Joe’s Coffee Stop Diego Rojas stands in front of his Albany business. Credit: Doug Ng

Joe’s Coffee Stop
1035 Eastshore Hwy (in the Toyota of Berkeley parking lot), Albany
7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. daily

What were you doing at 19? Smoking doobies on Sproul Plaza? Cracking glow sticks at yet another rave? Not Diego Rojas, who, at only 19 opened Joe’s Coffee Stop inside an eye-catching Albany drive-up space earlier this month. 

“I was in the coffee industry … almost as soon as I was able to start working,” said Rojas, a Berkeley native who graduated from BHS last year. “You know, I lied about my age, so I could start [working] sooner.”

Rojas started his career at Zolo Roasters in Alameda, where the staffers at the small-batch, family-owned business quickly took him under their wing. He began with the basics, learning how to make lattes and perfect a pour-over. Soon he learned, little by little, how to roast beans, how pricing worked and how the coffee business operated as an industry.

“Unfortunately, as the summer ended, I had to quit to continue my high school career,” he said, but “I kept coming back to Zolo to work each summer.”

He gained more expertise in the coffee business every summer break, as he studied the mechanics of running a business and started to understand the tight-knit community that forms around coffee (in fact, he met his best friend after serving him at Zolo). Eventually, he realized that he wanted to open up his own shop. After all, brick-and-mortar entrepreneurship is in his blood: his mother owns and operates Tomate Cafe in West Berkeley. 

The compact inside of Joe’s has just enough room for prep work and a glorious espresso machine. Credit: Joe’s/Twitter

“I didn’t really go down the college path, because, you know, school wasn’t for me,” Rojas said. “But I fell in love with coffee.”

Enter the owners of Toyota of Berkeley, Tim Southwick and Tim Southwick Jr., a father-son duo who recently built a circular, detached structure in their Albany service center’s parking lot, just a stone’s throw from the Albany Target store.

The Southwicks wanted to open some sort of coffee operation in the building, but they didn’t want a mega-corporation in the spot. That’s when the senior Southwick, a longtime Tomate Cafe patron, asked Rojas’ mother if, by chance, she knew of anyone who could set up shop in the space. She didn’t have to look far: her own son.

“I did a proper interview with [the Southwicks], face to face,” Rojas said. “I was more than excited.” 

Struck by how much research Rojas had put into his potential business, the Southwicks knew they had their coffee shop operator. The fact that the owner is still in his teens was just a side note.

“They saw how much passion I have,” Rojas said of the interview process. “To be honest, I am able to do this today because they dismissed my age.” And thus, Joe’s Coffee Stop, a walk-up and drive-through business, was born. 

The small cafe is officially owned by the Southwicks, with a name consistent with the Toyota outfit’s other nearby shop, Joe’s Tires. But it’s operated and run solely by Rojas, who’s also staffed the spot since it opened about two weeks ago. Emeryville’s McLaughlin Coffee Roasters provides some of the beans for coffee at Joe’s. Other drinks, like a New Orleans-style iced coffee, are made with beans from his alma mater, Zolo.

In addition to the Italian-style coffee menu, Joe’s offers two breakfast burritos, bacon and green chile, both from NorCal grab-and-go company Sonoma Made Foods. As the coffee shop grows, Rojas also plans on expanding his menu to include Italian sodas and desserts like semifreddo.

Right now, Rojas and one other employee run the day-to-day business at Joe’s Coffee Stop. In addition to regular duties, Rojas is also working on developing an app to allow customers to order ahead, and also manages to make time for friends, video gaming (he prefers Madden and FIFA over role-playing games), and watching sports. The Raiders are his favorite team. “I know they left for Las Vegas, but I know they’ll come back one day,” he said.  

When asked about the one thing he wished he knew before opening up his new shop, he admitted that patience, as the adage goes, is a virtue.

“Going from managing a really busy environment to a company starting from the ground up is a new experience,” he said. “Sometimes I have this always-need-to-be-working attitude, but patience is the big thing that I wish I would have known beforehand. Because you’re going to need a lot of it to slowly grow a business.”

Although Rojas has ideas for expansion, he’s trying not  to get carried away. Not yet, anyway. He’d like to open more locations in the future, but not in the same vein as the current crop of caffeine oligarchs. “When I look at Starbucks, Peet’s, that’s not my style. I don’t want to focus on the sugary-drink thing.” 

“So far, customers really love our coffee,” Rojas said. “When I tell them where I get my beans, they’re even more excited because it shows how I focus on quality. … I feel like if I focus on the simple things and make them perfect, then, you know, maybe then I’ll add one or two new drinks. But for now, I want to stick to the basics and make it the very best possible so people come back.”