Shane Balasbas, Jason Naraja and their son Kaizen stand in front of their new coffee shop, Kaizen and Coffee, in San Mateo. Courtesy Jason Naraja.
By Kate Bradshaw
Five years ago, married couple Jason Naraja and Shane Balasbas weren't coffee people.
Then their son Kaizen was born.
Partly driven by the sleep deprivation that comes with becoming parents, they jumped full force into the world of coffee, training at the Texas Coffee School and Barista Hustle, and asking regional coffee leaders for tastings. Later, when the pandemic hit, they joined the many people who took on the study of coffee science as serious home baristas.
Nearly four years into their journey, they opened the doors of Kaizen and Coffee, a new specialty coffee shop in San Mateo, on March 31. The name is a double reference to both their son and the Japanese concept of continuous improvement.
"We felt San Mateo is a pretty underserved market for specialty coffee," Naraja said. There's Blue Bottle and Philz, but few mom-and-pop coffee shops in town, he said.
The menu offers traditional coffee drinks, like espresso-based beverages and pour-overs, alongside tea drinks like a matcha latte, mango matcha and a houjicha latte. Specialty coffee beverages are crafted with syrups made in-house and include flavors like ube, Tahitian vanilla bean, honey lavender and black sesame with oat milk. They also offer an item called the "Mission Mocha," made with Dandelion chocolate, Vietnamese cinnamon, Gochugaru red pepper and heavy cream.
The shop carries pastries from the East Bay-based Firebrand Artisan Breads, and they’re working on developing further dining options. "We want to be the bridge for people new to specialty coffee," Naraja said.
Between when the couple started learning about coffee and the day they opened their doors for business, the family-run cafe went through a series of tribulations.
The location they leased had previously been a music studio offering piano lessons, and so they had to outfit the location to accommodate their plumbing and electrical needs to make it a cafe. A series of delays had the couple wondering whether they were making the right decision, he said. But they were finally able to open their doors and the reception has so far been positive.
"It's definitely a proud moment. People are coming in and bringing their friends," he said. "It's a great sign."
Coffee beans are primarily sourced from Black and White Roasters in North Carolina, but they also use beans from Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas and Friedhats in Amsterdam.
The biggest surprise about running a coffee shop? "It's such a hustle," said Naraja.
There are many small details that have to be accounted for, he said. Sometimes the cafe will be working with only a skeleton crew, with two people covering stations that could easily occupy three or four people. When there’s a rush, maintaining quality while keeping the wait times low, not to mention managing tasks like working with vendors, maintaining equipment and preparing sauces, can add up.
"It's harder than I thought it would be. But we're getting the hang of it," he added.
Kaizen & Coffee, ??2337 S El Camino Real, San Mateo, Instagram: @kaizenandcoffee.