To know an innovation ecosystem, drink coffee. That’s my secret weapon.
People often ask me how to understand an ecosystem. It’s easy. Whenever my work takes me to a new city or country, I visit its coffee shops. Coffee shops are the watering holes of economic life. Coffee shops measure the innovation pulse of a community. Everything you need to know about an ecosystem is there.
Observe a coffee shop, and you can literally see the invisible infrastructure of a community. Look at the people, and ask yourself: Are old friends catching up, or are new friendships forming? Are neighbors gossiping idly, or are entrepreneurs plotting their dreams together? Who smiles to whom, and who ignores whom? Are serendipitous interactions happening, or are predictable patterns recurring?
I write a lot in coffee shops. In fact, I wrote this column in two of them. Over the past few years, I’ve been to almost every coffee shop in Silicon Valley. In the spirit of entrepreneurial sharing, I am hereby offering my personal list of the “Best Coffee Shops in Silicon Valley.”
Why, you might ask? We’re soon going to welcome hundreds of attendees from over 50 countries for Global Innovation Summit+Week on February 17-21. I guess I just want people to know the good stuff of Silicon Valley, not its overhyped silliness.
A few disclaimers. First, this is a completely subjective list, based on no scientific criteria whatsoever. They’re just my opinions. So if you discover a hidden pattern, it’s your imagination. Second, I don’t have anything against large coffee chains per se. I’ve been to some awesome Starbucks in other cities. But none of the big chains make my list in the Valley. Sorry, Howard. Third, I’m not judging the coffee; I’m judging the coffee shop. Coffee snobs, please look elsewhere!
So, the best coffee shops in Silicon Valley are…
- B2 (San Jose). This is the new sister to Bellano Coffee, which was pretty awesome already. B2 is part of the spacious and vibrant San Pedro Square Market, so there is tons of space to stretch out. I mean, tons. And the food stalls nearby are outstanding. I could work all day there. And I have. Trivia nights on Monday at 7 p.m.!
- Sunnyvale Art Gallery (Sunnyvale). This place is a gem, still largely undiscovered. It is a combination art gallery, bookstore, art supply store, flower shop, art education space, community gathering spot, and café all in one. No kidding. It’s hiding in plain sight on El Camino Real, the busiest thoroughfare in the entire Valley. Open mic night on first and third Thursdays at 8 p.m.!
- Coffee Society (Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino). No attitude, no window dressing, no worries. This place reminds me of Austin, Texas in the 1980s, where I grew up. It is probably the least pretentious place in the entire Valley. Sometimes, they play the music from the videogame Donkey Kong. They also serve gelato. I wrote much of my first book, The Rainforest, here.
- Konditorei (Portola Valley). This cute place is close to the 280 freeway, but you’d never know it. The entire plaza is tucked away among the redwood trees. It’s tranquil and peaceful. You can still capture a sliver of what Silicon Valley felt like a few decades ago, before the craziness happened. There’s even a little hidden path up the hill in the back, if you want to take a stroll.
- Philz Coffee (Middlefield Road, Palo Alto). This chain of coffee shops is growing rapidly, due to the cult following for their hand-poured coffee and laid-back hipster staff. My favorite location is the one on Middlefield Road. They have a wooden patio with trees arching overhead. You can sit under a redwood and ponder the universe, right in the middle of Palo Alto.
- Red Rock Coffee (Mountain View). This is a very busy place, but there’s a human warmth that persists. The coffeehouse is a nonprofit organization that seeks to create a “true shared space in the community.” It shows. They host a continuous calendar of music performances, children’s story times, open mics, visual artists, and other gatherings.
There are a bunch of other great places, and I can’t possibly list them all. My deepest thanks to all the great coffee shops in the Valley. Disagree with my list? No problem – I genuinely welcome your comments below.
You can find me at one or more of these coffee shops almost every week. If you see me around, introduce yourself and say hello. After all, isn’t that the point?
Victor W. Hwang is a venture capitalist and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. He is Executive Director of Global Innovation Summit+Week (February 17-21, 2014), an event focused on catalyzing systemic innovation across companies, communities, and countries.