Nick Cho, Co-Founder, Wrecking Ball Coffee
Nick Cho is a man of few words, but when he speaks, he speaks with certainty, clarity, and a little bit of candor. The co-founder of Wrecking Ball Coffee (alongside his co-founder and wife, Trish Rothgeb) has gained critical-acclaim from customer to critics alike. But not only making waves with his brews, the couple have made it incredibly clear what the message of the coffee industry should be going forward. We stopped into the Wrecking Ball Coffee spot on Union St. to talk shop, people, and the age of the internet with Nick.
The name “Wrecking Ball,” how did you and your biz partner decide on the name? Where, what, and why?
For us, “Wrecking Ball” comes from the idea that while it’s popular to talk about change, we often forget about the necessary step of clearing away the stuff that’s being replaced. It’s something that takes daily arduous work, rather than one big dramatic implosion. Whether it’s about changing the way people think about coffee, or dismantling patriarchal misogyny and racism, change can get messy, and we’re the image of the wrecking ball helps us remember that. To be absolutely clear, we predated both the song by Bruce Springsteen and especially the one by Miley Cyrus, but when we decided on the name back in 2009, the Emmylou Harris song was stuck in our heads for weeks.
But also how did you get involved in the complex world of coffee? We want to hear the full story. From Murky Coffee to now!
I started in the coffee industry by opening a cafe in 2002 in Washington DC called Murky Coffee. All I wanted to do was to be able to take care of my employees the best way I knew how (without having to answer to bosses), and to make better coffee than Starbucks. Within a year or two, I realized that what I was trying to do was part of a larger evolution in the coffee industry that was just taking off. So my professional life was split between running a neighborhood cafe and volunteering for industry organizations and events. All the while, I was learning so much so quickly, and I did my best to share what I was learning with my staff and with others in the industry. Wrecking Ball is my second company, and I run it with my wife Trish, who is a leading expert in roasting and coffee tasting. My specialty is brewing and barista-stuff. Together, we spend our time traveling the world, speaking at various events and conferences, in between the time we’re running our two cafes and little roasting company. Also, tweeting. Lots and lots of tweeting.
You seem to have major street cred. You’re one of the directors on the Barista Guild of America’s Executive Council, on the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Board of Directors, on the World Barista Championship Board of Directors, and the chairman of the United States Barista Championship. You are also the 2006 South East Regional Barista Champion. Tell us how you juggle responsibility with the SF-based store and family? Tips and tricks?
Yeah, I’m from the streets—the mean streets of McLean, Virginia (kidding… McLean is a cushy AF suburb). The thing is, while I’m not religious at all anymore, I used to have this amazing church pastor when I was a teenager who really taught me how to think about life and the world, and he taught me that our purpose in life should be to “creatively disturb one another.” While privileged people like me tend to like to maintain peace and comfort at all costs, I’ve always embraced discomfort, challenges, and the idea that the “human condition” is a fucked up thing. So I guess with that core value, plus a certain degree of creativity and intellect, I’ve found myself with an outsized influence beyond what’s appropriate for this little coffee company we’re running in San Francisco. Juggling everything in my life and work has been about developing those core ideas and purposes, and living them out, especially when it’s difficult. I’m grateful every day to have a partner in Trish with whom we share the commitment to this sort of life. There are no tips, there are no tricks. It’s about a constant struggle to decide what goodness and love and justice and equity means, every day… and the commitment to doing so in yourself.
As a father with teenage girls—in some essence, you’re the epitome of cool dad. What does that look like as a business owner, co-founder, and so on.
I don’t know if I’m a “cool dad,” but what I do know is that I’m supposed to say that I don’t know if I’m a cool dad. In any case, my thing about parenting is that people are always talking about having good kids, but good “kids” isn’t important, it’s about them becoming (to the best of their ability) emotionally, mentally, and physically healthy adults. That said, my kids have nice sneakers. I’m gonna make sure of that.
What’s something about the coffee industry you hope to improve on? This is open-ended because we’re wanting to hear your honest opinion.
Hopes and dreams for Wrecking Ball Coffee—again, open-ended because we want to encourage a stream of consciousness answer.
The same thing: Equality and equity for non-men, black and brown people, and LGBTQ folk, in all aspects. Making that come true in our work and in everything that we do, that’s gonna be what consumes me in the next phase of my life’s work.
What are key thoughts on someone wanting to blossom in the coffee industry, specifically Bay Area? Any advice?
You should probably go blossom in some other industry. The coffee industry is especially crowded here in the Bay Area, and it’s getting worse. Were these supposed to be fun answers? I’m sorry if they were, cause in that case I sure ‘effed that up.
// wreckingballcoffee.com; 2271 Union St.