Power Struggle At The Coffee Shop

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Things got pretty crazy for

Catalina Coffee

owner Max Gonzalez after Ike.

“We were overwhelmed. We had been listed by the Houston Chronicle as one – they had about three other listings – of places with free electricity and free wi-fi for a city of four-plus million,” Gonzalez tells Hair Balls. “We were bombarded. And it was one of these things that I had to make a decision as in what to do.”

Gonzalez had electricity the Sunday after the storm. For six days after that, he allowed people to use the café to charge laptops and use the free wi-fi. But things started getting chaotic in the café and so Gonzalez plugged up the plugs.

“We, six days after the storm, cut the plugs in here because it was absolutely outlandish – we could not function,” he says. This caused a lot of problems, even though Gonzalez says he did the best he could to accommodate those in need.

“For two and half more weeks we provided power stations outside,” he says. “[Covering the plugs] was never meant to eliminate these people. I still understood my responsibility to the community, but I also understood the responsibility I have to my café,” he says.

This obviously didn’t make people happy and Gonzalez even had an argument during business hours with one unhappy customer … who later wrote about it on his blog, www.seanstoner.com.

“It really tarnished my name,” Gonzalez says. “It was downright scary how people reacted as far as from the business-owner point of view.” Especially because the capping of the plugs wasn’t an Ike-related matter. Gonzalez had planned on doing so even before this incident.

“About two weeks before the storm, one of my really good customers approached me – she’s been coming in since we opened with her husband on weekends – and she told me that she would not come back. And I said ‘why?’ [She said,] ‘Well you know we’ve been driving here for over a year and half on the weekends to enjoy coffee and as time has progressed, there are weekends that [we] can’t even find a seat,” Gonzalez says. And this wasn’t the first time he’s heard that.

“Customers approached me and said that they wouldn’t come back to the shop because they felt like they were walking into someone else’s office instead of a café,” he says.

This pointed to a problem Gonzalez has struggled with since he opened Catalina almost two years ago: what kind of a coffee shop did he want to be?

Around town there are places such as Starbucks where working is encouraged (even though they lack free wi-fi) and there are places where the focus is on selling a variety of drinks or just a high-quality cup of joe. Gonzalez wants to be known for the latter (and we agree he is which is why we gave him Best Coffee Shop in this year’s Best Of Houston.)

“There’s a limited amount of places that have a focus specifically on coffee,” he says.

“There were enough customers – I’ll use the term 'customers' loosely – there were enough people that had started to make this their workspace without respecting our other customers and their environment,” he says.

Gonzalez says his intention is not to eliminate any customer, but to keep business flowing through the shop rather than having it sit still with its head buried in a computer for six hours.

“It’s been very interesting to see what has happened after this incident of capping the plugs,” he says. “We’re still packed and our numbers are up, as a matter of fact,” he says. (His blogging critic even posted an update to his site saying he sees Gonzalez’s point of view and still visits and recommends Catalina.)

“There’s more movement and there’s more tables being cycled and everyone is talking to each other. More people are having conversations … they’re actually sitting down and talking. When before this place would be packed with not so many people and the laptop was a companion and everyone was very focused on what they were doing.”

Dusti Rhodes

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