Credit: Lauren Brown | Mustang News

Kin Coffee Bar in downtown San Luis Obispo was in its first few months of opening when the pandemic hit. Owner Julian Contreras broke the news to his staff: the shop would close for good.

The next day, his employees opened on their own, donating their time to keep the shop alive.

“I saw the strength behind that I went and got a night-time job,” he said. “I was working nights and then opening up the shop and they would close it.”

Since then, Contreras has been working to pay his employees and has still not taken home a paycheck. 

According to the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, 340 local businesses closed between March 17, 2020 to December 1, 2020.

While Kin has been staying busy over the last few months, Contreras’s biggest challenge has been keeping his workers employed due to lower revenue. 

“They were pushing to keep the shop open and I was pushing to pay them,” Contreras said.

YouTube video

Video by Lauren Brown 

Mustang News spoke with Contreras to learn more about what makes Kin Coffee Bar unique and how they have been surviving this year. Below is a Q&A of what he had to say. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Why did you start Kin Coffee Bar?

“I was doing coffee competitions, and it was very difficult when you had to be very innovative and think out of the box then go back to a coffee shop that was very streamlined and very predictable — cappuccinos, lattes, caramel, all that stuff. When I felt like I reached my peak, I didn’t have another shop I could go to that allowed me to have my experience be put to use with innovative drinks. With a lot of help from friends, I was able to acquire a building. My best friend’s dad is a woodshop teacher at the high school, so he helped me build out the whole shop, and a lot of other community members from different coffee shops helped me with machinery. There was a lot of communal support. They made it possible to open up something like this. This was six months before COVID-19. It was August 2019, but our grand opening was late September, so we were barely getting a grasp of things. Then everything kind of hit.”

What sets you apart from everyone else?

“We don’t hold back with our music or our art or the way we talk to people; we really are as raw as we can be. I believe it’s super important to have that so you can connect with people as opposed to being like, ‘oh hey, I’m doing good.’ If you tell someone you’re doing not so well, you can have that connection with somebody and help each other. It doesn’t really have to be that fake.”

Why are you so engaged on social media and in your shop on political topics?

“I got picked on a lot when I was a kid. I got picked on for having long hair, wearing super tight clothes and for being emo. I battled with trying to fit in in those ways, and when I did fit in, it was never with the right people. I know how it is to not have a place. The one place that really saved me when I was younger was Linnaea’s Cafe. I used to go there after school when I was in high school and junior high, and it was very artsy and communal there. They still do a very good job of making people feel safe. I think it is very important that now as a business owner, now that we have a very good following, that it’s up to us as a staff that we speak up on the subjects that a lot of people don’t want to hear about. A lot of people just want you to open up and run a business, but we want to open up and change the way business is run.”

Have you received any negative feedback for being so vocal on social media and in your shop on these issues?

“There’s always going to be someone who disagrees, but we have very core values, and you just gotta be kind and be cool with each other. I don’t want to be negative toward anybody, but we are very outspoken. If you are rude to our staff, we’re going to be rude to you. It’s kind of a play on both ends. I feel like the whole ‘the customer is always right’ thing is dead. You really need to be able to be genuine with people.”

What are your goals for Kin?

“Our major goal was to compete in coffee competitions nationally, so once they open back up, we really want to put San Luis Obispo on the map for coffee. I think we kind of get lost in the sea of San Francisco and L.A. and there’s a lot of really good places, you just need someone to take the first jump.”

Is there anything else you think people should know about Kin Coffee Bar?

“We are here for anybody that needs a space. You will find very quickly that a lot of the staff and myself kind of have been through a lot of our own growing up and we can very much understand how a lot of people may feel. We are not just here to make coffee; we are really here to get to know everybody that comes in. If you haven’t tried us out, do so. We’re dope and we love you either way, but always keep it local and support one another, tell each other you love each other, and put your money in the right place.”

Reporters Lauren Brown and Lauryn Luescher interviewed Contreras. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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