Sometimes, you just need to take a risk. Maybe you place your money on 38 in roulette or take an unfamiliar route to work.
For Mark Wain MBA ’99 and Gary Chau MBA ’99, taking a risk meant quitting their lucrative positions in the corporate world and bringing a coffee “movement” to Los Angeles. Putting friendship and passions above their salaries, they couldn’t be happier.
The two USC Marshall School of Business alums are co-owners of Caffe Luxxe, a coffee house they founded in 2006. With two locations in Santa Monica and one in Brentwood, Caffe Luxxe offers handmade coffee and tea in a European-style café setting that promotes a communal atmosphere.
“We’re about human relationships, and coffee is the catalyst,” Chau said.
Their shops pioneered the Third Wave of Coffee movement for artisanal coffee in Los Angeles, which for Caffe Luxxe means creating the highest-quality espresso by selectively choosing coffee beans and using a handmade German coffee roaster, among other steps. The company is thriving, having moved the roasting facility from Seattle to Gardena, Calif., this past summer while also preparing to open a fourth shop in the next year.
Though the first shop opened in 2006, Caffe Luxxe’s foundation was laid 10 years earlier.
Wain and Chau met as first-year students in USC Marshall’s Part-Time MBA program, found themselves placed in the same study group and quickly became best friends during their initial year in the program.
During that time, Wain, who was already a coffee shop enthusiast stemming from his undergraduate days at the University of California, Berkeley, would take Chau to study at the original Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Brentwood.
“I could never get work done like Mark, but I started to see how a café was a social connecting point,” Chau said.
The two split off into the corporate world after graduation, with Chau eventually becoming a global marketing director for Bacardi in London, while Wain moved up to become a product manager for Microsoft in Seattle. The desire for making coffee more than a hobby, however, was anything but dead. Neither man hated their jobs, but they knew their passion could not be fully channeled in their current roles.
Wain invited Chau to visit him in Seattle in 2002, and the two started to work on a business model.
“[In Seattle] the thriving ‘indie’ coffee scene reignited my fire,” Wain said. “Even with Starbucks, I said ‘we can do it.’ ”
In Los Angeles, Starbucks and Coffee Bean dominated the coffee landscape. The pair didn’t want to compete with the industry giants but instead start a business that created a European, community-like feel unique to Los Angeles coffee shops.
Four years and an extensive amount of planning later, their idea became a reality. Both quit their high-paying positions, moved back to Los Angeles and started what was Los Angeles’ first specialty coffee café.
Popularity was nearly instantaneous for the pilot shop in Santa Monica, as word-of-mouth and positive reviews drew first-time visitors and turned customers into regulars. The shop also hosted and continues to bring in customers through coffee tastings and latte art competition. One event was a seminar titled “Finding Love,” hosted by two local relationship experts.
Six successful years later, the reward has been worth the sacrifice.
“I end up working more than I ever expected … and I love it,” Wain said.
Both credit their USC educations with giving them the “right toolset and foundation,” but for Chau the MBA program’s most important benefit was not as obvious.
“It gave me courage,” he said. “I felt ready, and I was not afraid to leave a high-power, high-money situation to risk it all.”
Chau’s advice to the next generation of Trojan entrepreneurs: “If you genuinely believe in your idea, go do it. No matter how off the wall it may seem, go do what you love.”
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