Haley Prater has spent the past 20 years inside of a box. She memorizes names, makes coffee and tea of all kinds and includes her cheery demeanor with every order she delivers through two small windows.

Prater, 39, celebrated her two decades working at Rocket Joe, the East Sacramento (5636 J Street) walk-up and drive-thru kiosk, by buying the business with her husband of 15 years, Bobby Prater, 40. The couple’s first day of ownership was September 1. Northern California’s first drive-thru coffee business opened in a former photography processing lab in 1993 and was called Cuppa Java.

Haley and Bobby Prater on the Rocket Joe coffee kiosk in East Sacramento.
Haley and Bobby Prater on the Rocket Joe coffee kiosk in East Sacramento. Image © James Raia/2017

Philip Courey, owner of the small J Street Center that features the Greek restaurant Opa! Opa!, bought the business in 1997. He renamed the shop Rocket Joe after his son, Joe. Haley, who also worked at nearby Muffins Etc. began working in the kiosk part-time a few months later at age 19. She calls nearly every customer by their first name and knows their orders before they order. The couple works seven days a week.

What’s it been like to work here, basically in a 11-by-11 kiosk, for 20 years?

Haley: I just love it. I like to talk to customers and make people happy and to help them start their day right. My grandfather owned a restaurant on Fair Oaks Blvd. in Carmichael. It was a small drive-in. I wish he still had it so that I could work in the restaurant. I think it’s something ingrained in me. I love getting up and going to work in the morning. I don’t get up and say, “Oh, my God. I have to go to work.”

Bobby: As Haley has said, it doesn’t really feel like you’re working. You come it; you chitchat with people. You get to know people. You come to work and socialize. Customers have said they look at Haley from their car windows and it looks like she’s dancing.

How did you decide to buy the business?

Haley: He [Phil] had started talking to us about five years ago or maybe four but my mom had had a stroke and we weren’t ready. It was pretty severe stroke and [we] lived with her at the Kaiser Permenante location in Vallejo for five weeks. It just wasn’t the time for us. But my mom is alive and she’s feisty, which is good sometimes and she’s independent now. But Bobby lost his job after 13 years. I heard rumors Phil was going to sell it, so it was a great opportunity to see if we could buy the business. We thought, “Let’s go for it. Let’s take the jump and a leap of faith.”

You always seem upbeat. What happens if someone comes to the window in a bad mood and takes it out on you?

Haley: You kill ’em with kindness. If you come back at somebody who’s combative the same way, that’s not going to do anything but cause friction. It’s better if you can defuse the situation with a few kind words and thank them for coming in. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. You don’t want to put them in even a worse mood. I want them to say, “I was in a bad mood, but I came and saw Haley and Bobby at Rocket Joe and they helped me with what I was going through.”

If you have a slow time, do you step outside for a break?

Haley: No, not really. We use the restrooms at Opa, but we have a little TV in the corner. We only get about 15 channels, so we only watch the old shows, like Andy Griffith and I Dream of Jeannie.

What kind of coffee do you use?

Haley: We use an Italia roast, an espresso. We get it from the East Coast. I really like it. It’s a dark roast. If you like a weaker coffee, you don’t want to have it.

As new owners, do you have some new plans for the business?

Haley: On Tuesday, when you come in you get two stamps [on a buyer’s card]. And we are going to start to do Christmas in July. People really like the holidays. And we are going to be the home of the year-round pumpkin spice latte. People love it. And we’ve just started talking with FoodJets yesterday. They’ll deliver the coffee here and Midtown. I am going to start talking with businesses in office buildings.

You’re a husband and wife working together. How’s it going?

Bobby: The first thing I am learning is when Haley is talking to a customer, do I stand up here [close to the register] ? Or do I stand back here [near the preparation area]? I am trying to stay out of trouble as much as I can.

(Originally published Sept. 14, 2017 in the Sacramento News & Review)

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