in the coffee business is difficult. Starbucks defined the playing field with no close second in the category. Smaller players have tried to define their own niche, but how do they keep from looking as if they are imitating the leader? It’s A Grind, a coffee house brand based in Long Beach, California can answer that question with confidence. Bob Phibbs, director of marketing and brand identity states, “It’s an exceptional experience that customers get when they enter our stores.” Franchisees and customers playback the “exceptional experience” line when asked about what makes It’s A Grind unique. Exceptional experiences are, to be sure, quite different from person to person. So, just how does one of the fastest growing coffee house brands in America deliver this “exceptional experience”?
“It’s more than delivering just a great cup of coffee,” says Marty Cox, president and founder of It’s A Grind. “Customers want a place to relax, enjoy a cup of coffee, an iced blended drink, or a great pastry in an atmosphere that is comfortable and highly welcoming. Sounds easy, but that combination is hard to create and repeat across the country.” The atmosphere is one of the first things you’ll notice when you walk into an It’s A Grind coffee house, as original artwork featuring notable jazz greats such as Etta James, BB King, John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis, encompass the interior. The high wingback chairs and soft, warm colors make you feel right at home. “The atmosphere is key,” said Cox. “We have our share of customers that want to quickly grab a great cup of coffee on their way to work. We also have a large group of individuals, who want to sit and relax, work on their laptop, or simply enjoy the unique mix of great music. First rule of welcoming is to never make your regulars feel like they need to leave, regardless of how long they choose to make your home theirs. Just think about the qualities of an inviting home, and then genuinely recreate it in a casual business setting. Our reward in going so far is that we create extremely loyal customers, by making them feel like family.”
The proof of success behind Cox’s business philosophy is in perfect tune with the customer relationship driven foundation of the specialty coffee business. Cox attributes the magic behind It’s A Grind’s growth since 1994, when he and his wife Louise Montgomery started the chain in their relentless efforts to create a business culture that customers and staff love. “We still have customers visiting us at the Spring Street location that opened over 10 years ago, when we first hung our sign,” says Cox.
With roots in Long Beach, California, It’s A Grind’s has grown well beyond those original locations in the ‘90s. There are several sprouting in Texas, Arizona, Nevada, New Jersey, Florida, and Colorado, not to mention an explosive growth in the home state of California. In fact, the Los Angeles Business Journal named It’s A Grind the second fastest growing company in the Los Angeles county last year.
The Birth of a Giant Success
“Now we have to think about corporate infrastructure, communication with franchisees and all sorts of other things we never even dreamed of back when we started this company,” says Cox. Store atmosphere is one part of the exceptional experience, but is that all there is to it? Just ask Toby Foreman, director of quality assurance about the coffee served at It’s A Grind locations, and you’ll quickly learn there is a lot more to the exceptional experience than just the atmosphere. “Our high quality signature roasted coffee is the best tasting in the industry,” says Foreman, a veteran in the coffee business and student of the bean. “We take great care in managing the supply of our product from tree to cup,” Foreman adds. “Careful attention to procurement of the highest quality beans, and attention to roasting specifications by our roasting partner Dillanos, in Washington, provides It’s A Grind coffees with a unique, smooth flavor,” Foreman said. He added that It’s A Grind is also “fanatical” about the water used to brew its coffee. Every It’s A Grind location has a water filtration system tailored to its particular water supply. The water is continually monitored at every location to make sure it is pure and will provide the best coffee.
Many chains find themselves on the brink of a rapid expansion plan, but fall short, as they plummet further back. What causes It’s A Grind to avoid an all-too-common growth trap?
Incredible Franchisee Support
According to It’s A Grind c.e.o., Steve Shoeman, the answer is creating an exceptional experience for franchisees from the time they sign the agreement to the ongoing support and consultation they receive from corporate headquarters after they are open. “If we consistently demonstrate and define an ‘exceptional experience’ by dealing with franchisees professionally, with courtesy and respect, we feel they will, in turn, be more likely to deliver that same experience to the customer,” says Shoeman.
“Let’s face it, some franchisors don’t have a strong relationship with their franchisees,” said Shoeman. It’s a Grind is striving for an exceptional relationship with their franchisees. It is critical to them that they have great communication with franchisees. “WE have to be active listeners. Their concerns are our concerns. You lose that, and you soon lose the trust, respect and relationship that is so critical to success,” said Shoeman.
“If our franchisees are distracted by disputes with us, they might be distracted from their focus on the customer. We will have our share of disagreements with franchisees, but we both have to walk away thinking that whatever the outcome, the situation was handled in a professional manner. That attitude is driven home with every It’s A Grind staff member,” said Shoeman. A comfortable, inviting atmosphere, great quality product, and positive franchisee relations - Is there anything more to the “exceptional experience” at It’s A Grind?
If you find yourself signing an It’s A Grind franchise agreement, you will soon become familiar with its two-week immersion into the “exceptional experience” culture. Java University (Java U.) prepares franchisees for the day they begin operating a coffee house, and also introduces the concept of exceptional experiences.
“Sometimes new franchisees arrive at Java University do not realize how demanding this course is,” says Jodi Samsonov, director of operations at It’s A Grind. “Franchisees experience long days and hands-on training at Java University, and they learn everything from how to grind and brew coffee to how to identify a great employee. They also learn how to meet, greet and engage the customer - and that is the beginning of learning about the It’s A Grind experience.”
Franchisees find themselves with even more support after they graduate from It’s A Grind’s Java University. To measure the effectiveness of store openings, It’s A Grind sends a mystery shopper into each new store within two weeks of opening. The mystery shop performed on the store is the same one administered to all It’s A Grind stores every eight weeks. “We know within a day or two of each mystery shop which stores have training challenges and which ones got it,” says Bob Phibbs, director of marketing and brand identity. “Our performance coach is the first line of communication with the franchisee,” adds Samsonov. “These coaches will visit with each franchisee about once per quarter and review their business. We discuss everything from their costs to their bakery case layout. Helping our franchisees be successful is the main goal.”
The Steep Climb Above Starbucks
Building a coffee house brand is a difficult challenge without a well thought-out differentiating factor and great execution. Challengers to Starbucks will find they are up against a formidable opponent armed with a great strategy and first-in-market advantage. Not to mention getting the first crack at locations and Herculean marketing muscle.
Coffee house success, from one modest location to hundreds, lies with the ability of the local owner to craft a relationship with their local clientele. Sounds too simple, doesn’t it? But how many times have you received exceptional service in the last month? How many retail people even attempted to make you feel welcome in their place of business?
It’s A Grind will not measure its success by achieving the number two status in the coffee house industry. Success is measured by the smile on a customers face when they enter and leave their coffee house, and the over-the-top satisfaction that they have created a winning formula for their franchise and their customers.
About the Author: Rick Kowalski is vice president of operations for It’s A Grind, based in Long Beach, California. Kowalski comes from an extensive foodservice background, including notable brands such as KFC, Hilton Hotels, and Dunkin Brands. He can be contacted at Rkowalski@itsagrind.com and (1)(562) 594-5600.