Living to Serve

Cargo Coffee owner Lynn Lee details the ups and downs and lessons learned from working in the service industry, from San Francisco in the early ‘90s toMadison in the now, and becoming a role model for his young LGBTQ employees along the way.

Ten years ago my husband Steve and I moved to Madison to start a family and new careers. Mine was to work for my brother Lindsey managing his two coffee shops, Ground Zero and Cargo Coffee. We opened a third coffee shop, Cargo Coffee on East Washington, last year.

My position in the shops has changed over the years, but the questions I get from new employees seem to remain the same. They are familiar questions that I remember asking my own managers in the restaurants where I used to work. After graduating from college with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting, I did what a lot of young people with my degree do right out of college and started waiting tables. Many of the people who work for us are either in school or just graduated, trying to get to the next stage in life. It was a confusing but exciting time for me then; I see it’s the same for them now. So when they ask me these questions, I try to answer honestly, knowing someone took the time to answer mine, and it helped to bring me here.

Working Your Way Up  

The first question is usually, “How did you end up in Madison and owning a business?” What I know they are really asking is, “How do I get to where I want to go?” This is a hard one to answer, because I never thought I’d end up back in the Midwest doing what I’m doing. It wasn’t planned out, many small steps brought me here to Madison, a city I love. The answer is, take the risk of change for a life you want.

In my case I was waiting tables in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and after two years I knew it was time to move on. One night I waited on two guys from San Francisco who, after much conversation, told me I should move there and if I did, I should get a job at a restaurant called Stars. By the time I walked home that night, I had decided to move to San Francisco. Three months later in a new city, I walked into Stars, told the HR person my story, and got a job. It was 1990 and Stars was one of, if not the most popular restaurant in the city. The owner Jerimiah Towers was one of the founders of California Cuisine, the farm-to-table movement we see taking over Madison’s restaurant scene now, and the name reflected that movie stars, celebrities, and musicians were often dining there.

As a 24-year-old fresh out of Michigan, waiting on people I’d never thought I’d see in person, and making more money than I’d imagined—well, it was mind blowing. From this experience, I’ve never been afraid to take a risk or go with the possibility of making a change. I’ve taken many risks and can honestly say that I regret none.

San Francisco in the early ‘90s was recovering from the AIDS epidemic, apartments were cheap and the gay scene was slowly coming back. In an attempt to make friends I volunteered at the Names Project, working on the AIDS Quilt. I joined Act Up and then Queer Nation, activist groups to advance LGBTQ issues in San Francisco. Being involved in these groups was risky business in the early ‘90s, but it felt like we were fighting for change I believed in. I still am passionate about LGBTQ issues, and I now participate in a different way to support the effort. My brother and I have for years always said yes to donating coffee, gift cards, or money to LGBTQ organizations in Madison, too.

Career Paths  

The next question comes from getting to know the employees, and often they ask, “How do I get to the career I want?” The answer is, “Work hard and make this time work for you.” Working in a café or restaurant means that you develop a unique skill set, and anyone who’s done it knows what it is. You learn to multitask under stress. You learn to get from A to B, getting that table in and out on time. You learn customer service is about connecting with people, listening, and making them comfortable. You also learn that even if someone is difficult, like the chef screaming in your face, you have to find a way to work with them.

These are all skills, though learned in a café, that you can take with you to the next job or career move—but they also apply to life. These skills I learned in my 20s have helped me pursue all my passions. I continued to wait tables to save money to buy my first house in San Francisco and open a gallery representing 125 local artists. Working seven days a week at my gallery and waiting tables for five years were some of the best times I’ve known. I have found I’m not satisfied just going to work and going home. There are too many interesting or meaningful parts of my life I need to stay involved in. I’m still an active painter, selling my work at Hatch on Williamson Street and doing murals around town. I’m the president of the Marquette Neighborhood Association because I’m passionate about making the neighborhood the best it can be for the people who live here. I’m also raising my nine-year-old daughter, covering all the parenting responsibilities and hopefully teaching her life is about pursuing all your passions.

Connecting with Community  

“How do you know so many people?” My response is always that you should get to know as many customers on a more personal level as possible. From this comes connection and opportunity. Coffee shops bring people in day after day, and you eventually connect with your customers and get to know them. Madison is full of people working on causes I believe in, and knowing them better and helping them when I can inspires me to do more.

I have had so many opportunities to support causes, events, and political candidates from getting to know my customers. One of the best experiences I’ve been involved in was working with Teen Pride Arts, an annual gathering of rainbow-spectrum teens, friends, and allies, with live performances and visual art-making. Getting to sit with a group of teens talking about being a gay parent and hopefully being a positive role model was both magical and meaningful. Another is collecting coats for the homeless community at our Park Street location. As a business owner, I can make a difference and I try to encourage my employees to go out and get involved as well. Giving back to the community, whether it’s the city I love or my LGBTQ community, feels good!

Gay Parenthood  

My favorite question from my LGBTQ employees is, “How did you become a parent?” In the last 10 years, this is becoming a question I hear more and more as LGBTQ young adults realize this is a possibility. When I was in my early 20s, I already knew I wanted to be a parent, but without role models, it seemed impossible. It was a different time.

Ten years ago when we started the journey to adopt it was met with obstacles and the opinion that here in Wisconsin, it was a slim chance we would ever succeed. My husband and I were told by adoptions agencies that they couldn’t work with us because placing a child with us was unlikely. We did not give up and finally found an agency in Georgia with a high success rate for gay male couples and signed on with them. Three months later we got the call there was a newborn girl in Washington State who needed a family, and she was ours if we wanted. We had no idea of her medical history, her ethnicity, or any information other than she needed a home, parents, and she could be ours. We said yes and were on a plane in less than two hours heading to pick her up. We were ready for the risk that it might be difficult to adjust to such a big change in our lives.

At the airport I told my husband, no matter what the situation, if we get on the plane, she’s ours. He agreed, as I knew he would, and we flew into the unknown. That night we were handed a four-day old, 4.5 pound baby girl in a motel. We signed the paperwork and the adoption facilitator walked out the door, leaving us on our own. It was the most terrifying and wonderful night of my life. Our life as gay men changed drastically. No more going out dancing, staying up late with friends, or working out. Priorities shifted to rocking baby to music we used to dance to, staying up late for night feedings, and teaching her to crawl, then walk, then ride a bike. Those were the only workouts we had time for. Yes it was a change, but one we welcomed and cherished.

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Life Goes On  

The newest question I get from my staff is, “How are you doing?” This question means so much to me. Through the magic of Facebook I now keep in touch with many former employees, watching them start careers, marriages, and families. They keep track of me as well. The friendships they made with other employees have lasted long after they stopped working in the coffee shop. Does this happen in an office job? It might, but somehow the café environment encourages friendship like no other job I know.

Millennials get a bad rap. They are no different than I was 25 years ago, starting out, young, and wanting to navigate the life ahead. In some ways they have it better and worse than I did. They have a better environment to live an authentic life, being who they want to be with more options than my generation had. They have role models to look up to and see what is possible. But they also have a worse economic environment, more debt, and more uncertainty that they can achieve their dreams. I always tell them to look around, these may be the friends you have for life.

My two closest friends are coworkers from 25 years ago at Stars. They are the godparents to my daughter, and the two who, when my husband passed away last December, went with me to Hawaii on the trip he and I planned for our daughter’s 9th birthday. Losing my husband and my daughter’s father has brought much change to our life—not one we chose, but one to navigate while still striving to hope for the best. It’s not been easy. When Steve and I started this journey to adopt a child, I guess the one risk I never imagined is I would be continuing on alone. When you lose your partner, husband, you not only lose the day-to-day help raising your kid, but you lose the future, sharing in the special and difficult moments to come, things you had talked about and looked forward to as parents. More importantly, you lose the chance to reminisce.

For me this is the hardest part of losing a husband. Remembering those first nights, remembering those first milestones in her life, and coming home and sharing with the other parent how proud you are of daily achievements by the girl we worked so hard to have in our life. I also have to deal with my own grief while helping my daughter navigate hers. In my home today, there is remembering a lot, so much talking, and so much affection. Those are the only things I know to guide her through this experience.  So far, they seem to be working.

Now, as a reluctant single parent, I find I’m using all those skills I learned waiting tables so many years ago, all the more. Multitasking, getting from A to B under stress, and remembering to smile no matter how demanding the customer is, even if she is your daughter! The fact that so many people reached out to say “How are you doing?”—people I met through the coffee shop, who worked for us in the past, and who currently work in the shops—tells me that this unexpected life, living in the Midwest again working in coffee shops, was the life I had hoped for in my 20s. Sometimes, as I have been reminded of, you don’t anticipate the change your life will take, certainly not the risk. Now when my staff asks their questions I’ll add: no matter what happens, you’ll handle it.

In a few years, my daughter will start working in the coffee shop. I look forward to walking in and seeing her behind the counter learning the family business. I want her to have this experience, learn these skills, and hopefully, make some really good friends along the way.