Leighton Hollingsworth and I created, built, and operated Commonwealth Cafe, Circa 2007-2008. I saw a sign that read “I Want You to Invest in a Local Start Up” (in the style of the old Uncle Sam war poster) Leighton posted on a pole in front of Whole Foods, and we shook hands on making a go of it the very next day. I was going to bring the capital and co-create the cafe, and Leighton was the idea man and had restaurant and construction experience.
The site for Commonwealth Cafe was in the neighborhood of North Park, in San Diego, CA. It was a narrow, deep space of about 800’sq. between “The Bluefoot,” a bar with no food service, and a mom and pop Mexican take-out joint. A sex shop had previously occupied the space, but had moved out. Using his vision and will, Leighton decided to take a gamble on the site as perfect for a his dream of a “old railcar diner”-inspired, late-nite eatery. When I came on board, Leighton was two months behind on rent.
Every inch of the space was improved, rehabbed, or altered. We received no rent credit from the landlord for the capital improvements, so it was a lot of hard work and capital. We dug up concrete, tore down walls, put in new electrical and plumbing, pried up old asbestos tile, and dealt with the lath and plaster walls.
The diner was met with skepticism by my family. They perceived it as dubious, risky, and expensive. They noted I lacked much restaurant experience, and they wondered who this Leighton guy was. They worried it was costing too much. Perhaps correctly so. After it tanked, they took a “You broke it, you buy it” stance. It was a hard time, in many ways. The family therapy we were undertaking couldn’t stave off bad feelings. Though I have received much help and support from my mother, she only visited once; my sister didn’t make it out at all; my father never came by. I was following my own North Star, though; as Martin Luther said, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”
I once asked Leighton if he thought I was a hard worker. This was important to me because I was only required to contribute money, but found the project engaging and inspiring enough to really put my back into. Leighton replied, “Hell yes I think you’re a hard worker!” Thus, it was a valuable interaction which I never forgot.
I wrote Leighton a check for past-due rent after a brief meeting on Day 1. He could hardly believe that Jason would trust him with the money – sans contract no less. But I simply believed he could trust him. I did a lot to support Leighton, but it was a commitment I saw through to the end. Eventually, I felt proud and vindicated once Commonwealth opened.
Ironically, and tragically, we had no idea the City of San Diego would prevent us from staying open past midnight, as was our business plan. Zoning bullshit.
Leighton has two very remarkable modes: pretty austere, with his deep voice and obvious confidence. The other is lighthearted, funny, and witty.
The menu was carefully thought-out, unique, and the board was hand-painted. Featured were affordable, “Southern rail car diner-inspired comfort foods,” and the meats were all-natural — no antibiotics, hormones, preservatives, etc. The beef, from a local producer of Piedmontese cattle, was humanely-treated.
Many nights Commonwealth was full, the cooks and servers were hustling and wowing the customers, and the cash register was ringing. Our confidence, teamwork, love, and creativity paid off!
The Cafe saw many challenges — from staffing, to financial, to City government red tape, to the death of food server Riki, to slow nights, to the botched sale, to mixed online reviews. It was a labor of love; it cost them dearly. To this day, I have never been able to bring myself to drive by the place. The Great Recession ate our lunch, so to speak, in early 2009.
A t-shirt Jason kept, now many years old. It has not faded — and may the same always be said of the memory of Commonwealth Cafe!
Leighton’s father was a fighter pilot and is no longer with us. One of the few keepsakes Leighton has is an old photo of him in a cockpit. His helmet featured the image of the “Nite Owls,” the mascot for his squadron. This photo of Leighton displaying Commonwealth’s rendition of his father’s mascot (when they were planning to stay open until 4 a.m.) is poignant.
Those days of working extremely hard, reaching to come up with the right plan, and having a lot of fun are treasured by me now. The licks I took on the project and the skills I learned have paid dividends in subsequent years. It isn’t easy to suffer a major loss, but there was so much merit to the Cafe while it was being built, promoted, and run. It was a really soulful and special place.
Leighton is fond of using the phrases, “my friend,” “brother,” and “much love.” And that is what I felt during our time together. It wasn’t easy, and we didn’t succeed according to some measures. But what an experience it was! Unforgettable. Remarkable. Incredible. Leighton Hollingsworth and I are the only two people on earth who can tell the story of Commonwealth Cafe. It is one of confidence, entrepreneurship, teamwork, love, and creativity. May it live on in our hearts!
Here are quotations about confidence, willingness to risk, love, friendship, capitalism, success, and hard work:
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” ~ Winston Churchill
“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” ~ Albert von Szent-Gyorgi
“I owe as much of my success to an uncompromising obstinacy as to any original ideas.” ~ Albert Einstein
“All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.” ~ Baruch Spinoza
“If you believe in God, he will do half the work – but the last half.” ~ Cyrus Curtis
“There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were loose threads — untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads, it unraveled the tapestry of my life.” ~ Captain Picard in the Star Trek episode, “Tapestry”
“I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom.” ~ Anatole France
“Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.” ~ George S. Patton, Jr.
“It’s not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man actually in the arena, whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause….” ~ Theodore Roosevelt
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” ~ Joseph Campbell
“Our real blessings often appear to us in the shape of pains, losses, and disappointments.” ~ Joseph Addison
“You can be the captain, and I will draw the chart; sailing into destiny! Closer to the Heart.” ~ Neil Peart
“Wisdom is not wisdom when it is derived from books alone.” ~ Horace
“Create a vision and never let the environment, other people’s beliefs, or the limits of what has been done in the past shape your decisions. Ignore conventional wisdom.” ~ Anthony Robbins
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” Grace Hopper
“There is no passion to be found in playing small; in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” ~ Nelson Mandela
“Security is mostly an illusion. It does not exist in nature, nor does human kind as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” ~ Helen Keller
“To work without love is slavery.” ~ Agnes Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa)
“Your work is to discover your work, and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.” ~ Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha)
“The value of life can be measured by how many times your soul has been deeply stirred.” ~ Soichiro Honda
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” ~ Michael Jordan
“I am a part of all I have met.” ~ Alfred Tennyson
“Progress is not made by the cynics or doubters. It is made by those who believe everything is possible.” ~ Carly Fiorina
“Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.” ~ Cecil Beaton
“Advance confidently in the direction of your dreams.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
“How will I know what lies over the next ridge, beyond the next trail’s turning, along a creek, in the corners of my mind, if I don’t give myself permission to wander?” ~ Cathy Johnson
“Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
“We have built a world based on our separation from each other and it is unsustainable. To create a world that is just and sustainable, we must design and build with our oneness in mind, asking ourselves at every point, ‘What is best for the whole?'” ~ Jan Phillips
“No love, no friendship can cross the path of our destiny without leaving some mark on it forever.” ~ Francois Mauriac
“‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Good fortune is best shared.” ~ Unknown
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ~ Ursula K. LeGuin
“Make it a rule of life never to regret and never to look back. Regret is an appalling waste of energy; you can’t build on it; it’s only for wallowing in.” ~ Katherine Mansfield
“Creativity depends on a number of things: experience, including knowledge and technical skills; talent; an ability to think in new ways; and the capacity to push through uncreative dry spells. Intrinsic motivation; people who are turned on by their work often work creatively – is especially critical.” ~ Theresa Amabile
“There are a lot of rich folks who are unhappy. There are a lot of wise folks who are unemployed. There are also a lot of people who are happy with their life, but neither wise nor prosperous, and unable to help others because of it. You need to pursue all three pillars in life to have a solid foundation that not only supports you, but your family, loved ones and those less fortunate.” ~ Rod Khleif
“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” ~ Winston Churchill