Back in 2009, on the second floor of Red Rock Coffee in downtown Mountain View, a couple of guys from a company called WhatsApp started developing their first pieces of code. In the years since, tour buses have stopped in front of the store, with curious tourists asking to see the spot where WhatsApp was born.
Today, the messaging app is worth $19 billion, while the coffee shop where it was founded is barely hanging on, as it deals with the economic toll from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If every startup that has made it big would give us $10,000, we'd reach our goal immediately!” joked Chrissy Mata, who is running a GoFundMe page in support of Red Rock.
Red Rock, a two-story coffee shop on the corner of Castro and Villa streets, has been a local institution of sorts since the 1990s in the Mountain View community. It has served as a workspace for fledgling startups, a study spot for local students and a common location for job interviews, investment meetings and first dates alike. It has hosted open-mic sessions, a knitting club and board game and trivia nights. It has provided free space for artists to display their work, helping young artists boost their confidence.
In a fast-paced area like Silicon Valley with a large population of immigrants and people who have relocated for work, a local hangout spot like Red Rock can provide a sense of community — like the bar in the ’80s sitcom “Cheers,” as general manager Jean Boulanger compares it to.
“Silicon Valley can be a really lonely place for an awful lot of people,” Boulanger said. “Typically, people are looking for that ‘third space – there’s home and work, and then this place, where people know who you are. They make you feel welcome. We desperately want to provide that for people.”
The search for fresh solutions
Now, it is Red Rock that needs help from the community. The coffee shop has been run by a local church group called The Highway Community since 2005. In recent years, as rent, minimum wage and cost of goods have increased, the church has had to pick up more and more of the shop’s expenses. Rent, according to Boulanger, is $21,000 a month. Even with rent support and a kind landlord, it’s a lot.
“That’s a lot of money to raise every month,” Boulanger said. “Think about: How many cups of coffee?”
Boulanger knew that it was time to figure out some fresh solutions. Red Rock had begun developing plans to rent out space to groups on the second floor. Then the pandemic hit. The second floor was shuttered, its community no longer allowed to gather. The shop never closed, but reduced its open time to four hours a day – a drastic cut from the usual 7 a.m. to 10 p.m (it is now open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Revenue dropped to one-third of normal levels. Ownership has had to keep contributing toward expenses.
“You talk about a parent company, it’s like going back to mom and dad and getting help,” Boulanger said. “We definitely have been doing that. It just gets to a point where, if things stay where they are, it’s just not sustainable.”
The feeling appears to be mutual.
Mata, a local teacher and member of The Highway Community, said: “You can’t put the church in jeopardy for the coffee shop. It’s not wise to keep throwing money after it, if it’s not going to make it. It’s a crucial point that we never would be in if it wasn’t for the pandemic.”
Mata reiterated that the church remains supportive of the coffee shop, but needs help beyond what their community can provide.
“We decided to go to the larger Mountain View community and ask for their support since we know it’s a special place for many," Mata added.
And so, the idea came to start a GoFundMe page. The goal is $300,000 and as of Friday morning, more than $61,000 has been donated since Mata launched the site July 16. The money will go not just toward immediate needs, but also to ensure stability for the next year.
Additionally, Red Rock plans to spin off as an independent nonprofit, instead of being operated by a parent company. The shop has long had a reputation for mentoring young adults by giving them their first jobs. With funding, Boulanger has plans to use Red Rock as a training ground for at-risk youth in the form of yearlong, paid internships. The interns would shadow staff members as potential future employees.
Another plus if the shop became its own nonprofit would be opening up partnerships with organizations that may not have donated in the past because of Red Rock’s relationship with a church, though Boulanger notes that the church is not involved in day-to-day operations. She sees potential for more opportunities to receive grants specific to young people and targeted communities and social groups – without having to worry about restrictions that may apply to church donations.
None of that will be possible, though, if Red Rock doesn’t survive in the short term. Boulanger is not putting a threshold on how much funding she needs to keep the place alive. But the early returns on the GoFundMe page are promising. In a week, more than 500 people have contributed. Most of them are people Mata doesn’t know.
The page has been flooded with notes from donors highlighting seminal experiences at the shop: One person ran into five different friends from high school they hadn’t seen in year; another had their first band performance there more than a decade ago; yet another met their fiancé at Red Rock. These are just snippets of what the coffee shop means to the local community.
“People want a sense of normalcy,” Mata said. “They want to be able to go back to their favorite places. They don’t want their favorite places to be gone. I think we have a fighting chance.”
To donate to Red Rock’s GoFundMe campaign, visit charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/save-red-rock-coffee.