Technically, James and Willow Ly each spend between 60 and 70 hours a week at Caffé Zingaro, the popular Lower Queen Anne coffee establishment they’ve run together for the past eight years. Those who work the typical 40-hour week might balk at such a prospect, but the Lys’ outlook is much more positive.
“The way I see it, I work half the time I’m here anyway,” says James, only half-jokingly. James is a first-generation Cambodian American born and raised in Seattle. “The best part about this shop is that I get up and work with my wife and I work with my friends. I get time to sit down and chat with people when I want to. And that, to me, is the real value of owning a business—being able to have that style of life where you don’t have to do that regular nine to five. I’m not here to make boatloads of money; my value is in something else in life.”
The story of how James came to pursue this value is a remarkable one: James’ parents and his (at the time) 9-month-old sister escaped from Cambodia while it was under communist revolutionary Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. Placed in work camps and separated from their family, James’ parents hatched a daring getaway plan.
“Dad actually stole kerosene from a factory late at night, and he’d bring it back home to these small little towns that they had built for all the factory workers,” begins James. “Mom would sell the kerosene to the neighbors and save up little pieces of gold because they had heard from a friend of a friend of a friend that if you get yourself to a certain checkpoint, there will be guides [where] you’ll be able to buy your way through the border into Thailand.”
If caught, the penalty for James’ parents would almost certainly have been death. After roughly six months, James’ parents had accrued enough funds to take their entire extended family across the border into Thailand. The family made its way through jungles and minefields for three days before arriving at a refugee camp where they stayed for six months. Eventually, a Mormon woman from Seattle sponsored James’ parents to stay with her in Seattle.
“The family that took on Mom and Dad really helped them immensely,” James says. “They gave them a place to live for a little bit, helped Dad find a job as a baker, because he didn’t speak the language.”
This path would lead to James’ father running his own bakery where James himself worked from around 12 years of age.
“After college, when I decided my career wasn’t what I really wanted to do, I decided to create something that had a similar sort of vibe [to my father’s bakery], but not having to wake up at 1 o’clock in the morning to have to bake,” James says. “So I figured as far as being in Seattle, it’s such a live coffee culture, it would be a good opportunity to sort of jump into a business venture that way.”
Willow also comes from a family of immigrants. Willow’s grandmother from her mother’s side immigrated to America from Germany after World War II, with her father’s side consisting of a mixture of European nationalities. Like James, she was born and raised in Seattle. Willow has considerable experience in the service industry, with a history of waitressing and a five-year stint at Seattle pizza institution, Zeeks. The couple met through a mutual friend around eight years ago, at which time James and his sister had already taken ownership of Caffé Zingaro.
According to James and Willow, their attitudes toward their lives and their business are a key part of what makes Caffé Zingaro what it is: an inviting, family atmosphere and a beloved fixture for the thriving arts community of Lower Queen Anne and the Seattle Center. Caffé Zingaro began under its previous owners as a fast-paced, high-volume operation until James and his sister bought the business after its first year and a half of operation.
Changing Caffé Zingaro’s atmosphere to one more relaxed and accommodating was the right decision, according to James.
“We’re just so fortunate to be supported by such a strong art community out here,” James says. “They really take a liking to this particular café, and it’s like a central meeting point for a lot of people too.”
Despite their relaxed attitudes and their willingness to chat with customers, James and Willow are still very much hands-on at Caffé Zingaro. During the course of this interview, Willow excuses herself a number of times to help out at the espresso machine as customers enter for their late-afternoon caffeine fix.
Caffé Zingaro’s staff consists of six baristas including the owners, a group James describes as “pretty close and tight knit.”
“I tend to really take my time hiring who comes on board because it really needs to be a perfect fit of personality to come in here,” James says. “The way I see it, I could teach anyone to make coffee, but I can’t teach anyone how to have a good personality or for me to be able to get along with them for eight hours. If I can’t get along with you for eight hours, you don’t belong here,” he laughs.
It’s important to the Lys that Caffé Zingaro takes care of its tight-knit staff, which is also a crucial factor in making the café work.
“For example, for the holidays, we won’t ever tell anyone they can’t go home to see their family,” Willow says. “We would rather work 100 hours that week or shut down a little earlier and not make money, because you can’t take three days to fly out to Indianapolis or something like that. That’s not worth it to us. During the December months, obviously the balance is a little bit off, but to us, it’s worth it because everybody gets to go see their family and they come back happy, and that’s important.”
Of course, James’ now-retired mother continues to offer her services to assist with Caffé Zingaro, but James won’t hear a word of it. “The way I see it, she worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day for 20 years at that bakery, so I want her to stay retired,” he says. “If she wants to come here and hang out with me, by all means, come do it. But I don’t want her to work anymore. She’s done enough of it in her life. So it’s my time to take care of her instead, because she took care of all of us.”
James’ gratitude toward his parents coupled with a sincere respect for their hardship and accomplishments largely drives his attitude towards his own business.
“If they can do all that with absolutely nothing, but I’m given this much more to achieve something in my life, why can’t I? There’s no reason why I can’t,” James says.
127 Mercer St, Seattle, WA 98109
This story was originally published in the International Examiner.