Ten years after opening the doors for business at 1929 Menalto Ave., peace, love and community – the three words that owner Kathleen Daly initially chose to embody the values of her new enterprise – remain as important to Cafe Zoe as ever.
The Menlo Park spot, which has expanded its hours to stay open during evenings and now plays host to knitting nights, trivia nights, live music and more, is dedicated to filling a need for a down-to-earth, community-focused hub. It's something that most people don't even know they need until they've stepped through the doors, Daly said.
How it started
It all started in the spring of 2008, when Kathleen Daly was working at a medical device company, but hungry for a professional change. The company, where she served a range of roles, began to grow. "As they got bigger, I got antsy and couldn't take it," she said in an interview with The Almanac. "It took 10 meetings to make a decision," she said. "Corporate life was no longer for me."
She saw an ad for a retail spot that looked like it was in a "random location," at the corner of Menalto and Gilbert avenues in Menlo Park.
She initially ignored the ad, but when the price was lowered, she went to check out the space. She said she felt instantly at home when she met a disabled veteran from Veterans Affairs in Menlo Park, who greeted her warmly. She has a brother who is disabled.
She agreed to take the location, though she knew very little about how to run a cafe.
"I didn't even drink coffee at the time," Daly said.
The proprietor of the previous business at the location, Cafe Espresso 1929, taught Daly about coffee. "He told me everything I needed to do that he wasn't doing," she said.
Zoe Sharkey, Daly's daughter, was 14 at the time. Once the cafe opened, Daly said, it quickly became an extension of their living room. The other employees were like older brothers and sisters to Sharkey, she said, and she would fall asleep on the chairs at the cafe doing her homework when she was a high school student at Pinewood School.
After attending Columbia College Chicago, Sharkey graduated with a degree in live and performance arts management and quickly put it, and other business savvy, to use back at the cafe she shares her name with.
She graduated in June 2015, and since then has worked at the cafe full-time alongside her mom, fulfilling roles as a barista, food preparer, event manager, and on some nights, trivia host.
"Anything beyond the regular day goes through me," she summarized.
The cafe received a beer and wine license in 2016, and Sharkey has played an instrumental role in expanding the business' evening programs.
"This is a great space for a happy hour and music," she said. "We don't even charge ticket fees. We just want people to see the local musicians we're booking."
Mother and daughter have had to learn to work together. Sharkey said her mom is the "best and worst boss": They generally get along well, but occasionally, she added, "We're so alike, sometimes we butt heads."
And like many mothers, Daly knows her daughter's potential "to be the best" and doesn't permit slacking, Sharkey said.
For Daly's part, she said she values the companionship of her business partner: "It's lonely at the top," she said. "It's no longer as lonely. ... Now I don't have to be by myself."
But the fact that they're working together doesn't mean they're necessarily working less. Both agree they walk a delicate balance between keeping up with the latest trends and sticking with reliable business practices that enable them to make ends meet. For instance, they don't accept Apple Pay, but they do provide Wi-Fi albeit with a caveat that it may not be as good as can be had at chains like Starbucks or Peet's, which have wider profit margins, they noted.
"We're here more than our own home," Daly said.
So what keeps them going? To some degree, it's altruism, they said.
"If we were just competing with who makes the prettiest avocado toast, we would be miserable," Daly said. "If this were just a shop to sell coffee and sandwiches, I couldn't do it. It has more to do with connections, people, community (and the) sense of joy that you get from that."
Since the space opened, the cafe has had as a key focal point an emphasis on supporting the broader community. The cafe partners with Get Human, a nonprofit that organizes fundraising campaigns for different community needs.
Recently, the cafe helped to raise funds to purchase risers for Willow Oaks Elementary School so that all the kids can be visible during school performances.
After seeing the risers in use at the school, Daly said, "Your heart swells ... . That's what makes it worth it."
The business has also contributed art tables to Willow Oaks School, cooked dinners at the Menlo Park VA, and supported local organizations like Meals on Wheels and Warrior K9 Connection.
Barbara Coll, who considers herself "one of the dedicated regulars," said she goes to the cafe five days a week, and just about always runs into someone she knows. Lately she's also been helping out with trivia nights.
"It's our neighborhood place," she said. She and a group of her girlfriends gather there each Saturday at 10 a.m. "That's the Willows gang," she said. "I can't imagine not having that place there."
Looking ahead after the first 10 years, Daly said she thinks there's more that could be done. Perhaps the location could expand its space, or deepen the menu, but she said she needs to do some market research first. She and her daughter have assembled an "advisory committee" – a loose term for the collection of friends who, Daly said, "after a couple of glasses of wine start telling me what to do."
One of those "advisers" is Michael Perez, who lives around the corner from the cafe and said he visits it most mornings. He said he has encouraged the shop to put up signs on Willow Road saying something to the effect of, "Traffic sucks, but discount beer doesn't" in an attempt to draw commuters to take advantage of the cafe's happy hour while waiting out traffic.
He offered an adage he'd heard from a friend that it's important every once in a while to remind yourself that you're a human being, not a human doing.
"That's the vibe this cafe really creates," he said. "It's disruptive in the finest sense of Silicon Valley." It's disruptive, he added, because it is a contrast to the profit-first model.
Daly, he said, has a "people-first attitude" and is "not afraid to take a stand on things." She has inspired him, he said, to "do more than roll my eyes and throw up my hands in response to what we've allowed Silicon Valley to become."
Living in Silicon Valley, he said, it can be easy to get a skewed sense of what success looks like. The cafe fosters an alternative paradigm.
"It's not whether your house and car are amazing. It's whether your work has had a real and substantial impact on those around you," he said. "I feel like what Kathleen, Zoe, and Kathleen's niece Jessa started – what they've built here, having a positive impact on the community – is amazing."
Cafe Zoe is open Mondays and Tuesdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesdays through Fridays from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. It's closed Sundays.
Go to cafezoehub.com for more information and to access the cafe's event calendar.