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A Little Yak With Mike Kerns, YAKS Owner

I talk with Mike Kerns, who, with his wife Nancy, owns the local YAKS coffee houses in Redding. Nancy hails form Albany. Ore, and Mike’s from Mt. Shasta. The couple likes to say that they’ve  lived a life of entrepreneurial successes and failures, and each venture has served as their business classroom. Nancy attended college in Corvalis, and was runner-up for Miss Oregon in 1985. Mike completed his AA at College of the Siskiyous and earned his BA at ORU in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

As co-founders of YAKS, Nancy serves as coach and quality control, while Mike says he drinks way to many espressos and is the senior pastor of the Vineyard City Church. They have two teenage daughters, Sarah, 16, a sophomore at Anderson New Tech, and Sheree, 18, a senior at Southern Oregon University. The couple’s long-range plans include living and dying in Redding and hopefully – one day – having many grandchildren.

Q: Mike, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. I know you are super busy, so I really appreciate your taking time to answer my questions.

First, for those who just landed in the North State and know nothing about YAKS. What is Yaks, exactly?

We have given ourselves to creating some of Redding’s finest “Living rooms.” Each location is a synthesis of local art, aesthetic décor, and unique interior design. Our hope is to be a place where the community can gather comfortably and eat and drink great goodies. We currently have five  locations in Redding: 3274 Bechelli Lane, 1712 Churn Creek, (behind Dairy Queen), 1715 South St., 930 Hilltop Drive (next to the Sweet Spot), and 913 Dana Dr. (next to Jamba Juice).

Q: I remember before YAKS arrived in Redding, you had a clever marketing strategy to create a buzz. “What the heck is YAKS?”  What a great campaign idea.

It was the brain child of one of our staff members and was a huge hit with the Redding community. We placed signs wherever we could around town and got everyone talking about us before we ever opened. From radio DJ’s to high school English classes. Some of the best guesses were either a new minor league baseball team or a new cell phone company. People still talk about it to this day.

Q: Of course, I have to ask. Where did the name YAKS come from?

We were in a brainstorming session and were joking about how many coffee shops there were and I wrote in my notes, “yes another coffee shop.” We then changed the “c” in coffee to a “k.” The rest is as they say history.

Q: What other kinds of unorthodox out–of the-business-box strategies to you use?

We love guerilla marketing and with the advent of social media it’s more doable than ever before for small businesses with little to no ad budgets. Take, for instance, our video posting on the Facebook page for the South Street store. Each morning our barista posts a humorous video highlighting the day’s specials. Our people are just amazing.

Q: Your YAKS all have a distinct, arty, comfortable look. Do you have a formula of sorts that helps you achieve that look?

The credit goes to my wife Nancy and the team of artists that come together with the creation of each new location. We have done six stores so far and  the most common theme is reflected in the use of texture on the walls. In addition, our furnishings and fixtures are not your usual restaurant type.

It is an eclectic mix of styles, textures and colors. We are most proud of the local art and the contribution each artist makes in the overall design. Dan Ferrarese’s input and art are seen in every shop. From wall textures to clay sculptors to glass table tops and custom designed bases in the style of “found art,” his hand prints are the most predominant.

Q; The look is one thing, but the coffee and food are another. Can you talk about what makes YAKS food and coffee distinct?

We started with a simple concept and value: we would never serve something that we ourselves wouldn’t be willing to pay for if we were the customer. Every food and drink item at YAKS has been created by our in house “food artists” and must be something we would love to eat or drink personally. This means that all our breads, bagels, pastries, salad dressings, croutons, cookies and coffee are painstakingly prepared from scratch using the best available ingredients possible.

We started roasting our own coffees about  four years ago primarily out of a need for better margins and quality control. We currently roast both conventional and fair trade organic coffees from Ethiopia, Sumatra, Costa Rico, Brazil, El Salvador and Colombia. We are always sampling coffees from all over the world and can satisfy anyone’s special request.

I roast Thursday nights and 6 p.m. (at Bechelli Lane) and the public is welcome to come by and watch and smell.

Q: I just heard about your newest YAKS, over in the Shasta Center, off Churn Creek, formerly Sue’s Java. When did that YAKS open?

It’s been a little over three weeks now, and we love all our new friends.

Q: I’ll bet that most YAKS customers are like me, that people have their favorite YAKS. For example, I’m partial to the South Street YAKS, because it’s closer to where I live. Do you find that certain kinds of customers seem to gravitate to different Yaks? Do you have ways you think of the different YAKS, like the little one, the big one, the busy one, the mellow one, etc.

We definitely have seen this. Each store, because of its location, has a unique feel as well as clientele. Downtown tends to be more business professionals. Bechelli draws more groups and seniors while students and tourists tend to gravitate towards South Street and Dana Drive. We are still waiting and watching at Churn Creek.

But one thing we have noticed is that if someone has their favorite store they will drive across town to go to it. As for special names, only Bechelli Lane, we call it the “mother ship.”

Q: Speaking of the South Street Yaks, it was closed for a while, but I’m so happy that it’s back in business. Can you talk about what happened?

A perfect storm of vandalism and theft. Within three weeks we suffered the sting from each which caused us to close and rethink our strategy. It took almost five months and we hope to be around for a long time.

Q: You and Nancy have created quite a YAKS empire. Is that what you had in mind?

If,  by empire, you mean multiple stores, then yes it was planned from the start. We love creating venues for people to enjoy good food, good drinks and good times with friends

Q: Where do you see YAKS heading?

We hope to one day have a franchisable model. We get many requests for YAKS  in other communities. If all factors come together in the right way at the right time it could be possible. We are still learning to navigate the current economic realties but are hopeful along with many others things will get better.

Q: Anything else happening in the YAKS universe that you’d like to share, or anything else you’d like us to know?

YAKS was started as an extension of the values shared by a faith community known as Vineyard City Church. These values include job creation, compassion and benevolence, as well as quality product and service.

We began almost nine years ago with volunteers as a nonprofit, which allowed us to give away our profits each month to worthy and underfunded organizations.

Within the first year or so we were forced to change our model and had to redirect our profits to cover labor costs. As the economy continued to tank, any and all profits disappeared, and other than being a living room to our community and providing jobs, our benevolence has been slim, to say the least.

To this day each and every person associated with YAKS is a paid employee. We currently provide over 40 jobs to folks here in Redding and hope to innovate ourselves into an even greater job provider in the future.

As the future unfolds YAKS  is on track to become a for-profit business with the hope that when we become profitable we can once again use those profits for the things that we think are near and dear to God’s heart.

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.