‘Home away from home’: Brewed Awakening, family-owned coffee shop, celebrates 30 years

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Ciecie Chen/File

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When Soosh Nassar was 6 years old, he spent his free time standing on top of a milk crate to reach and help manage the cash register for his family’s coffee shop on Euclid Avenue, Brewed Awakening.

Thirty years later, Soosh Nassar and his brother, Samer Nassar, have returned to run the shop themselves, guiding the business through changes in both coffee culture and the neighborhood. Just in time for the café’s 30th anniversary celebration, the Nassar family finished remodeling Brewed Awakening in early January.

The exterior changes of the café also mark internal changes brewing within the family business. After buying the café space in 1987, Sam and Juju Nassar are now passing ownership of the café into the hands of their sons, Samer and Soosh Nassar.

“The comfortable part is that we’re handing it down to our family, which makes it a lot easier to step away,” Sam Nassar said. “We’re planning to travel and take time to ourselves, enjoy the golden years and take care of the grandbabies.”

In planning the remodeling and rebranding of the café, the family faced the challenge of maintaining the “soul” of Brewed Awakening, Soosh Nassar said.

The café has roots that trace back to when Sam and Juju Nassar first started Brewed Awakening with a business partner in 1987.

“That was back when espresso culture wasn’t what it was today,” Soosh Nassar said, adding that the demand for espresso from students only started in the ’90s.

Back when Sam Nassar first started Brewed Awakening, he said his goal was for the café to be the “home away from home” for college students. At a time when students did not have emails or cellphones, they experienced a much greater detachment from their families, who often lived far away.

This was back when “homesickness” truly existed on a different level, Sam Nassar said, and he wanted to create a space for students and the community within his café.

“Without the community, we won’t survive,” Soosh Nassar said. “The Berkeley community embraces people who try to add something besides business inside a business. It’s one thing to turn profit — it’s another thing to turn profit and have a presence in the community.”

In 1990, the Nassar family bought full ownership of Brewed Awakening. In the years that followed, coffee culture has continued to change “quicker than most people can keep up with,” according to Soosh Nassar. Despite these changes, the café has remained a constant at the top of Euclid Avenue.

Many customers of Brewed Awakening have been patrons for the entire 30 years, Soosh Nassar added. Sam Nassar referred to one customer — a patron the family knows as Kash, who has come into the café every single morning since 1990 — as a “third son.”

“We’ve got the same people coming in every day, seven days a week,” said Colin Ford, who has been an employee of Brewed Awakening for two years. “It’s a bit of a family here.”

For Samer and Soosh Nassar, the café served as the background of their childhoods and their time as students at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University, respectively.

Eventually, after also working briefly in other corporate and outside businesses, Soosh and Samer Nassar returned to Euclid Avenue to continue working as part of a family team. Today, the two brothers, who are now fathers themselves, will continue to run Brewed Awakening and NorthSide Café, their second café on Euclid Avenue.

“I hope (my parents) can go out to enjoy life,” Samer Nassar said. “That’s part of my everyday push for doing this. … They’ve worked hard to get to where they are — it really is the American dream. They’ve already realized the work part of it. Now it’s time for them to experience the dream.”

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The remodeling changes in the café include a streamlined register process, a different setup for baked goods and a more visible menu.

Leland Reardon, a campus senior and regular customer of Brewed Awakening for the past two years, said he liked the remodel, especially since it improved the lighting. Reardon added that as Brewed Awakening expands its business, he hopes the owners will not overlook the uniqueness of each individual location.

“A more sterile environment is less welcoming,” Reardon said.

The next item on the owners’ agenda is to build up Brewed Awakening’s brand so they can open up more cafés in different neighborhoods. This was a key part of their remodeling strategy, Soosh Nassar said. They created a new logo and emphasized their motto, “#ThereIsNoLifeBeforeCoffee,” on a large canvas in the back of the café.

The wall at the back of the shop will soon have a description of the story behind Brewed Awakening’s new logo, Soosh Nassar explained. The logo features a pair of sneakers standing on top of a milk crate, a flashback for the brothers to when they were kids.

Sam Nassar would give Soosh Nassar the milk crate because he was still too short to reach the cash register — something Soosh Nassar remembered as his first boost up into the family business and something he now believes will help share the story behind Brewed Awakening as the business grows.

“It’s hard to maintain that small business mentality and open up more locations and keep that same flow and same view, so we’re really trying to tell that within our branding,” Soosh Nassar said.

The family did not just want a logo that looked good, but one that also told their story. After much deliberation, they settled on the milk crate.

“The milk crate, it was my boost, it picked me up,” Soosh Nassar said. “So asking, ‘What’s your milk crate?’ It’s that idea of, ‘So what’s your daily boost?’ ”

Alicia Kim is the lead businesses and economy reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aliciackim.