Pink Owl Coffee is a locally-owned coffee shop that offers much more than a caffeine pitstop.
From the selection and roasting of the beans to the zen ambiance to the creatively concocted coffees and teas in between, this cafe is a must-try local location for anyone who enjoys quality in a cup.
Pink Owl Coffee is owned and operated by Joe Carlo and Saandra Bowlus, a long-term couple who moved from Tampa, FL to Marin in 2016. After vacationing in the Bay Area with their children, Joseph and Robby, the duo decided it was the perfect window of opportunity to move and start a new life on the California coast.
Shortly after coming to Marin, however, Bowlus faced a medical emergency and sought care for a suspicious lump on her breast, despite her health insurance lapsing during the cross-country move.
“Whenever I went to a new provider out here in California, I paid out of pocket because of a lapse in my insurance,” explained Bowlus. “But one doctor, she was very concerned about the lump and called for a mammogram. When they did the mammogram, they immediately pulled me aside and didn’t let me leave the office. They told me I needed an emergency biopsy.
“Without insurance, it was going to cost me $20k, but they told me that they had a private donation grant and doctors who do pro-bono work with Marin General. I was very lucky that Marin General was my place of choice; they took very good care of me, and they made it as easy as possible for me. They started treatment immediately—I was diagnosed in May, and by July they did my double mastectomy.”
Once Bowlus successfully reached remission, she and her partner began to consider what they wanted to pursue in the future. The answer soon became obvious: They both shared a love of good coffee, and Carlo already had experience roasting his own coffee beans as a hobby and a way to make gifts for loved ones. So, they took the leap and began researching and planning their very own coffee shop. Their research phase took them from Bay Area cafes across San Francisco and down to Santa Cruz, all the way to the streets of Manhattan.
“We’ve always loved coffee shops, and after all the stress of the cancer and everything, cafes were a fun place to meet people, hang out and get work done,” said Carlo. “We thought of Pink Owl Coffee after Saandra’s surgery (and a few bottles of wine). We were trying to think of names and realized that most cafes are a color and animal, so we chose pink for breast cancer and owls since they are nocturnal and we love them.”
The first Pink Owl Coffee location opened in San Rafael in 2020, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the difficulties of starting an entrepreneurial endeavor during a pandemic, Carlo and Bowlus were well-equipped to handle any curve balls thrown their way, and with a fair amount of creative thinking and determination, they not only survived—they thrived.
“Opening during COVID was no fun, and it was very scary,” said Carlo. “We realized we had to be able to pivot, and we ended up doing a lot of things we wouldn’t have done without COVID, and it made us smarter. A lot of people got really scared or really lazy with the pandemic, but we decided this wasn’t going to stop us, and we forged ahead!”
The couple opened their second Pink Owl Coffee location in Petaluma in May of 2021 and their third, most recent, San Rafael location on Nov. 22, 2022. As fate would have it, the third Pink Owl Coffee establishment replaced an empty Starbucks building, successfully returning a once-corporate coffee shop to loving local hands.
“It’s amazing we took over the Starbucks location—I used to have an office upstairs, and I’d come down every day for a cold brew, and they went under about a year before the pandemic,” said Carlo. “It was so satisfying to take over the location. I’m just shocked that no one else jumped in on this. It’s all plugged for a cafe, and when Starbucks does something, they go top-of-the-line crazy. Even their lighting/electrical was like…$70k.”
The drinks and dining options offered at Pink Owl Coffee are simultaneously contemporary and comforting, matching the zen atmosphere where locals can socialize, work, read or simply sit and appreciate a tasty treat. All of the coffees are made from organic fair trade beans sourced from across the world and are roasted by their own company roasters. They also offer a wide selection of loose-leaf teas, as well as pastries, mochi donuts and muffins, and other edible delights.
“Another part of running a coffee shop is just creating a fun, really good menu,” explained Carlo. “Saandra and I don’t do everything ourselves when it comes to creative; in fact, every holiday we’ll ask the baristas to all come up with one good drink, so this year we had a snowman mint ube latte and a pistachio matcha latte. These are things the baristas have created, and they’re essential to our fun, colorful menu.”
According to Carlo and Bowlus, the Pink Owl Coffee baristas are hired not by experience in the industry, but by personality instead. From the very beginning, the couple placed significance on building a team that represented their vision of a friendly, warm and welcoming environment that would charm locals and create a community both within and outside of the Pink Owl Coffee establishments.
“We were scared the Marin community wouldn’t be receptive, but everyone’s been absolutely amazing, and the community was so supportive when we opened,” said Carlo. “To this day, we’re always trying to give back in any way we can and help people out. And people have done the same for us. Our employees love us, and we have people who have been with us since the beginning—they’re like family. Money is money; it’s going to come and go, but you have to give back and help out, and the littlest acts of kindness go a long way.”
Pink Owl Coffee has locations at 1816 2nd St. and 1100 4th St. in San Rafael and at 617 E. Washington St. in Petaluma. Online ordering and delivery are available for all of their locations. For more information about Pink Owl Coffee or to place an order, visit the website at pinkowlcoffee.com.