Our relationships with our parents in childhood don’t always end up being what we would’ve hoped. In this episode of Home. Made., we hear from two people who got a chance to get to know their dads again in adulthood.
Going Home To The Family Business
Our first story begins with Henry Kalebjian, who had a problem: he had no one to take over the San Francisco coffee shop that he had spent decades building and pouring his heart, soul and all of his time into.
In Armenian culture, there’s often an understanding that children will one day take over the family business. But Henry’s adult son Hrag wasn’t interested in that.
Hrag hated having to go work at the coffee shop when he was a kid. His dad would take him there on the weekends, when he’d rather be doing other things. During the week, his dad was so busy with the shop that he had little time to spend with Hrag.
“My dad was working 7 days a week, so I missed out on playing soccer with my dad or going to the park with my dad,” Hrag says in this episode.
After college, Hrag ended up in a corporate career that kept him similarly busy. And it wore on him. Eventually, going home to take over the family business didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
But when he finally did join his dad at Henry’s House of Coffee in 2013, Hrag and Henry struggled to see eye-to-eye on the direction the business should take.
Henry and Hrag Kalebjian
Hrag wanted to make things more efficient, but Henry didn’t want to change the way he’d been running his business since the ’80s.
“You’re an 80-year-old man, 50, 60 years you built something,” Henry says in the episode. “Somebody comes and takes it away from you. How do you feel? It hurts you.”
If they wanted the business to be successful – and, perhaps more importantly, if they wanted to make up for the quality time they rarely got when Hrag was a kid – they’d need to learn how to work together.
On The Road With Dad
A few years ago, Holly Patton decided to take a road trip with her dad.
Holly and her dad had never been particularly close. With eight siblings to compete with, one-on-one time with her parents was hard to come by. But Holly’s dad, Bo, had recently been diagnosed with dementia, and she wanted to capture as many of his memories as she could before they were taken from him.
Though she was nervous to spend so much time alone with a dad she didn’t know all that well, she wanted to take Bo on a tour of his life in Tennessee. They went to his old high school and visited Vanderbilt University, where he played football. He told her stories about college recruiters and meeting her mom.
“And it was truly astounding to see, some of the memories he could come up with, just like names of people,” Holly tells our host, Stephanie Foo. “And he remembered the name of the recruiter from Ole Miss that came to talk to him and the recruiter from the University of Alabama that came. Like just random things.”
He talked about feeling lost after leaving college, not knowing what he wanted to do with his life.
“Some of the feelings he talked about in trying to figure that out resonated with me just because I'm still actively trying to figure things out,” Holly says.
Holly Patton and her dad, Bo. (Photo credit: Erin McCall)
Some memories seemed to come easily to him. Others, such as details of Holly’s childhood, were harder for him to access. This was hard for Holly to hear, but in having these conversations with him, she’s finally been able to properly get to know her dad in a way she wasn’t able to when she was a kid.
In the time since their road trip, they’ve built a stronger relationship. And even though many of his memories are gone, Holly and her dad have been able to create new ones together.
Learn more about the host of Home. Made., award winning journalist Stephanie Foo on our host page.
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STEPHANIE FOO: About 10 years ago, Henry Kalebjian, a proud coffee shop owner in San Francisco, had a problem. He was getting old and needed help running the place. But his children weren’t interested in the family business.
HENRY KALEBJIAN: Oh. That's a very, very sad story. I think there will be times I would cry. I would get mad at my kids that they did not take over.
STEPHANIE FOO: Henry had built up Henry’s House of Coffee from nothing. It had kept generations of local residents well caffeinated.
HENRY KALEBJIAN: Once in a while, I see a young gentleman comes with a kid and turns around and said, “This man, when I was your age, my dad used to come and he used to teach how to make coffee to my dad, and now he taught to me, now he's going to teach you.” It gives me great, great, great pleasure.
STEPHANIE FOO: Who would take care of his loyal customers? Who would carry on his legacy? After months of lowball offers from unfriendly business types, Henry finally found someone to take over. But then things quickly went sideways.
HENRY KALEBJIAN: It really hurts me to see how he's changing the store you know? It is my home.
STEPHANIE FOO: The guy ruining his business? His own son.
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Home. Made., an original podcast by Rocket Mortgage® about the meaning of homes and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo. In this episode, two people with difficult, distant fathers who decide to go home and rebuild their relationships with them.
STEPHANIE FOO: Henry’s House of Coffee sat in the Outer Sunset district of San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park. Coffee shops are a dime a dozen, but the House of Coffee was different. Next to the counter you could find a 12-kilo roaster, where Henry would turn green coffee beans into fragrant brown ones all day long. Henry is Armenian. He came to America from Lebanon to pursue a career in mechanical drafting. But when those jobs dried up in the early ’80s, someone told him about a small Middle Eastern corner store for sale. When Henry saw a roaster there, he decided his future was in coffee, not groceries. Starbucks was becoming a thing, so he turned the store into a cafe. Henry perfected his roast. People started coming in for cups of coffee and bags of beans. And the shop did well enough that Henry opened three other locations. The chain thrived for decades. But then Henry started to slow down. He was now in his 70s. So he sold or shut down his three satellite cafes, and looked for someone to take over the flagship location. In Armenian culture, there is an unspoken understanding that the family business will pass to the children. So when Henry’s son Hrag was a young boy he would take him to the cafe.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: I hated it because when I would work with him, it was on the weekends. I wanted to watch cartoons. I wanted to play with my friends.
STEPHANIE FOO: Upfront Henry was having a grand old time.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: Yeah, he was selling coffee, but this was his extended family.
STEPHANIE FOO: He was laughing, and chatting up a storm with his customers. Kind of the opposite of what he was like at home.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: My dad was working 7 days a week, so I missed out on playing soccer with my dad or going to the park with my dad. Yeah, we spent time together. But I think most of the time, it was him just kind of trying to take a break from work. The challenge there is you're also taking a break from your kids.
STEPHANIE FOO: That challenge transferred from father to son when, after college, Hrag started working as a business analyst. He was constantly on the road, traveling from one sales office to another. And Henry recognized this behavior.
HENRY KALEBJIAN: I said, “Damn it, he's going through the same thing that I am going through.” I felt guilty. I felt sad. I did a big, big mistake in my life that I did not enjoy my kids on the weekends. I said, “Look Hrag, why don't you come and take over this business.”
STEPHANIE FOO: Henry thought his son could profit from his own sacrifice, take it easier than he’d had it. Not have to work every weekend, spend more time with his own young family. But at first, Hrag wasn’t interested. He was making good money doing what he loved, exploring the mathematics behind big business.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: During those meetings, I would have wonderful insights on how businesses run. I slowly started thinking about, “Oh, I wonder how my dad does that.”
STEPHANIE FOO: Eventually, the prospect seemed more and more compelling. It was the same math, same challenges he was looking at, just on a smaller scale. Over time, the travel started to wear on Hrag. Corporate bureaucracy was frustrating. His work was getting more competitive. All of these things could be solved by just accepting his father’s offer.
HENRY KALEBJIAN: I look at my wife and we were so happy that somebody is going to take over.
STEPHANIE FOO: On a sunny San Francisco day in 2013, Hrag showed up for his first shift at Henry’s House of Coffee.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: My first day stepping into the cafe was a little bit of anxiety, if I'm being honest. Hmm, did I make the right decision here? I am talking to customers. I'm smelling the milk steaming and the coffee brewing. I'm stepping on tile that has coffee grinds on it. I'm like a barista and it didn't feel sexy to me.
STEPHANIE FOO: These were the terms of Hrag’s employment. He had to work his way up from the bottom. Make the drinks, man the cash register, clean the toilets. Until Hrag could earn the trust of the employees, and longtime customers, Henry was still the boss. The difference between all of this, and his former life – corporate office, direct reports, expense account – was a lot to process. Everything in his father’s cafe was old school. The cash register didn’t even calculate change.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: I was not expecting like, oh crap. Yeah, that's right. You gave me a 20, product costs $2.75. So I had to quick, like for a split second there, I was paused, like frozen. How do I do this?
HRAG KALEBJIAN: How did my dad ever … I give them a lot of credit because I was like I've been spending 80% of my time just dealing with employee stuff. How do you even find time to roast? How do you find time to market? How do you find time to bring in new products? This sucks. This is not fun. It was tough. So after that first 6 months, I feel like psychologically I was back in the back of the shop as a 12 year old, like not watching cartoons. I thought s***, I think I made a mistake.
STEPHANIE FOO: Coffee life was a grind. Way harder than Hrag expected. On one hand, he was impressed with his father’s skills. On the other hand, something had to change for him to stay. After paying his dues for 6 months, Hrag decided to step out from behind the counter and start making some changes. He had noticed that they would always run out of milk midweek, and Henry would just drive to a corner store and get more. So Hrag calculated the amount of milk needed, created a milk order form, and hired a delivery service at a higher cost. This was Hrag’s first business move. Henry flipped out.
HENRY KALEBJIAN: When he wants to do something, he does it without telling me. That pisses me off that. I said, “No, I like to go and buy.”
STEPHANIE FOO: They got in a big argument in front of the customers. And then it followed them home. Over a few gallons of milk.
HENRY KALEBJIAN: You're an 80-years-old man, 50, 60 years you built something. Somebody comes and takes it away from you. How do you feel? It hurts you.
STEPHANIE FOO: It was like Hrag had come into Henry’s home and rearranged the furniture overnight.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: You don't grow up telling your dad what to do. You don't tell your dad that he needs to do what he's been doing for 30 years in a different way. But when you're business partners, you have to, especially if it's something that you feel like it has to be done.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: I mean, look, if you want to grow and you want to take the business to the next level, you want to be efficient. Me personally, I want to have a balanced life where I can be with my children. I'm going to change stuff. I'm sorry if you don't like it. But just stick with me. It's for the better. That took some time.
STEPHANIE FOO: As Hrag dove deeper into Henry’s business, he saw it wasn’t structured for a balanced lifestyle. But he also saw a solution to it, a business solution. He just needed some help getting Henry to agree to it. So he turned to the one person who could help. His mother.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: In Lebanese culture that's the trick. The moms have a very good way of convincing the dads to do certain things.
STEPHANIE FOO: With Henry at work all the time, growing up, Hrag’s mother ran the household, and she was who the kids turned to when they had a problem with their dad. But the other reason Hrag turned to his mom was because she was the coffee shop’s bookkeeper. She had looked after their financials since the beginning.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: So, my mom's like, “Oh, my God. This is brilliant. You're so amazing,” and my dad's silent the whole time. So, at one point, I cut my mom off. I'm like, “Dad, what do you think?” In Armenian, he says, “I feel like everything's being taken from me.” I was like, “What the f***?” Sorry. “What the f*** do you mean everything is being taken from me? This is a little s*****, tiny, stupid little milk form that you don't even do yourself.” That was what was going on in my head. I didn't actively say this out loud.
STEPHANIE FOO: Instead Hrag’s mom broke down the new approach for Henry, and explained why it was good for business. She also endorsed Hrag’s next idea, to cut down on the amount of different blends the coffee shop sold, in order to save money. At the same time, Hrag realized he couldn’t always run to his mother for support.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: As I thought about it that night, I thought, “OK, I need to make sure that my father feels valued in this business. Because if he's reacting this way to a milk order form, how is he going to feel when I rebrand the business or I get rid of coffees that don’t sell?”
STEPHANIE FOO: Because that’s what Hrag did. He updated the look of the cafe and revamped its online business. Just like with his dad, Hrag explained these new policies gently to the customers. Why their favorite blend was no longer on the menu, or why some of them no longer got a free latte with their bag of beans. And those decisions started to pay off, especially online. They went from just 24 orders a month to thousands a day. And now the business is a lot more digital, it kind of runs itself. So Hrag and Henry can spend more time just hanging out. The time together has been really valuable to both of them.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: On Halloween, my dad, he will put on a wig or some funky thing because it's Halloween. I was like, wait a minute. We never even went trick or treating together. But this guy, in his shop, he's like Halloween guy giving away candy to kids and stuff. I mean, I kind of looked at him in a different light, like yeah, my dad's kind of a cool, funny guy. I learn things about him that I didn't know. He tells me stories. These are things that I didn't have when I was a kid. I've gotten a lot closer with my dad because of business, which is funny, because that was the exact opposite as a kid, right?
STEPHANIE FOO: These days, Hrag is the boss. Henry only comes in for a half day a few times a week. But Hrag has found a way to make his dad still feel valued. Henry is the head roaster. That’s his domain. And Henry leaves the rest to Hrag.
HENRY KALEBJIAN: Me let go? I did let go. What else do you want? When I see myself and my kid, makes me very proud, very proud, especially what Hrag is doing now, the same thing that I used to do. It brings the family all together.
HRAG KALEBJIAN: When you're a 12-year-old you don't know all the things that it takes to be a parent. So it's actually given me a lot of foresight into how to be a better father with my kids because of what my father has taught me.
STEPHANIE FOO: Finally getting to spend quality time with his father has taught Hrag the value of doing the same with his own kids. To not work all of the time. To not be tired and distant at home. And he hopes that by doing so, maybe one day the coffee shop will pass to the next generation. On Hrag’s first day at the House of Coffee, his wife took a picture of him and Henry. That picture is now printed on every bag of beans they sell. Father and son, at home together, in business.
STEPHANIE FOO: In our next story, a woman goes home to spend some time with her father. Time she didn’t get as a child. But she has another agenda in mind: To capture family memories before it’s too late.
STEPHANIE FOO: A few years ago, Holly Patton was flying home from New York to Nashville. In the seats across from her, a group of boisterous girls were laughing, kicking off their bachelorette party. But for Holly, this trip had a very different mood.
HOLLY PATTON: I love visiting my family. I love Nashville. But I was coming back to really get into some of the parts of my current life that were really painful and sad.
STEPHANIE FOO: Holly first noticed that something was wrong with her dad a couple years earlier, at her wedding. The night before the ceremony, everyone was getting ready to go to the rehearsal dinner.
HOLLY PATTON: I'm standing at the top of the stairs, and I hear my mom in the living room ask my dad to go get dressed. He says, “For what?”
STEPHANIE FOO: He’d forgotten about the wedding.
HOLLY PATTON: I think that honestly, what's sad about memory loss as a whole, is that it doesn't really discriminate against certain memories. Because I don't think that he wasn't trying to block that out.
STEPHANIE FOO: Of course, yeah.
STEPHANIE FOO: For years, Holly’s dad had been absent minded. But now the family realized something more serious was going on. Finally, they got the diagnosis: dementia. When Holly’s mom told her about it…
HOLLY PATTON: I remember just being immediately sad because I know how important memory is to my entire family, especially my dad.
STEPHANIE FOO: Growing up, home was a busy place. Her parents had nine kids. Holly’s dad was always telling stories and cracking jokes. But there was another side to him that she remembers.
HOLLY PATTON: Dad and I, we were never close. His emotional availability, it was just really surface level. He was kind to me, I knew. I never doubted that he loved me. We got along as well as I think we could have gotten along.
STEPHANIE FOO: So Holly didn’t really get to know her emotionally removed father. And now, there was no way of predicting when his memory might fully go. Like there was an expiration date on building a better relationship with him.
HOLLY PATTON: You just don't really know what the timeline is, what memories will go first or what memories will stick around.
STEPHANIE FOO: One thing Holly knew about her dad was that he loved football. He played in high school and then at Vanderbilt University. He also coached her brothers. But she didn’t know the details of what the sport meant to him.
HOLLY PATTON: I know that football was just foundational for him and I wanted to hear him hash out some memories because I knew that it's 22 years of his life. I knew that he had memories that he had never talked about with me.
STEPHANIE FOO: So Holly had an idea. To get to know her dad better, she should start with the football. Ask him questions that would maybe spark his memory. Learn about who he was and the choices he made as a teenager and young adult. She decided to fly down to Nashville, but as she got ready to go, something occurred to her. What if they went on a road trip to those football fields? The ones her father played on back then. Maybe the physical environments would unlock memories and feelings. Maybe they wouldn’t. But it was worth a try. She mentioned it to him, and he was really excited to do it, more excited than she expected.
STEPHANIE FOO: Were you nervous?
HOLLY PATTON: I hadn't spent this much alone time with my dad in maybe ever. Yeah, long story short, heavy, nervous.
STEPHANIE FOO: Holly and her father had barely ever shared a single extended conversation. And now they were setting off just the two of them for hours of talking. The first stop was 3 hours away, a town called Sweetwater where he had attended high school. She recorded a bunch of their conversations in voice memos.
HOLLY PATTON: Do you know where you're going?
BO PATTON: I know this is Oakland road.
HOLLY PATTON: It was actually really cool because my dad knew exactly where he was going as soon as we pulled in off the exit. Remembered the road names, remembered everything. So he got out of the car and was just taking me around everywhere.
STEPHANIE FOO: He showed Holly his old history classroom, his old bible classroom. They walked over to specific windows and mobiles. But the school had closed long ago and the grounds had become neglected. Crumbling buildings, overgrown weeds.
HOLLY PATTON: My dad is not an overly emotional person, but he kind of just said, “This is sad.”
STEPHANIE FOO: But then they headed to the football field.
HOLLY PATTON: It was like watching a kid at some points remembering football plays. Remembering just carefree glory of childhood and so getting able to be a part of that and him letting me into that was really fun just to see just a different side of my dad that I hadn't seen at least in a long time. And it was truly astounding to see some of the memories he could come up with, just like names of people. And he remembered the name of the recruiter from Ole Miss that came to talk to him and the recruiter from the University of Alabama that came. Like just random things.
BO PATTON: The coach that offered me a scholarship in Alabama was Coach Sloan who became my head coach.
HOLLY PATTON: Head coach at Alabama. Wow.
HOLLY PATTON: I learned that deeper than that what football gave him. That was a sense of belonging and there was a sense of place.
STEPHANIE FOO: After that, Holly and her dad drove to Vanderbilt. He marveled at the modern facilities, the top-level trainers and private chefs. He told Holly how he had met her mother there. She felt like she was finally seeing a fuller picture of him.
HOLLY PATTON: Like who he was becoming at that point in his life, of who he was becoming as a man and his relationship with my mom and his career aspirations. I mean, he and my mom had their first child when they were 22. And so they were really, really young parents.
STEPHANIE FOO: He told Holly about not knowing what to do with his life after college, what he wanted life to look like for himself and her mom. She didn’t know that he had seriously considered playing pro football before deciding to go into the Navy.
HOLLY PATTON: Some of the feelings he talked about in trying to figure that out resonated with me just because I'm still actively trying to figure things out.
STEPHANIE FOO: Finally, they visited her old high school, and a flood of memories came back to Holly too. All of the places she used to hang with friends, learning how to drive, the family dog, and of course Friday night football games, ones where her father used to coach her brothers. The memory of those games came back to him as easy as turning on a switch.
HOLLY PATTON: He can remember details about my brother's high school football teams that are honestly astounding. I'm like, how do you remember that?
STEPHANIE FOO: After visiting all three schools, it was time to drive home. But the conversation was easier now that he’d loosened up and shared so much with her. He seemed so much more open than he’d ever been before. And so the conversation started turning towards the elephant in the room. How he felt about his dementia.
HOLLY PATTON: Is it hard to talk about it with your kids?
BO PATTON: You're kinda the first one having this conversation.
HOLLY PATTON: Really?
BO PATTON: Yeah...I also want to stay quote unquote as normal as possible because I don't want mom to feel like, OK, there's some more heavy lifting I gotta do. I don't want to be any more of a burden to her than I am.
STEPHANIE FOO: He was less worried about his own experience than about the pain it would put her family through.
HOLLY PATTON: Yes. There's some definite selflessness and there's also just an extreme strain of independence, I think, of not wanting to have to rely on people, I guess, in that way.
STEPHANIE FOO: And then finally, after a day full of memories of his high school, about football, about her brothers, Holly needed to know, what did her dad remember about her? What memories did he have left of her childhood? The following clip is a bit hard to hear.
BO PATTON: I'm lacking a lot of specific details. It’s not gone, gone but I've lost some history that has become faint.
STEPHANIE FOO: But Holly’s dad said there were details he couldn’t remember about her childhood. Finally, here were some memories he couldn’t unlock. Holly stopped recording at this point. And she told him this was very hurtful to her.
STEPHANIE FOO: Did he apologize? What did he say? Do you remember?
HOLLY PATTON: I'm trying to remember exactly what he said and it, I may have blocked it out because it was painful.
STEPHANIE FOO: That's totally fine.
HOLLY PATTON: Yes, yes. I don't remember it being overly emotional or anything, but I remember him listening and receiving it and that's something.
STEPHANIE FOO: But he did tell her this.
HOLLY PATTON: “On the positive side of things I didn't really have to worry about you. I didn't think that you were going to do anything that was going to send you down a bad path.” And in a way I was, I took it as a compliment and I was like, oh, I'm so glad that you thought highly of me in that way. But also, looking back on my own life and knowing how much I've had moments of flailing and really not being certain about anything. And later on was like, maybe that just means I haven't really shown them what was going on internally. I don’t know.
STEPHANIE FOO: Hmm. Maybe you had also been too, like your dad, had been too afraid to be vulnerable.
HOLLY PATTON: Yes my dad and I are very, very similar in a lot of different ways. I heard some of the same things in his answers that I process in my own.
STEPHANIE FOO: Of course, people with dementia don’t have control over the memories they keep or lose. This wasn’t her father’s fault. But Holly couldn’t help assigning meaning to why the memories involving her weren’t important enough to stay. Holly thought, maybe her dad didn’t have any memories from her childhood because he’d been distant, or he hadn’t been paying attention. But, as Holly looked back on her life, she realized maybe it was because she always tried to make herself small. Whenever she had struggled through anything as a kid, she swept it under the rug. She thought now, she should have asked for help, should have been more genuine instead of stubbornly independent, just like her father.
STEPHANIE FOO: So do you feel like it's sort of encouraged you to be more vulnerable to the people around you?
HOLLY PATTON: I do. But I think also, just I'm the only person that can summon that courage or willpower to say something because watching my dad, there's just been something all the time that can pull one away from speaking up and asking for something. I definitely am more keen to just to recognize some things that don't need to be shoved away.
STEPHANIE FOO: In the years since this happened, Holly’s dad’s dementia has progressed. He hasn’t gotten back his memories of her, from the past. But now, maybe because of that, he seems more determined than ever to spend as much of the present with her as possible. When Holly goes home to Nashville, he wants to go everywhere with her. He asks to follow her to the grocery store, to sit chatting with her on the porch. Holly has gone from having no one-on-one time with her dad to hours and hours of his attention. And while she didn’t get what she first came for – his memories of her – she can create different memories that she will remember. When they hang out, Holly’s dad asks her this question: What are your plans for the future? It’s a small thing, really. But it means a lot to her. Because that question is an offer. An effort to finally allow her to be seen.
STEPHANIE FOO: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. Thanks for listening.
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Home. Made. Podcast By Rocket Mortgage®
October 11, 2022
Home. Made. is a new, original podcast from Rocket Mortgage® hosted by Stephanie Foo. It starts with a simple concept: Inside every home, there’s a story.