Supplier Spotlight – Copa Vida with Steve Chang

by | May 27, 2021 | Coffee Education

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Tradecraft is proud to work with the best craft coffee and specialty tea partners around the country. Our success depends on the relationships we’ve built with our roasters and growers and our portfolio represents the best in the country.

It’s a privilege to be a part of this global community and we support it through working with carefully vetted craft partners. Each of our partners we vet for transparent and responsible sourcing practices, a traceable supply chain, and conscientious use of natural resources to best ensure long term accessibility to the products we cherish.

We also recognize that diversity is key to innovation, providing insights into our business that allows us to provide culturally sensitive products and services across all markets. Continued partnerships with our vast supplier network allows us to expand the breadth of available products to satisfy multicultural marketplaces across the country.

In honor of AAPI heritage month, we sat down with Steve Chang, the co-founder and owner of Copa Vida. We wanted to hear to hear his story as a Korean immigrant and as a professional in the coffee industry.

Tell me a little about yourself, your background. What encouraged you to get into coffee and start Copa Vida?

My journey in coffee began in college when I had my first “God Shot” (a coffee so amazing in taste that it could only be described as a spiritual experience). Since then, it was always my dream to “retire” with a café and a bakery so that I can wake up every morning to the smell of coffee and fresh bread. Though my work/career was in the areas of mediation/conflict resolution, public policy and food manufacturing, the love for coffee never left me. This love remained a dream till 8 years ago when my wife and I were able to exit from our family’s noodle and pasta business. Though saying bye to a company that was in the family for so long was hard, it gave us the foundation and resources we needed to pursue a dream.

My wife, Elena, and I were able to take a year off and explore the crazy world of specialty coffee. We visited and researched cafes and coffee farms in 4 continents and 6 countries. We spoke to café owners large and small and even connected with farmers from Ethiopia and Costa Rica (where I learned the phrase Pura Vida….that led to Copa Vida’s name). And after many hours of planning, we found that we were not qualified to achieve what we wanted by ourselves.

“I also learned that it wasn’t a passion for coffee that drove me. Rather, I loved cafes. Creating spaces where community could be built over a shared love of coffees, teas and great food was what we wanted.”

So we found partners who were passionate and qualified in coffee and tea and built a team that started Copa Vida….where anyone could come to get a cup of life. And in doing so, we found it also became an intersection where our faith, passions and desire for community could come together.

Steve Chang at a coffee farm in Costa Rica – where the idea of Copa Vida was first conceived.

Tell me about your company – what products or services do you provide? Brief history?

Copa Vida is a specialty coffee company currently comprised of 8 cafes and 1 roastery. While coffee and coffee roasting is our main focus, both teas and great food are huge parts of our business and what we believe sets our brand apart. It is the way we weave those 3 products in with our core focus on hospitality that makes us a success in a sea of specialty coffee companies in Southern California.

In our roasting program, we showcase and present our coffees using the Go, Enjoy, Experience categories. In our 8 years of roasting and wholesaling coffees, we’ve learned that specialty coffees can be somewhat confusing and misleading. In order to simplify but clearly define our offerings, we categorize our coffees by the flavor profiles. Go coffees are sweet, chocolaty and nutty flavors that go well with milk. Enjoy coffees are more fruit and floral forward with the intention of surprising your pallet.

“Experience coffees are coffees with a special story or connection that makes the coffee more than just a beverage or source of caffeine. “

These coffees are sourced with integrity and small batch roasted and blended in Pasadena, CA. We serve multi roaster cafes, bakeries and other wholesale accounts and distributors as well as our own cafes.

What was the catalyst for forming your own company?

Cafes and coffees are more than a business or a product for us. We see the café space as a place of gathering where communities and culture can be built. We also see coffee not just as a delicious beverage but a connection point. If you think about the interaction between coworkers around the office coffee cart or the coffee service that becomes so important for meetings with clients or even the concept of the coffee break in our workday, one begins to see how coffee (or tea) plays an integral part of our interactions and connections.

“As an immigrant and as someone who displaced himself from his community in search of a new one, places like cafes and products like coffee play an important role in my life.“

My first dates were in cafes… as were my last dates. I wrote my senior thesis and master’s dissertation in a café. I’ve had the most intimate and fun conversations with my friends and some strangers in a café and I’ve had some of the most critical alone times in life at a café with just my journal, a cup of coffee and my Bible.

So for me, forming a coffee company aligns my work with my passions and my community and was almost inevitable.

Can you share some obstacles or challenges you’ve faced and how you overcame them?

The most difficult challenge in starting this business was like with any other new endeavor.

“We didn’t know what we didn’t know. Entering into the Specialty Coffee business in my 40’s made me feel like a fish out of water and as inviting and transparent as the industry was, the feelings of being an outsider was no different than what I felt as an immigrant in this country.”

I didn’t know the right terminology and the nuanced cultural differences and insider knowhow was out of reach for a newbie. It was frustrating as I tried to force my experiences from previous businesses and work into this new one and was met with resistance every step of the way.

Fortunately, much like my immigrant experience, I found my way into the industry and finally feel at home. By partnering with and hiring those who were already in the industry and had the experiences I did not, I was able to more quickly enter into the culture of Specialty Coffee. They became my ambassadors and brokers who helped turn the right knobs and open the right doors and allowed me to grow quicker than I hoped.

What are some of the tools that set you on the path to success?

I think communication skills, attention to detail, genuine desire to succeed as well as projects management skills helped me to build and grow the company. As for a path to success, I’m still searching for it.

What advice do you have for MWBEs about earning business with large companies?

Learn the language and priorities of a larger company. So many small businesses and MWBE’s struggle with understanding who to talk to as well as how to talk when dealing with larger companies. Our successes in small businesses always come from our personal connection to our vendors and our clients. However, it has been my experience that larger companies don’t just work on those relationships. There are systems and processes that they use and follow that are challenging for small MWBE’s but absolutely necessary for larger companies. Learning and mastering those will help make the minimum requirements that lead to the relationships one needs.

I remember trying to sell taste and quality to a larger business when they were more concerned about food safety and pricing. I did not land that account but learned that I needed to have other arrows in my quiver than what I was comfortable with.

What do you wish you’d know when you were first starting out?

Having run a much larger company as VP of Operations, I was humbled to learn that a smaller concept and a smaller company does not mean less work or less stress. There were some choices I made that was based on the idea that smaller and simpler meant easier. That was not the case. I found that managing 50+ EE’s without a large management team was harder than managing 250+ EE’s with a significant management team.

Authenticity and variety are critical “must haves” in any food and beverage business. Consumers are more and more interested in “who and how” as much as “what”. At the supply side, we are getting more requests for “stories” and “origin data” than ever before.

“Simply providing price points, nutritional data and traceability reports are no longer enough. More companies are interested in knowing the background and depth of the products they purchased. “

Everyone wants to be able to name the farmer and region of their ingredients. This can be an area of strength for those MWBE businesses that can take advantage by presenting their stories as part of the “specialness” of their product.

What unexpected pleasures or outcomes does owning a business bring you?

My favorite part of the work comes when I see someone truly enjoying a coffee we roasted and brewed or when I see someone truly enjoy the café space we created. In the beginning, I was searching for coffees and teas that would sing to my pallet and bring joy to me. However, I now find it even more fulfilling when my customers share their enjoyment. It brings validation to our work but also allows us to feel that we made a difference at some level.

Christa Thomas


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