by Katie Roe
To get from Irvine to Fullerton you take three different freeways. It’s a relatively short trip that takes you from the coast of Southern California to the smaller more clustered cities of Northern Orange County. Along the way you pass 45 Starbucks, many of which you can see just off the freeway. In an age of busier people always looking for a caffeine boost and wireless internet the demand for coffee shops has caused an explosion of chain businesses that offer just that. However, in the heart of Fullerton, just down the street from the 85-year-old Fox Theater, McClain’s Coffee House is nestled neatly into the scenery. It’s small and quaint. Resembling an old house, complete with backyard and patio it is picturesque to say the least. McClain’s offers a different kind of experience. It’s open until 3am, tentatively. And the occasional live local music creates a buzz that anyone driving down Harbor Boulevard could easily be drawn to. But the one thing that really sets McClain’s apart is the woman who stands behind the counter.
Kam McClain is 40 years old. She’s never been married and her favorite outfit consists of her old tattered Rolling Stones t-shirt and a pair of baggy jeans. She has long red hair that has seldom known the freedom outside of a loose bun on the top of her head. She’s loud and brazen and knows nothing of the meaning of subtly. She owns McClain’s. It’s her business. From the old velvet couches to the hand written menu to the Tommy Bahama’s umbrellas on the porch. It is, in a word, her baby and she fights for it like a mother would for her child. The coffee house is like a terrarium. It allows for a glimpse into the adversities that a business owner faces, while testing the limits of its customer’s patience. Despite its humble exterior it continues to throw traditional business tactics to the wind forcing the public to question if our expectations as customers are simply too high?
It’s 10 o’clock on a Thursday night. Kam McClain is busy behind the counter. Milk is steaming and there’s a bagel in the toaster oven waiting to be taken out to some hungry patron on the patio. There’s a young man sitting on a stool in what once was the living room of this small one story home-turned-business. He’s playing music, something by The Beatles. With her head buried in the reach in cooler she motions to the next person in line. This means she’s ready to take their order. Unfortunately for him he doesn’t know that. He hesitates, looking nervously up at the hanging menu and then back at her. She looks up at him. “What can I get ya?” there’s a tinge of annoyance in her tone. He mumbles something, completely inaudible over the guitar playing a few feet away. She gives him a blank stare, seemingly willing him to speak again and louder this time. He says nothing. It’s awkward. After a few moments Kam speaks again, “You’re gonna have to speak up, I literally can’t hear a damn thing.” She turns her back to him grabbing the giant tub of cream cheese and heading toward the toaster oven. “Just a coffee”, he says, this time just loud enough to be heard. He feels uncomfortable, anyone watching could tell but Kam is unphased. “That’ll be $1.50! Did you want room for cream?” A smile spreads across her face. She’s no longer irritated, not even in the slightest. It was a momentary frustration, much like the ones she faces each and everyday and to her it meant nothing. The man takes his coffee, gives a strange look to his friend and heads out to the patio. Meanwhile, Kam is on to the next person in line. Hoping, no doubt, that maybe they’ll take a little more initiative in their ordering process. Kam’s interaction with her customers is an odd thing to watch. At times its uncomfortable but more than that it’s fascinating. She dictates the mood of her shop and refuses to put on a fake acquiescent smile for the customers that don’t speak up, or ask dumb questions or make ridiculous demands. It’s incredible. All across Orange County, and the nation, customer service employees are being engrained with the simple mentality that “the customer is always right” and here Kam is, pointing out the exact moment when a customer is wrong.
In order to understand Kam as a businesswoman it’s important first to just understand Kam as a regular woman. Growing up in Westminster she started working in food service when she was 19 years old. She worked at coffee shops in San Clemente and Newport Beach California, always loving the business but wishing her experience with customers was more personal. “Nobody just came to the counter and asked ‘Hey! How you doin’ today”. It was just ‘I need a mocha’ and that was it”. When Rockin’ Java, a coffeehouse in Newport, asked her to manage a new location in Fullerton Kam jumped at the chance. She had never been to Fullerton but she loved its personality as soon as she first visited. From 1994 to 1999 she managed the Fullerton location of Rockin’ Java. She noticed immediately the ways in which she was limited by not owning the business herself. “It was a situation where the owners would come and collect the money and be like ‘Bye, take care of it!” But she didn’t have the authority to send loiterers away or stand up for herself and her coworkers. In 1999 Rockin’ Java was going out of business and Kam saw this as the perfect opportunity to create her own “perfect” version of the coffeehouses she had been working in since she was 19. She worked out a last minute deal with a friend of hers who was looking to invest some money and all of the sudden she was a 29 year old single woman with her own business. Just like that, she was in charge.
McClain’s has a strict set of unspoken and unwritten rules that make for a pleasant experience. First and foremost, no loitering. Plain and simple, every person in every group must buy something. With the extended hours and the cozy heated patio McClain’s calls to the broke college students who only want a place to study. Everyone must make a purchase, no exceptions, problem solved. Secondly, McClain’s is cash only. There’s an ATM but it’s often broken. All it takes is one trip to learn the cash only rule. Lastly, “don’t be an idiot”. Just don’t ask dumb questions and don’t order a Frappuccino, its not Starbucks. These rules seem a little harsh but to Kam they are common sense. She acts surprised each time someone breaks one of these rules and in a strange way, when you really think about it, she sort of has a point. Why is it that every time someone walks into a coffee shop they suddenly lose their ability to make decisions, speak clearly and be polite? Why is it that many people must visit the same establishment multiple times in order to feel comfortable enough to do these things? These are questions that we, as customers may never consider. But Kam considered them long ago and decided to run a business that broke these stereotypical norms. As soon as she bought the business she new exactly the kind of place she wanted McClain’s to be. For the first time in her career she was able to say, “you, you, you, you and you go down to the train station and hang out there. They don’t care if you buy something or not… but I need to pay bills.” For the first time this business was her livelihood and she had be decide who she wanted to welcome and who she wanted to send elsewhere. She faced a lot of opposition. It isn’t very often that businesses actually turn customers away. But Kam wanted everyone to feel comfortable. She wanted her regulars to be able to count on having a nice environment free of loitering teenagers who talk too loud and leave their trash everywhere. It seemed like a simple enough expectation but people don’t like being told what to do, they don’t often like getting anything but unquestioning service from the person behind the counter. “In the beginning when you get called ‘bitch’ so many times, it can break you down a little bit but you have to remember, this is my business, this is what I have to do”. But what is it about Kam’s execution of these rules that causes such harsh resistance from her younger customers?
Christina is a 21-year-old college student from the University of California Berkeley. She visited McClain’s late one Saturday night during a visit to Southern California. Someone she knew recommended it and she was simply looking for a place to continue the conversation with her friends and maybe play some games. Her first impression was a good one. “The big couches made the place look really welcoming, and the casual hangout space outside was not typical of coffee shops, but it was a great idea.” Some of the people in her group purchased drinks while the rest went outside to find a table. Without any hesitation Kam came outside and made them painfully aware of the rules. She also scolded them for leaving trash under their seats and bringing in outside drinks, a Vitamin water to be exact. Christina was appalled and left dissatisfied and vowing never to return to McClain’s. “I don’t expect to be treated like royalty every time I walk through a store, but every customer deserves to be treated with minimal respect and courtesy. It’s a business owner’s obligation to see to it that their customers are at the very least satisfied and McClain’s fails to do so.” Christina made her observations objectively and had no qualms about reporting her experience in a negative review about McClain’s on the Internet. However, when talking to those who understand what Kam is trying to do it begins to make these seemingly justifiable complaints more difficult to sympathize with.
Fullerton is home to one of the most successful business schools in the country. California State University Fullerton lures in 60,000 applicants each year, the majority of which intend on declaring a major in Business or some form of it. Even taking into account the thousands that are denied admission, or change their major or drop out at some point in their college experience this still suggests that thousands of Business students graduate each year “fully prepared” for the world that Kam McClain has found her place within. According to the 2007 census, there are 285,242 business firms in Orange Country and of these firm, only 27% are owned by women. Each of these owners, female and male alike are facing a new generation of customers each year. A generation of youth that is growing up during a recession. A generation of youth that is graduating college with business degrees but being turned away from jobs that would allow them to use their education. An article in the New York Times reports that, as of 2009, 25.5% of teenagers are looking for jobs and can’t find them and 24% of college graduates are unemployed. These numbers are the highest they’ve been in 30 years and all the while small business owners like Kam McClain are being forced to deal with a youth that has still failed to learn the value of the dollar. The young people that go to McClain’s don’t have the money to pay five dollars three times a week for coffee but they still want to feel like they are living life, going out, and spending time with friends. Although their situation is an unfortunate one, this does not mean Kam doesn’t have to pay her bills and make ends meet on the minimal average salary of a small business owner. If anything, it seems that these business owners would have to put all inclinations to build friendly relationships with their customers aside in order to ensure the success of their business during these trying times. With this in mind Kam’s ability to find a medium starts to look altogether remarkable.
“It might just sound like an old person saying this but being a high school coach I can see how kids are just handed everything these days. They feel like things need to be given to them even when they go out to a coffee shop.” Kam’s boyfriend Tim has been there all along. He has seen the attitude she gets from customers and the only admiration he has is for the fact that she doesn’t let people treat her any way they want. “It’s not very often that you meet someone who will openly put you in your place for a second and then be cool with you the next time they see you”, he says. And this is exactly it. What Kam does is treat every customer like they are an old acquaintance. There is no such thing as strangers as McClain’s. She doesn’t believe in awkwardly serving each person with a fake smile. Instead, she lets people know when their getting under her skin but never holds a grudge. In some strange way she is single handedly rehumanizing the food service industry… one angry customer at a time. And every so often she’ll “get someone who comes in and apologizes. They just put out their hand and say ‘I’m so sorry, we used to be such little brats.’ And it’s so nice to see that, to see that they grew up.” Perhaps these, once angry, customers, realized what so many of us are still struggling to see. We are lucky to encounter people like Kam McClain. She makes us remember, if only for a second, that the person behind the counter, the one taking your order, or making your drinks, really is just a person trying to make a living.
A man walks into McClain’s with an awkward look on his face. Kam senses it immediately. “What’s up?” she says. “I, uh, I threw my cup away on accident but I wanted a refill.” He kind of shrugs his shoulders. If you bring your original cup back in you can get a refill for only a quarter. He knows this. “You know what man, it’s okay. I see you in here a lot. What is it that you were drinking?” Kam smiles and reaches for the cup. A relieved look washes across his face. Kam laughs loudly. Her laughter fills the whole room. This is her take on customer service. She’s nice to the people who she deems worthy and she’s feisty with the ones she senses need a reality check. It’s revolutionary to say the least. But hey, who’s to say you’d do it any differently if it were you behind the counter?
Hour and a half interview with Kam McClain
Half an hour interview with Tim O’Donovan
Weekly observing once or twice a week for ten weeks
Yelp reviews of McClain’s
Email correspondences with two unhappy former customers of McClain’s
Statistics from the Census Bureau
Statistics from the New York Times and College News websites