Archive for May, 2010

 

The story of Echo Coffee

May 27, 2010 by Steve Belt in Echo Coffee

I doubt there is anyone reading this that isn’t aware of my new Scottsdale Coffee Shop, but you might not be aware of some of the story behind the story that is Echo Coffee.

At the time I was first considering a coffee shop, I was reasonably unhappy with my real estate career.  If you missed it, I wrote about what was making me unhappy with real estate on the Phoenix Area Real Estate Blog last August.  It was in May of 2009, however, that the notion of creating a coffee shop began to seriously take hold.  To help you understand, there were a few things that all seemed to blend together which got me on the path.  The first was a presentation at Ignite Phoenix #1 by Austin Baker in August 2008.  He did 5 minutes and 20 slides about what it takes to operate a successful coffee shop.  I didn’t see his presentation in person, but watched it online via UStream (Austin starts approximately minute 26).  Although I didn’t take any action toward creating a coffee shop at the time, apparently Austin’s presentation at Ignite resonated within me somehow, even though I wouldn’t think about it again for nearly 6 months.

Later, in early 2009, I saw a craigslist ad for a coffee shop near Tatum and Greenway in North Phoenix that was being sold.  The owners were apparently moving to Oregon and were selling everything in the shop for $75,000.  Once again, I didn’t take much action, in fact, I didn’t even drive over and look at the place, but my curiosity was piqued, and I now had a pricepoint in my head.

The tipping point, however, came somewhat inoccuously with a simple tweet on Twitter, on a day shortly before I had decided I was getting out of the real estate business and was contemplating what I might do next.  I think the tweet was something as simple as “I’m thinking about opening a coffee shop.”  Almost immediately one of my twitter friends, whom I didn’t actually know (the hazards of having 1500+ “friends” on Twitter), responded with a “me too” type answer.  We chatted via twitter, which quickly progressed to talking over the phone that night.  This twitter friend turned out to be a husband and wife that had owned several restaurants in the past and were thinking about a new restaurant with a dedicated coffee bar.  Immediately I felt like I had found my new purpose in life.  With their prior experience to help pull me along, the partnership fell together easily, and seemed a bit like destiny talking.

For over a month we worked together on their concept.  They had a pretty clear vision of what they wanted, and had already begun considering various locations, menu ideas, etc., so I was left to evaluate their plans, make suggestions, and learn about the business.  I started to visit area coffee shops and refine my personal goal for what the coffee shop component would be like.  And then for reasons not quite clear, we never advanced beyond that evaluation period.  For nearly a month, we didn’t speak, and by mid-August I had decided to move forward on my own.  To this day, I still don’t know exactly what caused the partnership to fizzle, but we are still friends, and keep in touch almost weekly.

As luck would have it, however, I found a different partner almost immediately.  This new partner had never owned a restaurant before, and by this time I had a much more clear vision in my mind of what I wanted the coffee shop to look like.  In describing it to him, I decided to write out a complete business plan so that it would be clear just what my goals were with the coffee shop.  Choosing to write that business plan was perhaps one of the smarter things I’ve ever done.  It forced me to consider the entire business, from concept, to marketing, to my customer, to costs, etc.  Although I rarely refer to the written plan myself, having written it cemented in my mind my vision for Echo Coffee.

Unfortunately, the second potential partnership later fizzled, which was disappointing and left me on my own to build the shop.  I still like the notion of having a partner, especially when I think about how many hours a day I want to be open and how much time I spend in the shop.  But the reality is, finding a partnership of equals (financial, thought leadership, experience, etc.) is a challenging task.  Still, even though a partnership didn’t manifest, the process of attempting to have a partnership proved very fruitful in the business planning for what would eventually be Echo Coffee.

In creating Echo Coffee, I researched nearly every significant coffee shop in the Phoenix area.  I tasted a ton of coffee.  I watched how each shop’s customer service was handled.  I looked at equipment, product choices, ambiance, music, location, and on and on.  To be a successful indpendent shop, I felt I would not only need to be good, but great.  To provide instant “credibility” in the mind of the customer, my concept called for me to be a coffee roaster, so I bought a coffee roaster in September of 2009 from a shop that didn’t make it in Southern California.  The roaster was almost 10 years old, and was a little smaller than I was initially looking for, but it was so well taken care of, and at a price I couldn’t pass up.

Being a coffee roaster changed the game for me.  As I roasted at home, I began to learn so much more about coffee.  About the various flavors of coffee.  About my preferences in both origin flavor and darkness of roast.  I was able to experiment with coffee at a significantly lower price point, and sample considerably more coffee that I ever would have otherwise.  Roasting coffee also helped me to better understand what I was tasting, when I tasted another shop’s coffee.  Batch after batch, I would roast and taste, roast and taste, until I developed a very strong idea of what I wanted my coffees to taste like.  In the Phoenix area, I know my Titus Blend, for example, offers a unique flavor profile that isn’t found at other shops.  I designed this coffee with one significant goal in mind: the consumer should want another cup.  Titus is sweet and chocolately, with some earthiness.  It isn’t bitter, but instead very smooth.  The acidity is kept low, so it doesn’t cause heartburn (my own stomach can be sensitive to coffees with high acidity).  The only trouble for me personally, is that I no longer drink caffeinated coffee, so I drink very little Titus…but darned is it yummy when I do.

I didn’t stop with the Titus Blend, however, and developed other coffees to please a wider clientele.  In total, I opened Echo Coffee with 4 drip coffees and 3 espresso coffees.

Another thing I did extensive research on was milk.  I compared the taste and ease of use of nearly every milk on the market.  I found an Organic milk that responds so well under steam and also tastes very sweet.  For a coffee shop (which, when you get right down to it is in the business of selling flavored milk), it’s important that the #1 ingredient be the best it can be.

On the food side for Echo Coffee, I initially attempted to design my own menu.  I learned, however, that I am not a baker, nor do I really know anything about running a kitchen.  So by mid-December I had decided I should hire a chef.  Thanks to my business plan, I had basic goals for the kitchen, including a  focus on quality over quantity and a price point that was reasonable.  I set as a target $2 for a pastry and $8 for a sandwich.  Plus I wanted high Organic content.

In March, I was fortunate to make acquaintence with the chef I would eventually hire.  How it was that we found each other seems almost seems almost too good to be true, but my luck does tend to run well, when I have moments of need.

For the location of Echo Coffee, I had originally targetted old town Scottsdale, because that was where the couple from partnership #1 had found a potential location.  In considering that location, I researched and found south Scottsdale had a significant lack of independent shops, as well as a more counter-culture environment than north Scottsdale (where I live).  So even though the first partnership fell through, I kept my search in the area.

The location I found for Echo Coffee was a bit outside my initial search radius, so it took me a while to stumble upon it. But when I did, I was almost immediately sold.  I found a grey shell, that was brand new, with modern architecture, within a mile of where I had targetted. With business plan in hand, I began negotiating with the landlord, while working with an architect, and locating equipment for the ship.  I wanted to get the shop built quickly, but on a budget as well.

Drawing up plans with the architect took longer than I expected, but construction went well. By the time I had my chef in place, construction was nearly complete.  Together we organized suppliers, hired the rest of the staff, and worked our tails off to get Echo Coffee open on a very agressive schedule.

There are still subtle changes I make almost every day at the shop, but for the most part, the shop runs like I had envisioned.

Where will Echo Coffee go from here?  I can’t say for certain.  I would like more stores (particularly one closer to my home).  More stores will have to wait, however, for the first store to pay for them.  The next time around, I should make fewer mistakes, which should save money.  I’d also like to start wholesaling both coffee and pastries.  There is a serious lack of quality wholesale pastry suppliers in the Phoenix area, and with my chef Carylann, I think we could really fill a nice niche in that regard.  There are a few quality wholesale coffee roasteries, but perhaps my unique flavor profile will win me customers that others miss out on.