(UPDATE) I wanted to take a moment to update this post, since it has been almost three weeks since it was originally authored. We’ve had a virtual group hug through this post, evidenced in the comments below. Let me restate the obvious: Max’s coffee and coffee drinks are the best in Houston,Â probably in the top 10% of coffee shops on the planet. I do have to admit I haven’t been back to Catalina yet, but I will be paying Max a visit very soon (mostly to get some beans now that I’ve finally settled into my new place, with espresso machine). Lest there be any doubt, I will frequent Catalina for its off-the-charts lattes and coffee, albeit less frequently than before. The reason for that actually has to do more with my commute and proximity since moving than the fact that Max and I had a tiff or that his electrical outlets are still covered up (and yes, they are still covered up). If I were Max, I wouldn’t have covered the outlets, but it’s his shop and he can do whatever he damn well pleases. And that’s fine by me. Just don’t fuck with the coffee.
As many of my followers know, Catalina Coffee is one of my favorite coffee shops and hang outs. In my opinion, it epitomizes cafe culture (albeit a unique American variant) and has, bar none, the best coffee in Houston, period. In many cases, like many regulars there, I’ll make it by more than once in a day. I’m very sad to say, however, I had an extremely unpleasant experience today.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, it has been extremely difficult to come upon a coffee shop (or anywhere, for that matter) with a) power, b) coffee, and c) wireless Internet access. Catalina was one of the only places in Houston to offer all three, and they did so the day after Ike made it’s appearance in our fair city. None of the local Starbucks were open, and other local coffee shops (Coffee Groundz) that were either had bad coffee, no Internet, or both.
When word got out, Catalina quickly became overwhelmed with new business from Houstonians needing their caffeine fix. It also served as a command center and refuge for many citizens who had no power or Internet at home, who wanted to check the latest status updates from Centerpoint Energy, check on loved ones, and generally go about their business online. Consequently, long lines for coffee and tables overcrowded with laptops became the norm.
Though I’ve made a few appearances at Catalina after the storm for coffee, today I arrived with my fully discharged laptop needing to catch up on a couple of mundane tasks, including paying a few bills and moving utility services to my new residence (incidentally, my old place has power but no Internet; my new place has no power). I was surprised to see all the power outlets had metal plates over them. Suspecting this was a result of Ike-related water damage or some other such safety issue, I inquired when the outlets would be available again. Max (the proprietor) responded, “Never.” He stated the reason was that the environment was getting mob-like and out of control over the last few days as “people were fighting over power outlets” and things of that sort. While I certainly understand the need to mitigate unruly behavior, there are many other ways to go about it. I do have to tip my hat to Max for his ingenuity in solving the supposed “problem;” it was extremely effective. The problem is it unnecessarily penalizes legitimate, regular customers who spend lots of money on coffee and conduct their affairs online. To add insult to injury, he decides to use this “solution” during a time of crisis and when people need to use it the most. It smacks of reactionary behavior and poor business citizenry in the least.Â After debating the issue with Max for a few minutes, I seem to have unearthed some far deeper rooted issues that apparently vex Max. I’ll reiterate some of our discourse and let you be the judge.
After getting the “never” response from Max to my question about when we would expect to get the power outlets back (assuming this was a short term fix, even if it was extremely poor timing given the current situation post-Ike), I politely stated that I needed to get some things done on occasion, along with a subtle allusion to my regularity and largesse (not only do I spend lots of money on coffee and am always careful to not take up space unless I’m buying things along the way, but I tip extremely healthy and have referred lots of new people to the establishment).Â He said, “bring another battery.” I told him that wasn’t an acceptable solution (a) I don’t have another battery, and b) where am I supposed to have charged these batteries especially if I don’t have power?). His shocked response to that was, “Unacceptable? Are you fucking kidding me? Unacceptable. I can’t believe that.” I told him that especially after Ike in a time of crisis I thought he was betraying his customers’ trust. He stated that he was “tired of people abusing my space. Cafe culture is not sitting down at a coffee shop for three hours.” Really? Are you kidding me? I suppose you have never sat down in a Parisian cafe then. Incredulous and stunned to that response, I told him that I thought the defition of cafe culture was different for everyone and that one should err on the side of what your customers wanted it to be. His response? “Customers? I don’t care what customers want. What matters is what I want. I opened my own shop because of that.” I asked him if he had thought of better ways to address the problem. His very cavalier response was that he had solved the problem and wasn’t really interested in discussing the subject any further. I told him that he was curing cancer by killing cancer patients and there certainly were better ways of addressing the problem.
I have tremendous respect for Max, his craft and his business acumen. He runs a very tight ship that produces a superior product and spares no expense nor takes any short cuts to achieve it. That is a very rare quality that I think more businesses should adopt. I also absolutely appreciate running your own business on your terms and not doing things the way everyone else does. I respect his ingenuity in his approach to the problem, but it is akin to solving email spam by simply only accepting 1 out of 1000 emails to your inbox, regardless of content. If his problem is slim margins from not turning over enough tables, he should address the business model accordingly and raise prices, or charge for wifi, or establish minimums. Ripping out the rug from under customers and biting the hands that feed him is not the proper solution. I am troubled by Catalina’s “solution” on two fronts: 1., the “solution” itself, and 2., the arrogant, cavalier attitude exhibited about the “problem.” I wasn’t aware that working quietly on my laptop for a few hours and spending $20 while I’m there in one sitting was “abusing his space.” In 20 years of starting and running small businesses, I do understand the importance of “firing” bad customers and mitigating abuse. By the same token, however, I have always found it extremely beneficial to the bottom line to err on giving customers the benefit of the doubt and applying the golden rule in abundance. That this decision comes in the highest time of need, makes it especially pernicious.
The following is a letter one of my friends and colleagues wrote to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison concerning the upcoming Senate vote on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. I have left it unedited, with the exception of replacing his underlines with italics for readability. I think he makes some excellent points here and I concur with his assessment, particularly the point about Houston (and Texas) constantly taking the easy road of eschewing change, resulting in the best minds, ideas and innovations going to the west coast. I am tired of the intellectually lazy, business-as-usual conservative politics here. Because of insipid, brainless dogma, we repeatedly squander every opportunity to do truly great, innovative things. Anyway, enough of my opinion. Enjoy!
To: Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison & John Cornyn
RE: Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act
The Senate is scheduled to debate and vote on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act the first week of June.
As a citizen of Texas, a technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of one of Houston’s first Internet service providers, a veteran of the armed forces, and a current real estate professional, I urge you to seize this historic opportunity and pass this bill.
Here are five compelling reasons to act now:
The political opportunity is ripe. 78% of Americans want Congress to act on global warming. We need to take advantage of the tremendous momentum that exists today.
Building a domestic renewable energy supply that weans us from a mostly foreign, Middle-Eastern oil supply should be a national security imperative.
Carbon emission caps also address a very important LOCAL concern in Houston – our notorious air toxicity and ozone (exacerbated by CO2 and other heat-rapping gases).
This isn’t an issue with whether or not you agree with global warming – this is an economic issue now of producing domestic, cleaner energy and spurring technology investment in Texas beyond oil and gas – gas prices are out of control and we need more choices for energy. However, every year we wait equals extra effort. If we delay this bill by just two years, we will have to make twice the annual cuts in carbon emissions to hit the same cumulative reductions by 2020.
Someone is going to win the global race to create competitive cleaner energy. Houston and Texas can benefit, with effective leadership, from this growing consensus. Renewable energy promises to become one of the world’s most profitable industries – Japan and Germany already are ahead of us. But advances in renewable energy technologies will not be fully realized without a national cap on global warming pollution – almost every clean-energy entrepreneur agrees with this statement that has been interviewed. Refuse to act and most of the entrepreneurship will go to Silicon Valley just like in 1995 when I was starting Houston’s first large Internet services provider. Please don’t become complicit in a technology brain-drain from Texas 10 years out.
The science is unforgiving. As the Earth warms, we approach a “tipping point,” after which large destructive climate changes become inevitable. This is a scientific consensus (like tobacco smoke causes lung cancer) – I am frankly not interested in whether or not policy analysts or members of Congress agree with this consensus or not, especially when it comes to my planet and health.
What legacy will the 110th Congress and you leave for Texas? When future generations look back at this moment, they will either praise you and the Senate for starting us down the path to solving the global warming crisis, or blame you and the Senate for squandering this opportunity. If you fail to vote, you stand to put us right back to the 1980’s in Texas while the rest of the nation moves ahead. You have an opportunity to make us a leader in the energy future of America, or to allow us to decline when oil production drops off. It will happen – history is famous for repetition.
Finally, have you read Earth: The Sequel: The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming by Fred Krupp? What amazes me as a business leader and entrepreneur is his complete embrace of markets – with smart and effective federal leadership – to solve the problem, based on case studies and diligent research. What are you doing to secure Texas in this new emerging energy markets? Please vote FOR the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act when it comes to a vote in June.
I just received these pictures from my good friend Jill, who received them from a third party. They were taken here in Houston two days ago on Highway 59 northbound around W. Airport Blvd. Out here, the lanes are very wide. A couple of miles up the road, however, our friend is in for a very nasty surprise as the lanes get narrower (or at least there are a lot more cars). Perhaps he is using one of these devices which has made him forgetful. I hope he makes it to the Darwin Awards Finals! Click on the image to get a higher resolution picture. Enjoy!