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
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

A History of Pittsburgh, in 50 Artifacts

A History of Pittsburgh, in 50 Artifacts

For a city only two centuries old, Pittsburgh has amassed a surprising amount of history. To assemble this collection of 50 of the region’s most fascinating historical artifacts, we hunted through museums, archives and private collections. We also looked for things many of us might pass each day without appreciating their significance.
The Origins of Isaly’s: It's Not What You Think

The Origins of Isaly’s: It's Not What You Think

Tracing the story of the chain back to its roots — which, surprisingly, are not in Pittsburgh.
In the Frame: Julie Sokolow Sees the Future

In the Frame: Julie Sokolow Sees the Future

After making films focused on Pittsburgh, Sokolow is rising through the ranks of U.S. women documentarians.
Restaurant Review: Salem's Market & Grill in the Strip District

Restaurant Review: Salem's Market & Grill in the Strip District

Salem’s offers accessible and delicious meals for Pittsburghers of all stripes.
Pittsburgh Penguins Share Tips for Parenting on Ice

Pittsburgh Penguins Share Tips for Parenting on Ice

In a year when youth-hockey participation is expected to increase, Pittsburgh Penguins players weigh in on the role of the hockey parent.
Face the Frost: Go Daytripping on Winter Hikes in Pittsburgh

Face the Frost: Go Daytripping on Winter Hikes in Pittsburgh

There’s a magical, snowy landscape right in your backyard.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


1,000 Points Earns Crosby His Own Primanti Bros. Sandwich

1,000 Points Earns Crosby His Own Primanti Bros. Sandwich

Unlike previous Penguins-inspired sandwiches, Crosby’s “The Captain” could be on the menu for years to come.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Union Standard Will Open This Weekend

Union Standard Will Open This Weekend

The highly anticipated restaurant from Derek Stevens opens is located in the Union Trust building Downtown.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Social House 7 Is Okay ... But There's This Really Weird Thing About It

Social House 7 Is Okay ... But There's This Really Weird Thing About It

While it's not among Downtown's best, Social House 7 is a fine place for a drink and a bite — but we're stuck on a bizarre element of the décor.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Love Affair Between Pittsburgh & Keisel is a Two-Way Street

Love Affair Between Pittsburgh & Keisel is a Two-Way Street

Where else but Pittsburgh would a football player, two years removed from his playing days, be able to raise about $85,000 in one night for the staging of an event that involves the gathering of a crowd to watch a man shave?

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Check out the chic decor from Pittsburgh-based artist and designer Janice Nelson.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Great Wall Crumbles, Fist Fight Whiffs

Great Wall Crumbles, Fist Fight Whiffs

Reviews of "The Great Wall" and "Fist Fight," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Our Favorite Unique Centerpiece (That’s Not Flowers)

Our Favorite Unique Centerpiece (That’s Not Flowers)

This couple’s centerpiece from our Real Pittsburgh Weddings shines brighter than the traditional table bouquet.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
The Candle Lab Ready To Make Its Debut in Lawrenceville

The Candle Lab Ready To Make Its Debut in Lawrenceville

The Columbus-based store, where you can customize your own candle fragrance, is expected to open in March.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Get a Behind-the-Scenes Look at ‘Fences’

Get a Behind-the-Scenes Look at ‘Fences’

An art director from Warner Bros. Studios will visit La Roche College to talk about the Oscar-nominated film with ties to Pittsburgh.

Comments