at the revamped Block Northway in Ross Township.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Two Events Planned for Prospective Waynesburg Students

Two Events Planned for Prospective Waynesburg Students

A fall visitation day and a Saturday information session aim to allow interested students a look into life at the university.

Comments