SAN LUIS OBISPO SAVED MY LIFE. IN FACT, THE FIRST TIME I saw San Luis Obispo was in a U-Haul truck filled with my humble possessions that I drove here from San Diego after earning my English Degree from SDSU. I started here selling roofing to help out my mom and dad after they moved their roofing business here from Berkeley.”
When I heard those words from Brett Jones, I knew this interview would be filled with surprises. Jones owns two popular coffee houses. The newest and largest cafe is located at 2010 Parker Street, and he opened it about a year ago. The original Nautical Bean can be found at 11560 Los Osos Valley Road. The LOVR business first opened in 1999; Brett has owned it for the past 17 years. However, he made it clear that he worked there as a regular employee for 16 years.
Brett offered me a tour of the facility, and as we weaved our way through several comfortable seating areas, meeting rooms, and semi-private spaces, Brett amiably greeted customers as he led me on a brief tour. His colorful skateboard collection matched his patched jean jacket and array of tattoos. We turned the corner and he pointed out a vintage, signed picture of a youthful Mike Ness—leader of one of the first punk rock groups from Los Angeles. “When I was growing up, punk rock energized me. Mike Ness changed my life, and I am still a huge fan of his band Social Distortion. Heck, my wife and I played one of his songs at our wedding.” Later in the interview, Brett described his struggle overcoming alcoholism (similar to Mike overcoming drug addiction). “Seven years sober and not going back.” Brett flashed a contagious smile that clearly endeared him to his customers who continued to approach him to shake his hand and say hello as we talked.
At one point, I commented on how many of his customers were on their laptops and phones. Brett smiled graciously, yet he didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, I know.” He looked around and witnessed everyone sipping their tea or coffee as they interacted with their virtual world. “Yet, if you step over into this area by the front entrance—no laptops.” Brett pointed to a small sign on each table stating this area was for conversation—not electronics. Next, he bussed a table and took some plates from a customer who thanked him after eating a breakfast burrito. Other store delights include fresh pastries, cookies, and of course some specialty coffees. If one goes on Yelp, one can find great reviews, recommendations, and compliments concerning pricing, atmosphere, and staff.
Brett remains indebted to his staff. “I may be the owner, but my staff and general managers … well, they are the ones making the magic happen: hiring, ordering, coordinating schedules, working out everyday problems, etc. For example, Josh is my general manager at Parker and Leo manages the LOVR site. Leo actually started working at Nautical Bean two years before me; he is like my brother. I can’t thank the two of them enough for their skills.” Brett also complimented his landlord at Parker. “Heidi Williams worked with me every step of the way and allowed me to be creative in setting up my business here. We hit three deal-breaking roadblocks that potentially could have ended the enterprise, but 14 long months later, this place became a reality. These people remain a positive force in my life.”
Brett is married to KJ. “She is amazingly talented and I am crazy in love with her! Oh, her Instagram handle is @the.rooted. yogi; you have to check it out.” Together, they are parents to Zoë, Rozy, and Scarlett— three beautiful daughters. He shared how his father’s roofing business in Fresno grew to be successful and how his parents eventually moved to SLO. Brett spoke about his early training: attending community college, studying abroad, and how his second “college” experience became even more important as he worked his way from the ground up in the service business. He did it all—washing dishes, bussing, bartending, and anything else that provided experience in a field he loved. One turning point occurred when he traveled to Kingston, England where he ended up “pulling beers” and serving customers at a pub. For his labor, he earned a room above the business and one free meal each day. Still, the experience proved most valuable as it helped him realize his passion.
He openly shared how two of his businesses failed. “Yes, I was scared, but my family stepped up by offering their unconditional love and support. Their encouragement made all the difference. So, I rolled up my sleeves and kept trying.” He spoke proudly of his father who told him, “If you want to start a business remember to own the business— not the job.”
Brett shared the human side of his business when he described an older man who was clearly battling dementia or schizophrenia. “Did I pay my bill, Brett? Am I okay sitting here for a few moments?”
“Yes, you are fine, Ron. Yes, you paid your bill. You are okay here …”
Ron breathed a sigh of relief. “Y’know Brett, I gotta say this, I … I want you to know … your place is the best part of my day … every day.”
Brett continued … “I never forgot his name and what he said because that is exactly what I hope my place offers—not just a coffee shop, a positive and pleasant experience for all. I see myself as an entrepreneur more than a businessman. I want Nautical Bean to serve the community, so SLO continues to be a special place. I try to pass my passion on to my employees, and when we hire someone, I am looking for just two things: one involves being a good person and truly caring about the people who come here. The other revolves around understanding a sense of urgency. Will this potential employee own a sense of urgency when it comes time to step up and get something done under pressure … when we are slammed with customers, or if something breaks, or an emergency arises. Will this person be able to act appropriately? That is our hope when we hire.” Brett also mentioned how when he first started working at the LOVR location, kids would come over from the local elementary school to hang out and buy a hot chocolate and a muffin. Fast-forward two decades and those kids are now parents bringing their own children for hot chocolate and the NB experience.
The more we talked, the more I understood the difficulties and risks involved when starting a new business, and how Brett Jones’ personality and experiential base provided the foundation for his growing success. He shared his philosophy concerning the importance of vulnerability, of empowering and trusting other people, and of giving back to one’s community. “I invite community groups who are trying to accomplish positive things in our county to use my space for free. I want to be a positive force here in SLO; after all, this special city saved my life by helping me ground myself and become the person I knew I could be.”