Ralph Angeles opened his beloved coffee shop in what he described as the “perfect storm.” A time where no one knew the business existed, during one of the worst economic recessions the country has seen in decades, and a global pandemic causing everyone to stay home. There was no way a small business, especially a new one, could survive that. Yet, CLO Coffee Co. defied all odds and obstacles thrown it’s way.
The coffee shop opened for a soft opening at its first location in Edison, NJ early February of last year, with an expected grand opening planned for March 28, 2020. Despite the lockdown in place for New Jersey residents beforehand, that did not stop Angeles. He went live on Instagram on the grand opening day, where he did ten rounds of giving out merch, t-shirts, hats, and coffee beans. Each round had an average of about 40 people joining in. Angeles said it was a pretty good turnout since they were still relatively new.
On all of their merchandise, you will see two words: “Be Kind.” A movement that Angeles started when opening CLO Coffee Co. He explained that it came from a message he wanted to pass down to his two children. “Whenever I raise my voice now, my son always says ‘Daddy, be kind,’” said Angeles. “The fact that my kids are aware of it is a huge win for me.” Not only did he want his family to follow this movement, but he also wanted to infiltrate it to the community, especially with the challenges of the pandemic.
“My biggest focus was that I didn’t want to be a small business who says that we’re suffering,” Angeles said. “I wanted to be the opposite of that. Meaning I wanted our platform and coffee shop to be an escape where people could reset and unwind.” He saw the pandemic as an opportunity to pivot and do something else. “I think the word of 2020 is pivoting. You have to understand what the data is telling you instead of just doing the same routines we had pre-covid and hoping for the best,” said Angeles.
So CLO Coffee Co. pivoted. They were extremely active on social media following the virtual grand opening by creating content such as Tik Toks, going on Instagram live and posting stories, and interacting with customers — all while trying to spread the word of his business and the message of “Be Kind.” Some people expressed that they would love to try his coffee but were too scared to leave their home. Once again, that did not stop Angeles. He personally delivered a coffee to homes driving as far as 10 miles to East Brunswick or Elizabeth.
He also saw the silver lining of the coffee shop is empty. Angeles used to work in banking, so he did not have prior knowledge of being behind a coffee bar when he opened CLO Coffee Co. “A month before we actually opened up, I applied to a job at Starbucks just so I can have that training,” Angeles explained. “But when everything slowed down in March, I was here 7 days a week, 12 hrs a day. So I learned how the machines and grinders work, developing recipes, and improving our menu. It was kind of like boot camp.”
The business slowly picked up where each month became better than the last. Angeles had a dream of expanding to a second location but thought that dream was gone when the pandemic first started. However, CMPND, an apartment building complex located in Jersey City, reached out to Angeles as they were inspired by what he was doing. After about three weeks of meetings and negotiations, the decision to open a second location in Jersey City came to life.
“As a business, they always say that the first year is the hardest, but add a pandemic in that mix. To open a second location in the first year of opening is truly a blessing, and I am so grateful,” Angeles said. “We are surviving the perfect storm.”
So how exactly does a business owner like Angeles do it? He says it is all about passion and enjoying what you do. “I used to be a huge Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts guy when I was working in the city, and I thought I knew everything about coffee,” said Angeles. When he was working in the city, he decided to try the coffee shop next door to Starbucks — Toby’s Estate.
After trying out the coffee, his mind was blown by the espresso’s smoothness and flavor. “I had gone back to Starbucks after that, ordered a latte, and said this ain’t it. I asked for another one, and it still tasted like water, or it was too bitter, so I tossed it.” This was when the search for the perfect cup of coffee started.
Angeles was still living around the Edison area at the time, but there was not a place like Toby’s Estate anywhere. He said that he would take his kids every Saturday and drive around looking for that same experience. “It was a 40-45 minute drive every single time, and I just wanted that experience at home,” Angeles said.
He started researching cultivation, harvesting, what coffee machines work, and different grind sizes, not realizing how passionate he felt about it. “I would listen to Gary Vee on my commute to the city every day and one thing he said always resonated with me: fear regret, don’t fear failure,” explained Angeles. “I don’t want to be 65 and think I should’ve gone and opened that coffee shop.” From that moment, he decided to take his idea and execute it into reality.
First, he had to come up with a name. For the longest time, he wanted to name the shop “Coffee Lovers Only,” but the word “only” didn’t sit right with him as he did not want to exclude his product to people if they were tea lovers. “I was at an airport one day, and I saw an acronym of something, so when I thought of coffee lovers only, I saw the word C.L.O.,” Angeles said. “My daughter’s name is Chloe, and we call her ‘Clo-Clo’ all the time. It was a play on both words, and it just stuck.”
He wanted CLO Coffee Co. to reintroduce coffee to people and change their minds about what they think they know about it, which happened to him when he first visited Toby’s Estate. The coffee shop tries to steer away from batches and makes everything fresh — grinding the beans and making the drink on the spot.
People can also learn more about coffee just by looking at the logo. If you look closely, you can see a bird with a background of mountains underneath. The bird represents eco-friendliness. Coffee beans are grown 2 ways: sun-grown and shade-grown. Sun-grown beans utilize the sun, so you need to cut down trees. Nothing is protecting the beans, so you have to use chemicals, such as pesticides, to keep them safe. The sun also speeds up the growth process, so you sacrifice quality for quantity. On the other hand, shade-grown beans need the trees to grow, and instead of using chemicals, you’re using nature to protect your crop, such as birds. The mountains represent elevation. If beans are grown at a higher elevation, it slows down the growth process, thus developing a brighter, fruity flavor.
Angeles also wanted to start bringing in his Filipino heritage in the coffee shop. Recently, they started selling the pandesal sandwich. Pandesal is a common bread roll from the Philippines, usually sold at every food market in the country or on the streets. “People are aware of croissants, baguettes, and brioche, but they don’t know what pandesal is. Not only do I get to educate people, but it pays respect to the culture.” Angeles said. The flavors of the sandwich include ham and cheese and chicken.
The advice he would give to any entrepreneur hoping to open their own business is to go for it and execute any idea you may have. Angeles explains that most people are hesitant because they think that what they have is not good enough, but no one really knows what perfect is. “Picture a dartboard, and you’re trying to hit the bullseye. You throw it, and it’s more to the left. But you wouldn’t know to adjust a little more to the right if you didn’t throw it in the first place. It is the same thing with creating something; if you don’t put it out there, then you wouldn’t know how to adjust.” said Angeles. “Just execute and then pivot.”