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How I Made It: Dogged determination took Jacob Jaber from top video gamer to Philz Coffee CEO

Jacob Jaber
Philz Coffee Chief Executive Jacob Jaber at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco.
(Philz Coffee)

The gig: Jacob Jaber, 29, is chief executive of Philz Coffee. Jaber took over the coffee business from his father — the “Phil” in Philz Coffee — in 2005, and expanded its footprint from the original coffee shop in San Francisco’s Mission District to more than 30 locations across California and in Washington, D.C.

The chain has become a tech world fixture, with locations popping up in the heart of Silicon Valley and even on Facebook’s campus. It has attracted venture capital too, most recently raising $45 million from the same firms that have fund tech start-ups. With five shops already in Los Angeles, Jaber is now preparing to launch a sixth in L.A’s Arts District.

From the Middle East: For Jaber, Philz Coffee isn’t just about a caffeine hit. The San Francisco native, whose parents grew up in Palestine, was from a young age regaled with stories of the role coffee played in his parents’ culture and community. “Back in [Palestine], their neighbors would come over every night and they’d talk and have sweets and coffee, and my dad would help my mom prepare these things,” Jaber said. “Everything she did was done with love and hospitality. It was a core value. The original social network is the coffee table, not Facebook.”

Grocery store days: Those values stuck with Jaber’s family even after they immigrated to the Bay Area. Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Jaber’s father opened a grocery and liquor store in the Mission District at 24th and Folsom streets— where the original Philz Coffee still stands today. Jaber started helping his father out in the store when he was age 9, standing on milk crates to reach the cash register so he could ring up customers. At the back of the shop, his father began experimenting with coffee, brewing different blends for customers who came in to buy wine, gum and cigarettes. 

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Although he would have preferred to have been playing with friends after school, working at the family store in what was then a rough part of San Francisco instilled in him an important lesson. “My dad taught me to respect everybody, no matter what,” Jaber said. “Because if you don’t have your customers, what do you have?”

Video games, basketball, bodybuilding: Jaber was incredibly competitive during high school. As a freshman, he developed a love for basketball and practiced for hours a day. When he discovered the video game Diablo 2, he became obsessed and played 10 hours a day, seven days a week, until he placed in the top 20 on the global leader board. And when the sedentary Diablo lifestyle made him chubby, he became laser-focused on working out and getting ripped. “I’m very committed and very determined,” he said.

But his interest in these things fizzled once he’d conquered them. He felt a constant need to be challenged, to do something that would affect more than himself. The answer, he discovered at 19, was right in front of him the whole time.

No school: Jaber wasn’t bookish and dropped out of community college in his freshman year. “I hated school because I was forced to learn stuff I wasn’t interested in from people who weren’t interesting,” he said. But he loved learning. From his father, he learned to brew coffee, to welcome customers, to gain their loyalty. And when he realized Philz Coffee could be much bigger than a counter operating out of the back of a grocery store, he took a stab at expanding the business. When he didn’t understand something, he’d find someone who knew the answer to explain it to him.

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“I didn’t know anything, so everything was hard and easy at the same time,” Jaber said. “I asked fundamental questions, I used common sense, I got data points from people I respect and admire and used those to make my own decisions.”

One to many: The vision for Philz Coffee wasn’t “massive,” Jaber said. “We were taking it one day at a time, one customer at a time.” After expanding to San Francisco’s Castro district, he helped his father open a Philz by the AT&T ballpark. With each store, his confidence in himself, in the business and in the vision also grew. And as he himself has grown, he’s come to understand that the values his father instilled in the business are one of the main reasons Philz has done so well.

“I see my job as keeping, protecting and celebrating those values, while also making them relevant,” he said. This shows in the way each Philz Coffee is designed, he said, noting the communal furniture that encourages people to sit together and the relaxed vibe that is intended to be welcoming, not intimidating. It also shows in the way customers order coffee — instead of placing an order at one end of a counter and picking it up on the other, customers order directly from a barista, who prepares their coffee and modifies it to the customer’s taste. Customers can also choose from dozens of pour-over varieties, most of which are blends.

Advice: Jaber believes his passion for video games and sports didn’t last as long as his passion for Philz Coffee because they weren’t as multifaceted. In Philz, he has a challenge in building a business, but he also has the satisfaction of having his work touch others every day, whether it’s creating a job or brewing the perfect cup of coffee. “My advice would be to do something you’re passionate about, but also work on things that are good for the world,” he said.

Personal: Jaber lives in San Francisco’s South of Market district. Sometimes he still dreams about Diablo 2. 

tracey.lien@latimes.com

Twitter: @traceylien

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