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All in the Family: Mother/Daughter duo purchases 

Laguna Coffee Company 

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Tomi Miller moved to Laguna Beach four years ago to be closer to her mother, Rene, little did she know just how close they would soon become. Tomi had no intention of working alongside her mom. She certainly couldn’t foresee someday co-owning Laguna Coffee Company with her. But life – like a strong cup of coffee – has a way of waking us up to new ideas.

Laguna Coffee in front

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Rene and Tomi Miller in front of Laguna Coffee Company, now officially their own

Tomi sold real estate in Phoenix, and planned to continue her business here. She was a single mother of two. Coffee had been her mother’s passion, not hers. “I specifically told my mom I would not be working in the coffee shop,” Tomi says. “Within three months, she was in a tight spot and put me on the schedule. I told her again I wasn’t going to work here. She said, ‘I need you.’” That was all it took. “I ended up loving the coffee shop and the people,” Tomi says. “That’s the magical power of this special place.”

Rene, on the other hand, had long fantasized about owning a coffeehouse. By the time Tomi arrived, Rene had managed Laguna Coffee Company for several years, and quickly became its heart and soul. Local clients felt like family, and tourists like fast friends.

Rene, too, had come from Phoenix, where she raised her three daughters. For 12 years, she worked at a coffee shop in Gilbert, Arizona. There, her love of the business grew, and when she came to Laguna Coffee Company, she knew she’d found a home.

A perfect partnership

Last October, Rene’s distant dream was realized. Now she and Tomi are not only mother and daughter, but best friends and business partners. “We’re in control of a healthy menu we both believe in. We’ve created the atmosphere we want. The vibes we put out are 100 percent from our hearts,” says Tomi. “I never thought I’d be a part of that.” 

Laguna Coffee mother and daughter

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Mother and daughter owners Rene and Tomi Miller

Like any strong partnership, Rene and Tomi balance each other out. “We both have different strengths,” says Tomi. “My mom is the anchor. “She’s the heart and soul of this place. People love her.” Here, Tomi laughs: “I do payroll and the books. She would not be able to do that without me.” 

But their one strong commonality is their love for this community, and their customers. They’re both passionate about making, and keeping, those close connections. 

It’s not just them, but everyone on staff at Laguna Coffee. It’s what they look for when hiring. “It’s important to look customers in the eye and ask how they are,” says Tomi. “We want that connection to show in everything we do here.” 

“One barista is a singer, another a world traveler,” Rene says. “They each bring their own passions, which makes the place really fun.” 

“Where everybody knows your name”

Imagine if Sam Malone – the famed fictional bartender from Cheers – were instead a barista. Picture Laguna’s cast of characters sitting in for Norm Peterson, Cliff Clavin, and Frasier Crane. At separate times, both Rene and Tomi describe Laguna Coffee Company as our town’s caffeinated Cheers. No one walks in unwelcomed. Nearly every customer approaches Tomi or Rene, wanting to share stories or photos, and – almost all of them – a fist bump.

Not only do Rene and Tomi know everyone’s name, they know everyone’s taste in coffee – by heart. Rene has memorized over 500 drink orders. “That’s not just the drink,” she says. “There’s also the temperature, how much sugar, what kind of milk.” Rene can go two years without seeing a customer and still recall, with perfect precision, what they order. I ask if she has that kind of memory for anything else. “Nothing,” she answers. “I just love coffee.”

Laguna Coffee serving

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Tomi Miller serves up the perfect cup

More important, though, is the community atmosphere created by this kind of hub, which is palpably different from a corporate Starbucks or even a new and trendy spot. People not only know each other by name, but they know each other’s stories. They celebrate engagements, marriages, and births. They mourn illnesses and tragedies. “If someone doesn’t come in for a day or two, we worry,” says Tomi. “We’re all looking out for each other. And we adore each other.”

Examples of this abound. When the October fires ravaged our state last year, folks gathered at the coffee shop to donate money, goods, and clothes. In 2017, when Tomi – passionate about helping children in African orphanages – decided to journey to Nigeria, Laguna Coffee’s customers financially supported her trip. “This community took me by the hand and made my dream happen,” Tomi says. “Laguna Beach is the very definition of good people.”

The customers also contribute to Rene’s Centurion bike rides that benefit Multiple Sclerosis. (Yes, that means Rene rides 100 miles in one stretch. Not bad for a mother of three and grandma to eight.) “The community has been so generous,” says Rene. “As much as we try giving to them, they give right back to us.”

But maybe this is one of the strongest testaments to Laguna Coffee’s friendly atmosphere – several couples have met, and even gotten engaged, inside the shop. I ask Rene how many. The answer: “Oh my god. A lot!” The coffeehouse represents one of those touch points in town that binds its neighbors together. People may come for the superb coffee, but they probably keep returning for the friendships – even marriages – and deep ties. The town’s tourists, too, return year after year.

So what about that superb coffee?

If you’re a client who takes your coffee seriously, this is certainly the spot for you. Laguna Coffee Company micro roasts their beans a few times each week in a roaster that’s on site. Batches are small and carefully chosen from the best organic farms around the world  Rwanda, Brazil, Honduras. “Our roaster works with the importers to select batches from the freshest crops,” says Tomi. “He’s passionate about coffee and does a lot of research.” 

Laguna Coffee roasting

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Randy Warner roasts coffee beans onsite in 2016. Randy was the roaster until two years ago when he moved to Colorado. Canaan Bellinghausen has been the roaster ever since.

Rene, with her extensive knowledge of coffee recipes, says her current favorite is the “bullet proof” – an Americano with organic ghee butter and coconut oil, perfect for the lactose intolerant. “We have a lot of originality on our menu,” Tomi says. “We even serve collagen in some of the drinks.” 

Health is the goal. The tuna salad is sweetened with apples, the chicken pesto crunches with walnuts. “Because we get to choose everything, we try to be as healthy and fresh as we can.”

Rene seconds that, adding how important it is to support other business and local farms. “I go to the farmers markets to collect produce, or I bring bone broth out of San Diego. It gives other small businesses an opportunity to present their products. People helping each other. That’s what it’s about,” Rene says.

Supporting the arts and local artists

The mother/daughter team is committed to helping local artists, as well. From jazz concerts to poetry readings, the coffeehouse is a hub where people tend to gather. “People share the mic,” Rene says. “One night this guy said, ‘I have a violin back in my room, can I play with you guys?’ He ran to get it and they played another hour.”

Rene and Tomi also change out the art on the walls every six weeks, giving struggling artists a place to showcase their work. 

They’re in the process of getting their liquor and music licenses transferred over (due to the change in ownership). But soon, beer and wine will again be served in the evenings, along with more music. So stay tuned…

Mothering secrets for success

What accounts for this strong mother/daughter bond? “I’m a big believer in being present in my children’s lives. Through the good and the bad,” says Rene. “I have a lot of empathy for people. You never know what shoes they’ve walked in. Most of us would be surprised if they knew what people go through.”

That philosophy must have rubbed off on Tomi, because she reflects her mother’s life lessons in her own parenting. Her two children are her first priority, and she’ll sacrifice anything to spend time with them. “I know our time together is short,” she says. “I’m trying to take advantage of all of it.”

The high point of Rene’s year is her October birthday, when she goes away with her three daughters (and no one else) to a place they’ve never been – Tulum and San Miguel (Mexico), Austin, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and even Catalina. “By January, we already have our next trip planned,” she says. “It just gives me a deep sense of joy.”

Empathy and joy may lie at the foundation of Laguna Coffee Company’s success, as well. It’s a safe and friendly place, full of positivity and compassion. That genuine sense of caring for each other might feel even better than the coffee tastes.

The power of transformation

On Rene’s right wrist is a tattoo of a butterfly, wide-winged and color rich, inspired by an art installation of real butterflies that once hung in the store. It’s meant to represent transformation, and an evolution of becoming – the perfect symbol for Rene’s new phase of life. If buying and owning a new business isn’t enough, Rene also recently announced her engagement. Where did she meet her fiancé? I’ll give you one guess.

Rene’s life advice is simple, though not always easy to implement. “We all go through things,” she says. “But it’s the diligence of not giving up that makes the difference. Press forward with your dreams.”