The Happiness Lab: Measuring out Happiness One Cup at a Time
They say you can’t buy happiness, but Onyeka (Ony) Obiocha and Vishal Patel are out to prove that old adage wrong. Ony and Vishal are co-founders of The Happiness Lab, well known to Grovers as ‘the place downstairs’, and billed as ‘the first coffee house in the world dedicated to happiness.’ I admit, the warm, rich sensuousness of a deep, strong latte in the morning is enough to convince me that true happiness can be found in a coffee cup, but that’s a small part of what this duo means by happiness.
Happiness here is a larger concept, where the good you do in the world comes back to nourish you. It has to do with ideas of ethical business practices; a relationship to the world that is echoed in the natural furnishings; the commitment to individual expression, evidenced in their commitment to using their space for local artists to show their work; a non-exploitive relationship with their suppliers who are all Fair Trade growers; and a 1:5 business model where they have committed themselves to an equation where the highest paid employee is limited to no more than 5 times what the lowest paid employee is paid. The business is also registered as a Benefit Corporation. Benefit corporations are for-profit corporate entities whose purpose includes creating general public benefit, which, according to Wikipedia, “includes positive impact on society and the environment, in addition, to profit as its legally defined goals.”
It means a lack of exploitation all the way along the line from the farmer to the distributor to the server. Coffee served at The Happiness Lab is roasted by Happy Life coffee roasters and are exclusively part of a sustainable harvest and workers are paid reasonable wages.
Ony was proving his business acumen as early as the fifth grade when his teacher appointed him manager of the school store for the coming year. When Ony announced this to his parents, they explained that his business career needed to be put on hold as he and his siblings would be going to Nigeria for a year. “Being appointed store manager was really a big thing,” Ony explained, but this was only a pause in his business career.
Ony went on to study economics at the University of Connecticut. After graduation, he went on to work with a start-up company in Hartford, where he was responsible for building out their corporate social responsibility (CSR) work as their Program Development Officer. Both Ony and Vishal were part of reSET’s Accelerator Program in Hartford.
“I met Vishal, co-founder of A Happy Life, in the program and he told me an idea of a startup coffee roasting company with 100% of net profits going to coffee farmers in developing countries. I said, ‘You’re an idiot.’ He said ‘No, hear me out,’ and we’ve been working together ever since.”
Vishal’s path to The Happiness Lab also started early. I couldn’t restrain myself from asking him what made him so devoted to promoting happiness. “Hmmm. Good question, I don’t know. My own happiness means so much to me,” was his initial response. But as he thought about it, he realized that back in high school he had started thinking about happiness and what it means in people’s lives. He delved into Buddhism and other religious traditions and as he put it, came to the conclusion that “life’s too short not to be happy and everyone should have a chance to experience that.”
Several years later, Vishal had a disastrous experience in Nigeria trying to get retailers to sell coffee beans grown locally. He realized that while there might not be a home market for local entrepreneurs’ products in Nigeria, there could be a market in the U.S. The challenge became one of making his brand unique. To distinguish his brand, he unabashedly promoted the idea that treating the farmers fairly would be echoed the happiness enjoyed in a flavorful cup of coffee. He also named all the roasts using words for happiness in various languages. The idea of a coffee shop wouldn’t come till later. All profits would go towards fighting poverty in farming communities. The first community that will profit from this arrangement is Kiema, Tanzania, where Vishal spent many months volunteering as a student and forged a relationship with the local coffee growers.
After The Grove expanded, Slate Ballard, one of the founders of The Grove approached Happy Life Coffee about opening up a café downstairs in the expanded portion of The Grove building. In May 2015, The Happiness Lab had its official opening.
Aside from the ethical business model that brings happiness to their suppliers and employees, The Happiness Lab offers a grab at happiness to its customers through great coffee and other quality of life improvement resources including yoga, meditation classes, and even crayons and drawing supplies!