Profile:Martha Rueca-Gustafsson

By
October 28, 2004

Lori Head

Walk in to World Ground Café
in the nearby neighborhood of Laurel Heights on MacArthur Blvd. and
you may feel like you’ve taken a trip around the world and landed
in a cozy living room somewhere in Kenya, Brazil or Vietnam. From
the warm rich colors of the desert and the jungle, to the
indigenous art masks hanging on the wall, to the sea of pillow
couches and wonderful aroma of the world’s best Arabica coffee
beans, the café is a place to relax, study and enjoy great
food and service-a true “community café.”

On a given day, the menu may
include a free-range chicken salad with gorgonzola cheese, locally
made organic wine or beer, and fair trade coffee. You can hear
music from around the world, including artists such as Chico Cesar
of Brazil. You can bring your kids to the play area, or dogs to the
back patio, or reserve the back room for meetings or social
gatherings-all for free. All of these elements were brought
together to embody a real “neighborhood spot” which was sorely
lacking in the Laurel Heights district when it opened in 1998,
according to Mills alumna and owner Martha
Rueca-Gustafsson.

Rueca-Gustafsson, who opened the
café with her husband Uffe (pronounced Ooh-fay), said that
she didn’t start “claiming the neighborhood” where she has lived
since her senior year at Mills until after she graduated in 1996.
She said that she realized then that there was no place to get a
cup of coffee after one o’clock in the afternoon and no place to
hang out in the neighborhood.

The couple make a dynamic team, he,
a classically trained chef from Europe and she with a background in
marketing, public relations and management. But most impressive is
that the couple run their own business while raising a family, have
begun a second business, and have made a strong commitment to
keeping their home and business in Oakland.

These things come with their own
set of challenges, according to Rueca-Gustafsson. The couple juggle
between two cafés, after opening a second in 2003 and
raising their two daughters,13-year-old Hannah, Uffe’s daughter
from a previous marriage and Gabriella, their four-year-old
together. Rueca-Gustafsson said that contrary to popular belief,
when you own your own business “you still face the same challenges
as any working mother.” Her point was well illustrated, for at that
moment Uffe walked in the room and said to her, “it’s time to get
the little girl.” After a brief discussion about who was in a
better position to pick up Gabrilella from daycare, Uffe agreed
that since he wasn’t in the middle of an interview, he was the
better candidate.

“It’s hard to find quality family
time,” admits Rueca-Gustafsson. The Alameda native who met Uffe
while a student at Mills said, “The accountability is on you, you
can’t call in sick,” even when you are.

She said that despite the perceived
flexibility of owning your own business she had to put her daughter
in daycare at age two. “I brought Gabriella to work when she was a
baby, but once she was to big to be in a play pen, it was
difficult,” she said. “I needed to watch her and I needed to work,
it was hard to do both.” But the baby spending her early formative
years at the café had a positive impact on her. “She was
very socialized,” said Rueca-Gustafsson. Hannah spends time each
week between the Gustafssons home and her mother’s.

The pair decided to “split” some of
the responsibilities of running the cafés, in an effort to
make things more efficient and effective. “He’s more behind the
scenes, doing the menus, interviewing and hiring,” she said. “I do
the payroll, PR and marketing and we both do training and
ordering.”

Rueca-Gustafsson said that the key
to running a good business is customer service, which is something
they pride themselves on-especially when it comes to the espresso
bar. Employees have to go through three to four months of training,
including watching videos before they get to work the espresso
bar.

“Coffee is the benchmark, the
pinnacle of my business,” she said. “There are too many other
things to learn first, [such as] customer service and about
products. If a customer comes in and gets a bad cup of coffee,
they’ll never come back,” said Rueca-Gustafsson.

Although the history major got a
good job in public relations right out of college, she had a strong
desire to open her own business and quickly put herself on a path
to do just that. “I was working in public relations for about eight
to ten months and even though I had a good salary and good people
to work with, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she
said.

Still working in public relations
full time, she went back to the part time job she had while a
student at Mills at the Barnes and Noble café. This time she
wouldn’t use the opportunity to earn extra spending money, but to
gain managerial experience to run a business. Eventually she became
a full time manager and by 1998, she had written a business plan
for her own café. She and Uffe, who was the chef and partner
in the original Scott’s Seafood in San Francisco, took the plan to
the Oakland Business Development Corporation and presented it, in
hopes of both financial support and approval.

“The biggest hurdle in this process
was getting the capital,” said Rueca-Gustafsson. It required a lot
of saving and planning on their part.

“We had a competent plan, industry
experience and had saved enough money to match the funds that the
Building Society Association was loaning us. When they see that
kind of commitment, they know that it’s serious.” They were so
convinced that the Gustafssons were committed to the project that
they offered them even more money to help fund the project after
seeing their proposal and owner contribution.

The café made a positive
impression on the Laurel Heights community, so they were able to
expand their business after five years. After seeing consistent
growth in their business (with the exception of 2002 due to 9/11),
the Gustafssons opened their second café near Jack London
Square on March 31, 2003, five years to the day since opening their
first café.

Mills graduate student Ariun
Sanjaajjamts said that she frequents the café with friends
regularly. “I love to see the people of different colors sitting
with their own dreams or talking with others,” she said. “It has
very good coffee, even for someone from Mongolia.”

The Gustafssons’ dream is to retire
and have a small winemaking business someday, but Rueca-Gustafsson
said that she would like to earn another degree first.

“We hope to sell the café’s
and retire, and I’ve thought about getting a BS in viticulture,”
she said.

She credits Mills with giving her
valuable critical thinking skills, which she has helped in her
business and in life.

“I learned how to take a lot of
information and dissect it and use what I needed,” said
Rueca-Gustafsson. “I owe that to Mills,” she said.


Profile:Martha Rueca-Gustafsson was published on October 28, 2004 in Features

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