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Inspiring Conversations with Jon and Brenna Furness of Coffee Connection

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jon and Brenna Furness.

Hi Jon and Brenna, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
My wife, Brenna, and I own Coffee Connection in Ojai, CA. Our love for coffee and community goes back to 1999 when we met in the largest coffee producing country in the world, Brazil. Having just arrived in the dusty town of Santarem, Brazil little did I know that the first American I was to meet would someday be my wife. As part of the faith-based organized called Project Amazon, both Brenna and I were involved in medical and dental outreach clinics on the Tapajos River as well as participating in water filtration projects, teaching English and other service projects. The Amazon Region of Brazil was a far cry from Carlisle, England, the place of my birth. Feeling the need to see the world and help others was the impetus for my trip to Brazil. Brenna, born and raised in the valley town of Ojai, California, had some friends that lived and worked in Santarem and had committed to spending the last three months of 1999 visiting and working with them. We soon struck up a friendship, and on our days off found ourselves visiting the local cafes for lunch or dinner and a cafezinho, a small espresso-like cup of coffee. It was there our love for coffee would blossom and over the course of the next few years, our love would grow. Brenna left Brazil in late December of 1999, and it would be four years before I would see her again. After six months in Brazil, I headed back to England to continue my studies, enrolling in University and working. Brenna was in Ojai doing the same thing. Those were the days of AOL Instant Messenger, snail mail and phone calls over the landline. Those times were frequent and grew in nature from casual conversation to connection. I decided it was time to meet up again and after four years of a long-distance friendship, I set off for Los Angeles. 

Brenna wasn’t the 19 years old that had waved me goodbye down the dusty path to the airport, years had passed, she was about to graduate, she seemed different than I remember and I was different too. However, it was clear that we both fond of each other. When I met her at the customs gate, I fumbled the newspaper and accidentally dropping my passport as we hugged for the first time in so many years. It was clear friendship had developed into something more. We had a whirlwind two weeks together, in which we decided that we would be “more than friends” and refrain from seeing other people. I flew back to England, eventually we finished college, got engaged and committed our lives to each other on the most perfect Autumn day in October 2004. We were young and decided that opening a coffee house would be an amazing dream come true. Our love for coffee, people and each other intersected the day we opened Coffee Connection in 2006. By that time, we had our beautiful baby daughter named Roenne and a son, Oliver, was on the way. We knew early in the decision-making process that we wanted our coffee to be organic and fair trade that we wanted a community shop with local art on the walls and a hang out vibe. Back then, we felt like risk taking was spending every penny of our savings on a coffee house dream because the thought of being 40 one day and wishing we had tried it felt all too real. I come from a family of small business owners, my mothers family and her mother’s family were Newsagents, my father joined the family business and together, they have spent 40 years building and running our family businesses. So it felt right that we should give it a shot.

Since we had no credit to our name, we were unable to obtain small business loans for our buildout. We instead worked and saved and paid for each step our build out little by little. On our opening day, we offered all drinks $1. We served just over 100 customers and that kicked off what would be Ojai’s #1 Coffee House for more years in a row than I can remember! Early on, we decided that we would give the business five years and then we would move on to other careers. But after a third baby, beautiful Jack and then a fourth, wonderful Matilda Jane we were in deep and Brenna would take a step back from the business to be at home with the kids. We eventually got a wild hair and opened a second location. Our customers were thrilled! We ran our two shops with love and every single bit of energy was poured into our community. In 2017, the largest wildfire in California history surrounded our town in flames. Under mandatory evacuation, our employees fled The Thomas Fire and we closed the doors to our second location, not knowing whether they would ever open again. Brenna’s entire family, both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins live in Ojai and we stayed back to help with her grandparents. Our flagship coffee house remained open, it became a refuge for firefighters and first responders.

Our power grid was never shut down, so it served as a hub for the locals to reach their loved ones, to charge up devices and get a warm cup of coffee. The love poured in from all over the world and there was not a firefighter who had to pay for their drink. Our little shop made it through and eventually a few days later, we resumed business at our second location. A year passed and we decided that we wanted to scale back to one location, we sold that shop to one of our employees, Hannah, who has done a wonderful job of making it her own. Back down to one location we were able to focus on our community, giving back to local nonprofits, sponsoring sports teams and doing life with our customers. By the time 2020 rolled around, we were burning the candle at both ends, busier than ever when March came around. We celebrated our 14th year in business and the following week, our state went on mandatory lockdown during the covid crisis. With our employees too scared to work, our kids out of school and the inability to pivot to online sales so quickly, we had to close our doors. On March 18, we closed the doors with heavy hearts, not knowing what would become of our beloved little shop. We remained closed for five weeks. It felt like the carpet had been pulled from underneath our feet. And never had it been more abundantly clear to us that our community is really what Coffee Connection is about, coffee is just the perk!!

Like so many businesses in our position, we went through the ups and downs of applying for loans and unemployment, only to realize that the measure of our success as a business has never been about what’s flowing into the bank, it’s about who’s walking through the doors, it’s about the laborer, the screenwriter, the teacher, the actress, the stay-at-home-mom, the artist, the writer, the gardener, the teen on their way to school that keeps our doors open and our hearts full. They say coffee is addicting, then you start working with people and their love and generosity wrecks you—the real addiction is to the people and their stories of life. The simple story is the coffee, and yes we serve it, all organic single origin light, medium and dark roast everyday, the simple story is the milk alternatives and the designer drinks. The successful story is the love, its the connection, the community that we have become so entrenched in. The people who make Coffee Connection what it is. Our tag line is “Your community coffee and espresso bar”, it operates like an invitation — come be part of what’s yours, come to your place, your home, come get connected, come be with us. And now, on the cusp of our 15th year in business, it’s back to the basics, just Brenna and I, our 15 years old daughter Roenne, half the operating hours and profit but an endless gain of love and hope and our community keeping our doors open.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
For the most part, the road has been smooth, small business has its ups and downs, we have had three significant setbacks, the financial crisis of 2008, the Thomas Fire and Covid 19 Crisis. The customer service industry in California was deeply impacted by all three of these events. The struggles are known when to pivot and in which direction—-do you scale back, do you scale wide, etc. In the financial crisis of 2008, we scaled wider, so we did our best to broaden our customer base by adjusting our prices to be more equitable. We offered more for the money, including a richer experience–faster wifi, daily newspapers and fresh-baked offerings–but that meant we scaled back personally–stayed in an apartment as opposed to a house, cheaper rent used cars, etc. The Thomas Fire taught us the importance of an emergency protocol and the covid 19 crisis showed us the importance of having a savings.

As you know, we’re big fans of Coffee Connection. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about the brand?
Coffee Connection is a mom n’ pop coffee house specializing in organic coffee and amazing customer service. We are community-oriented, we believe in giving back to the people who support us. Our coffee house is supported by community locals who keep the doors open with a steady of flow of diverse people from all walks of life. Our coffee is priced to allow access to a broad base of demographics, truly believing that all people should have access to great coffee. We believe in small business and we use our platform in the community to promote and partner with other small businesses. We are most proud of the quality of our product, from the moment we serve you to the moment you finish your drink. We are proud to offer a little something for everyone including milk alternatives. We are not afraid of complicated preferences and we are not above creating drinks that make our customers happy. We promise quality and freshness and a kind interaction. We are known in the community as being a place for all people and we are set apart by our consistency in product and customer service but also in our offerings to the community — a place where we call you by name, memorize your drink, take a moment to shoot the breeze with you and a place where you feel welcome everyday. We value every dollar that is spent in our business and honor our customer’s choice to spend their resources at our shop.

Have you learned any interesting or important lessons due to the Covid-19 Crisis?
Having business savings is as important as personal savings, nothing comes fast! Having a great relationship with vendors and landlords, etc., will yield great rewards in a time of crisis! If vendors know they can count on you to pay your bills, then they will be more likely to extend grace periods. Having a great relationship with the landlord is key, open communication and respect for the roles and responsibilities of each party is super important when it comes to dealing with a crisis like covid. Having thick skin in the customer service industry is always helpful, remembering to not take criticisms personally in a time of crisis because everyone who walks into the shop is stepping out from their own issues and you never know what their narrative is. Social media seems to be the fastest way to get emergency information and access to resources, so knowing how to navigate those platforms has been helpful. Having a backup plan for income is helpful, knowing what your options are and keeping a diversified skill set can be extremely valuable during a crisis like covid.

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Image Credits

All photos were taken by Jonathan and Brenna Furness

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1 Comment

  1. Marina & John Bailey

    February 17, 2021 at 06:35

    We enjoyed reading your story very much and we wish you all the best for the future.xx

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