Two weeks ago, I sat down at Coupa Café and tasted a Marron (a Venezuelan latte) for the first time. I looked around me and experienced another novelty. There were people – dozens of people – socializing, drinking coffee, and doing homework outside Green library. Now I was upset. I realized that I had missed out on this experience for two whole quarters, without even knowing what I lacked.
From 1999 through last summer, the library kiosk was occupied by Moonbeans, a coffee shop that was a pillar of the undergraduate culture. Moonbeans was granted two five-year contracts by Stanford Libraries, which owns the kiosk. When the second contract expired, the library decided to award the third contract to a local coffee shop – the final bidding pool was five coffee shops – that produced the most comprehensive service-expanding and cost-reducing plan. Much to Moonbeans surprise, Coupa Café, a Stanford hangout in Palo Alto, won the bid.
Moonbeans moved out in August 2009, and Coupa moved in seven months later. Why did the transition take so long? According to Jean Paul Coupal ’07, the owner of Coupa Café, Moonbeans did not update the kiosk to meet tightening county health standards: “When I first saw the kiosk, it was a dump. The floors were ripping apart and there were coffee stains everywhere. It was a health risk.”
In California, current contractors are not required to meet changing regulations, but whoever renews the contract is. Coupa had to undo years of neglect before it could obtain a permit. At the same time, Coupa was expanding its services to include hot food, which required it to meet yet another class of stringent regulations. These factors were compounded by what Coupal describes as “arbitrary regulations and distinctions” on the part of Santa Clara County.
For example, the kiosk status as an indoor or outdoor facility is somewhat vague. So the Santa Clara regulator required Coupa to obtain both an indoor restaurant permit and an outdoor one. In another example, in California, stove hoods are classified as Type 2, which circulate air, or Type 1, which automatically spray flame retardant during emergencies. According to Coupal, “the regulator demanded a Type 1 hood, which was total overkill for the food we make at the kiosk. But we paid the extra $15,000 anyways. After we set up the kiosk, we were visited by a health inspector, who was incredulous that we had bought a Type 1 hood because county regulations didn’t require it.” In all, Coupa resubmitted its plan six times before obtaining a permit. The entire process took four months, during which the kiosk was vacant.
According to Andrew Herkovic, Director of Communications for Green Library, the university’s main reason for turning over the contract form Moonbeams was that Coupa offered “superior services.” According to Herkovic, “Moonbeans wasn’t going anywhere. When we gave them the contract in ’99, they had multiple outlets throughout the Bay Area, but they eventually all closed except for the kiosk. We were hoping for something more impressive.” Herkovic also hinted that the Library encountered “occasional differences” with the Moonbeans staff. Stanford Libraries then approached five local coffee shops and requested detailed service proposals.
Contrary to what some believe, Coupa did not ‘kick out’ Moonbean’s, nor did Coupa ‘outbid’ Moonbeans during the proposal process. Coupa was sought out by Stanford Libraries, not the other way around.
Coupa’s “superior services” are quite real. Prices at the kiosk are significantly lower compared to the prices at the Palo Alto Coupa. When I interviewed Coupal, he explained that the kiosk offers two ranges of products in order to meet “student needs.” To take one example, the kiosk sells both high end granola bars for $4 as well as Cliff Bars. Coupal also had interesting ideas for expanding services. First on the list is an door-to-door food delivery service that will be accessible from the upcoming iCoupa iPhone app. Coupa’s coffee is also top-notch. It is grown on the only two certified organic coffee farms in Venezuela and is packaged locally by the Coupal family.
It is interesting to note that the Coupa family has a long Stanford pedigree. Jean-Paul Coupal and his two sisters grew up in Venezuela. Their father was an American diplomat and started a coffee shop chain as part of the family business. All three children wound up studying at Stanford. When Jean-Paul Coupal was in his freshman year, he started the Palo Alto Coupa Cafe with his mother; it is now a thriving business. Coupal graduated with a degree in Economics in 2007 and plans to spend the next several years expanding the family business and serving Venezuelan coffee at affordable prices.