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A Small Story about a Coffee Shop, Grandparents, and Entrepreneurship

Last weekend I was sitting with my wife at one of those strange coffeehouse chains. We didn’t like the coffee, the service, or the atmosphere in general. My wife and I started talking about the magic of small coffee shops; and how—in these harsh economic times—starting a coffee shop business is a real challenge. It was then that I thought I should tell the readers of this blog my own family’s story of small business and entrepreneurship.

During the Second World War, my grandfather fled the German-occupied area of Poland and crossed into what was then the Soviet Union. After the war had ended, he arrived in Tel Aviv. With all his family lost and with not even one penny in his pocket, he started washing dishes and cleaning floors at a well-known but rather small coffee shop in the center of the city. A few years went by. He managed to save some money, and when the coffee shop’s owner wanted to sell his business, my grandfather offered a bid. He had to take out a loan and find a partner, but eventually he managed to purchase the coffee shop.

At this time he was newly married to my grandmother, who also came to Israel from Poland. Boy—did she know how to cook! Both of them decided to expand the coffee shop’s menu, and they started serving home-cooked meals that were quickly known all over the city. Another few years went by. Again my grandfather (and my grandmother) managed to save some money. This time he suggested to his partner (who wasn’t really fit for the coffee-shop business…), that he buy his share. Again he had to take out a loan, but this time his life dream was fully completed. He owned a coffee shop! Not bad for a refugee who only a decade before had lost all he had.

With two little kids (that is, my mother and my uncle), my grandparents expanded their now coffee shop / restaurant business. Now it was a very famous venue in Tel Aviv; during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s it was a home for the local bohemia: actors, singers, painters, journalists, and even politicians found a cozy and familiar place that was practically their office, living room, and kitchen. With my grandfather hosting, my grandmother cooking, and my mother and uncle orchestrating the business while serving coffee, it was a flourishing family business.

Years went by and I was born. As a young boy I enjoyed coming to the coffee shop and helping my family, especially my grandfather. I also liked sitting in the kitchen and watching my grandmother cooking her magical food. My family taught me the virtue of hard work: for every penny I earned for small chores I was given two more—this was the family’s motto: one must learn to earn his money. And more importantly: pursuing your dream requires hard work.

When I was a freshman in college, my grandfather passed away. He was working until his last days. A few years after, my grandmother also passed away. It was than when my mother and uncle decided to retire. Understanding the hard work that owning a business of your own requires, I decided that after graduation I want to be a salaried employee, and so I started working at a large firm. The coffee shop was therefore sold to a group of young investors who opened a fashionable though soulless bar.

After few years in that large firm, I started feeling unease, but couldn’t really tell why. It took me some time but eventually it hit me: just like my grandparents, I too have the soul of an entrepreneur. I decided to quit my comfortable job, completed a PhD degree, and established my own research firm. Today I am working harder than ever, but I am as happy and fulfilled as I have never been. And looking at my two small children I sometimes wonder: which one of them, if any, will catch the entrepreneurship bug?

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