Anonymous Buyer Saves Mountain View’s Red Rock Café

Thanks to someone’s generosity, a Mountain View institution will keep grinding away.

Red Rock Coffee—the beloved café that’s served as a community hub for 15 years—was in danger of folding as it incurred huge revenue losses from the pandemic.

Thankfully for anyone who works for or patronizes the coffeehouse, an anonymous buyer recently finalized a deal to purchase Red Rock from its previous owner, Highway Community, a Christian church with campuses in Mountain View and Palo Alto.

“I don’t have the right words or enough words to say how content I am,” Jean Boulanger, Red Rock’s general manager since 2005, said in an interview with San Jose Inside.

Even though Boulanger always held out hope that Red Rock—located on the corner of Castro and Villa streets in downtown—could survive its current financial crisis, the stark reality was that its demise seemed imminent.

In late July, a GoFundMe was launched to save Red Rock from extinction and transition it into a nonprofit entity independent from the church.

The campaign—though it raised over $90,000—still fell short of its $300,000 goal. An additional $120,000 in outside contributions and a grant raised Red Rock’s fundraising total to $200,000. But “it was going to be a stretch in trying to make it with that,” said John Riemenschnitter, a Highway Community pastor and one of Red Rock’s co-founders.

In mid-August, a couple of weeks after Red Rock kicked off fundraising, about a half-dozen people came forward with offers to help in a more substantial way. One of them eventually turned out to be the anonymous buyer.

“It is just amazing that all of our efforts and hopes were not in vain,” Boulanger said. “That being good matters and doing good things matters and expending ourselves to exhaustion to make Red Rock what it is matters. The support we’ve received from the community has been overwhelming.”

It’s no surprise that literally hundreds of people made a monetary donation or sent well wishes to the Red Rock staff. The coffee shop isn’t just a place where people go to get a cup of joe; it’s a place where in pre-pandemic times they gathered for business deals, counseling sessions, open mic nights, kids’ story time, board game nights, knitting activities and fundraiser concerts for various nonprofits.

It’s steeped in Red Rock lore that, for a decade, WhatsApp co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton regularly met at Red Rock, often times using it as their work space. In 2014, Koum sold WhatsApp to Facebook in a $19-billion deal.

Red Rock was a constant hub of activity, bringing in different sectors of the community.

It’s safe to assume the person who bought Red Rock spent a lot of time at the place and like many members in the community has a profound love for the coffee shop.

“Silicon Valley is the only place I can see something like this purchase happening,” Riemenschnitter said. “This person has enjoyed our coffee, our second floor as a workspace, and apparently everything else we do to build community, like open mic and story hour. And this person wants to preserve it, just keep it the same and do it anonymously. Our instructions are to continue to serve the community. And with the backing of this new owner, it means we can stick around.”

Everything Red Rock stands for—its goals, values and mission—is built around a dynamic and thriving culture stressing mentorship and civic responsibility.

When Red Rock’s business was rolling, part of its revenue went to  women’s shelters, organizations that help dig wells in Africa, sponsoring local Little League teams and supporting coffee farmers overseas.

During the pandemic, Red Rock has served as a drop-off spot for community food drives. For so many years, Red Rock served the community in immeasurable ways. When it was in financial trouble, hundreds stepped up in support to pay it forward.

Now, at the request of the new owner, those GoFundMe funds along with other donations that went toward saving Red Rock will be returned to the donors.

Boulanger also credited landlord John Akayya—who is the owner of Don Giovianni’s restaurant, just a few doors away from the Red Rock building—as key to preserving Red Rock’s past, present and future.

“People should know what a good landlord John Akkaya has been for us, working hard to find ways to allow us to continue even before this wonderful buyer came along,” Boulanger said. “It makes a difference when your landlord is right in the neighborhood with skin in the game.”

In transitioning from a nonprofit to a for-profit entity, Red Rock’s new owner has given Boulanger and Riemenschnitter a luxury they’ve possibly never had before: an avenue to make improvements with the overall operations.

“The new owner doesn’t want to make Red Rock into something different from what it was,” Boulanger said. “Having said that, I imagine if there is something that needs repair or a piece of equipment to buy to further our goals, then actually it’s going to be a whole lot easier. We’ve had to be so scrappy and savvy and count the costs before we could buy something that it gives a little peace of mind that perhaps now I won’t have to be as worried of the AC going out or the refrigerator dying.”

The new owner will keep Riemenschnitter in a key role in Red Rock’s operations, which is no surprise considering Riemenschnitter is a self-professed coffee geek and has mentored dozens of employees over the years.

Boulanger vividly remembers the conversation she had with Riemenschnitter when he called to let her know someone was in the midst of buying the iconic coffee shop.

“John asked me if I was sitting down and I said no,” Boulanger said. “He said I should sit down, so I did. He told me one of the well intentioned donors wanted to take a big step forward and purchase Red Rock outright and allow it to maintain how it’s been with both floors in use and all staff. I had to sit there and sob for a while, and my poor husband was in the other room hoping I was fine.”

Boulanger was better than fine—she was in a state of nirvana.

Even though Boulanger has been gifted with several hard-working and talented employees under her, in her mind she bore the brunt of the responsibility should Red Rock go by the wayside. “The weight I had been carrying and the responsibility I felt, I just didn’t want to let anyone down,” she said.

Boulanger actually doesn’t know who the new owner is, and she plans to keep it that way.

“I am not privy to that info right now and I kind of like that,” she said. “We get a lot of people coming here: parents, homeless people, students, plenty of business people, out of towners, rich and poor. I don’t want to treat people differently based on who I know bought it. I want to treat people the best I can in that moment because that’s what Red Rock has been known for.”

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