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Crazy Mocha owner likes comfort, says shrewd decisions foster growth

| Monday, July 6, 2015, 11:15 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Barista Kat Tuminello whips up a latte Monday, June 22, 2015, in Crazy Mocha in the North Side.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Bottles of flavored syrups line the counter Monday, June 22, 2015, in Crazy Mocha in the North Side.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Customers wait to place their coffee orders Monday, June 22, 2015, in Crazy Mocha in the North Side.

Ken Zeff is a routine-driven man, working in the routine-driven business of serving coffee.

He lived, until recently, in the same Greenfield home in which he was raised. He says he hasn't tried a new food in 30 years. He won't drink coffee, despite founding and owning Pittsburgh-based Crazy Mocha Coffee Co.

“I've never even tried it. Or tea, or hot chocolate,” he said. Not even curious? “Nope.”

Will it ever happen?

“Never.”

It's a steady and predictable approach to life that contrasts with his line of work and the way Zeff, 47, of Squirrel Hill has turned the purchase of one Shadyside coffee shop in 2000 into a 30-store local chain.

“We've never had a business plan because it's very difficult in this type of business to force a location,” Zeff said as he sat in the informal corporate office space above one of Crazy Mocha's newer locations along Baum Boulevard in Friendship.

The privately held company owned by Zeff and his wife, Michelle, avoids opening stores where they will directly compete with other independent shops. The decision to open often comes down to “a feel. You gather it when you walk in and say, ‘Can people feel comfortable in this space?' ” he said.

The decision to close or move, though, which Zeff has made several times in the short time Crazy Mocha has been around, comes down to pure business.

“At the end of the day, you need to listen to the profit-and-loss statement, and you need to be competitive,” said Zeff, who got a business degree from the University of Pittsburgh before spending 10 years as a buyer for J.C. Penney.

That meant moving stores from Downtown Pittsburgh and Washington to find better foot traffic, closing stores in Wexford and Cranberry that require drive-thrus (which Zeff doesn't want to do), and keeping open the store where it all started, the former Dancing Goat coffee shop on Ellsworth Avenue. He expected the Baum Boulevard location would choke business a half-mile away.

“We opened this store and nothing happened on Ellsworth, so we kept that store, too,” he said, though the original shop will be remodeled. “Sometimes when we plan to close one, we end up with an extra store.”

He declined to provide specific financial figures for the stores or the chain as a whole, but said sales have grown each year and the company is making a profit. The number of employees has grown from six to 120 in 15 years.

Two themes have pushed that growth. One is a willingness to take a chance on a community that, as Zeff says, “needs a little push,” like the North Side.

Six years ago, Zeff and developer Bill Barron found a rotting building on the corner of Federal Street and North Avenue within sight of a former porn theater the city had been trying to redevelop for decades. Against Zeff's initial instincts, Barron — landlord for several Crazy Mocha locations — bought the building and Zeff opened a shop that now anchors a growing row of eateries.

“I was very glad to see them come in,” said city Councilwoman Darlene Harris of the North Side, who noted her appreciation for businesses that work closely with neighborhood groups. “It helps to keep businesses there. It's a step-by-step rebuilding.”

On Brownsville Road south of the city, Brentwood has a more established business district, though maintaining a coffee shop has been a challenge. Crazy Mocha last month moved into a space that San Francisco-based Peet's Coffee & Tea abandoned after less than a year.

Zeff said he's seeing good business there so far. Borough manager George Zboyovsky sees a chance to spread a more walkable district.

“We want to get that sidewalk traffic established,” said Zboyovsky, who already is a regular. “A lot of people use it, including myself, as a nice away-from-the-office meeting place.”

Which leads to the second theme at Crazy Mocha. When talking about his business, Zeff talks less about coffee and more about instilling a sense of “comfort, safety and convenience.”

“You come into our stores and they should be bright, they should be clean and they should be comfortable,” he said, noting the usual arrangement of padded seats, big tables and lots of outlets for electronics to take advantage of the Wi-Fi.

“We encourage people to hang out, relax. There's not this sales pitch when you walk in our door. There's no posters that say you have to buy or else. And we don't have a retail section. It's about seating, comfort and communication, convenience. We try to mix those together to make a neighborhood place.”

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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