A Brief History of The Coffee Plantation – Part 3

2010 March 25

Having wanted a Biltmore Fashion Park store for three years, always being presented with less than “A” locations in the mall and poor economics, our patience had finally paid off. The landlord was in a dealing mood with tenants leaving and going to the newly expanded  Scottsdale Fashion Square. We were able to negotiate a great location, that was currently occupied by a venerable, locally owned jewelry store. Our rent deal was reasonable and we were offered generous tenant improvement money. The best thing about the site was that it had ample patio space. We were looking for 200 outdoor seats to be able to replicate the seating ratio in Tempe.

The Biltmore Store

Our friend, Robert Sentinery (owner of Java Magazine), hooked us up with designer Michael P. Johnson. Michael is a very talented designer and I loved his eccentricity. We decided to let him have more of a free hand in the design of the place, rather than replicate the existing stores. He came up with a great design that captured the spirit of The Coffee Plantation in a more contemporary, less literal way. He used a triangular geometry in numerous ways (sandstone flooring inlays, saw cut concrete, window pop-outs, fabric sails) creating a cohesive design. The tables were round with glass tops and the space below filled with crushed blue glass to hint at the azure waters of the Caribbean. The space was expanded by pushing the glass storefront out under the existing walkway overhang. The entire front and east side of the store were plate glass to blend the indoors with the outdoors.

We incorporated things we had learned in the other stores. We started out with two 3-group espresso machines. The retail area was upgraded to include an education center with an interactive electronic coffee map, a bean-filled degree of roast column, and science museum quality model of a coffee cherry (it came apart so you could see the parchment and the beans). We also added our newest cold drink, “The Eskimoka Joe” which came out of a shake machine. It was basically a creamy shake intensely flavored with our toddy concentrate.

We began hiring and training at our training center in Tempe. By now we had 150 employees. I was 35 years old and feeling trapped by the company we had created.

Decision to Sell

As the company grew, I was becoming less and less happy about working there. I was spending so much time on HR related work and operations that I felt like a prisoner in our own company. I felt like I was mainly doing things I didn’t enjoy nor was particularly good at. While I was fully involved in the coffee buying and quality side of the business, I was not roasting any more. I did not get to spend as much time educating and chatting with customers or inspiring our staff. I gained weight, didn’t see my young family as much: I was miserable.

As an employee, I could have insisted that my job be reworked or just give my notice and quit. As a business owner, it is not that simple. The only way out that I could see was to sell — sell the company to someone who had similar vision, but more experience in running what was now a pretty good sized operation. We hired a local mergers and acquisitions firm to help us find a buyer. During the construction phase of the Biltmore Store, they found one that seemed to fit the bill.

Footnote: With hindsight, we probably could have hired professional management instead, but we did not know how to do that. It is clear (now) that I am a creative person and that I need to work in the realm of ideas and making them a reality. Operations and employee management is not my gift at all and I must avoid that at all cost, if I want to leverage the gifts God has given me. Since the The Coffee Plantation era, I am not in operations and do not have any direct report employees — I have gifted operating partners and business associates, for which I am very thankful. I love my work and feel blessed that I am paid to do what I love.

The Second Cup

At that time, Second Cup, a publicly traded Canadian firm, had more coffee units than any other firm. They operated 200 company-owned and franchised units throughout Canada. Starbucks had 80 (but higher revenue). They wanted a way to enter the US market and did not think that the Second Cup brand was the way to go. Our very high sales volumes and big coffeehouse format intrigued them. We visited their stores and headquarters in Toronto and they looked carefully at all of our operations. We decided to negotiate a sales contract. The sales price was set and there was a bonus to be paid if the, as yet to be opened, Biltmore Store met its financial targets. We also signed 2.5 year employment contracts to help roll out more stores.

The sale closed about the time that the Biltmore Store opened. I was still the President of the company, but they did a search for someone more experienced to lead the company in expansion. The Second Cup found an energetic VP of Operations at Au Bon Pain named Louis Basile to be our new President. We liked him! He had lots of knowledge and boundless energy — plus he is a great guy! He spent some time surveying our rather “mom and pop” systems and recommended that we take a year to get the systems solidified so that the roll out could build off of a firm foundation. We agreed with him. The folks at Second Cup felt it was imperative to roll out units ahead of the Starbucks wave. The difference of opinion resulted in Louis being let go. [Louis has since gone on to found Wildflower Bread Company, a successful local chain of bakery/cafes in Arizona.]

Growth Continues

Thankfully, the Biltmore Store was a huge success and we met all of our sales targets. Meanwhile, Tim and I had our jobs changed so that he was in charge of training and I would be in charge of real estate, store design, and coffee quality. I like the fact that I had no employees, but disliked being under incredible pressure to find sites and design them on an abbreviated timeline. A creative person needs time to design and does not like doing the same thing over and over again.

Furthermore, it was decided that sites would be found in the Valley, major cities in Texas and in the Los Angeles area. This involved a lot of travel out-of-state and time away from the family. Tim had the same issues. Trying to build up a training department and then train people in three states was not easy. His health and morale suffered, too.

By the time our contract was over, we had built 20 more stores in three states in three years. The performance of the out-of-state stores was not very good and the new Arizona stores were a mixed bag. Second Cup had purchased Gloria Jeans Coffee and transferred roasting to their plant in Gilroy, CA. Louis had been right about building a foundation.

The company was sold to Diedrich Coffee and then later broken up into individual owners. Details got stripped out, quality put on the back burner. The venerable Tempe Store, once the busiest in the US, closed in May 2009, after a 20 year run. The Biltmore Store was already converted into True Food and the Scottsdale Fashion Square kiosk, my favorite gem of a store, is now a tile floor. A few Coffee Plantation stores exist and I wish the current owners the very best.

People ask if I am sad about the whole thing. Yes and no. Yes, in that I hate to see something that took the focused work, passion and thought of many people be incrementally disassembled. I am also sad for what might have been and for the staff who lived through the rough times. BUT, I do believe that God has a plan for my life and that in the “bad” and the good, He has my best interest at heart. Many good — very good — things have come from the good times and “bad” times of The Coffee Plantation era. In Part 4, I shall discuss lessons learned.

Footnote: My friend Martin Diedrich, who founded Diedrich Coffee and taught me to roast coffee, got booted by his own company. When it went public and rolled out lots of units, Martin became concerned about quality issues. Eventually, the leadership found him to be a thorn in their side and let him go. He started a new company, Kean Coffee in Orange County, and is doing very well.

15 Responses
  1. March 25, 2010

    This history has been fascinating and delightful to read. Both your passion and your honesty come through in these posts and I appreciate it tremendously.

    • March 25, 2010

      I appreciate your support of the local coffee scene and developing a palate for quality. You compliment is encouraging.

  2. March 25, 2010

    You describe so perfectly the frustration that creative people feel in business, and the journey to which we come to that realization. Well done. Thanks for sharing the history with all of us – what an adventure you had! Bravo!

    • March 25, 2010

      Thanks, Tara. I love creative people and am sad when I see them caught in a bind over making a living. It is hard to convince them that they can make a living as a creative person IF they are interdependent with others having complementary gifts AND the same passion/vision. It is SO freeing. I am in a reading group right now that is doing a book study of “The Artist’s Way”, which is a very good tool. Best wishes to you!

  3. March 25, 2010

    Joe, I saw your tweet last night about the difficulty you were having writing Part 3, and reading it today, I can see why.

    The Tempe Coffee Plantation was the first place that I ever drank a cup of coffee (a double shot of espresso, if I remember right). I was 20 or 21 at the time and was attending ASU. I have fond memories of that spot, and when I explored places for Echo Coffee, strongly considered resurrecting a coffee shop there. However, being a Scottsdale resident, and there already being a certain other (Cartel) very successful coffee shop around the corner, not to mention Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks, decided to stay closer to keep Echo in Scottsdale, closer to home.

    As someone just getting started on a road similar to the one have traveled so well, what you have shared here is simply invaluable, and I thank you sincerely.

    • March 25, 2010

      I do think that Mill Ave. is still a great location. Actually timing to open on Mill is good. I would do it, if I were not keen on a simple life focusing on my community (Gilbert). The fact that Cartel is there should not dissuade anyone from opening. They do a fantastic job, but have their own niche. That area can support several coffeehouses, as it did in the early 1990’s.

  4. March 25, 2010

    Joe these posts are so incredibly illuminating! They’re incredibly insightful on so many different levels: the inspiration, the process, the lessons learned…and the fact you even throw in some epilogue in there for a “where are they now” feel. Very well thought out and it if this is part of your inspiration for the Roaster Project I continue to look forward to more about the current process…
    You’re an inspiration.

    • March 26, 2010

      I’m enjoying writing the history. Helps to settle some things. I love your passion for coffee!

  5. March 25, 2010

    Inspiring! Joe. I should have been talking to you way earlier (perhaps I would have not made as many mistakes in my humble coffee career, although I have also learned to enjoy them as I am sure you had). To learn the truth about CP from you is being amazing. I cannot help myself by almost feeling how you felt after building something from scratch and seeing it go. I also agree with you, happiness is a great indicator that you are going the right direction and about your family you did came back to them righ on time (they seem to be very close to you now). Once again thank you for the lessons.

    • March 26, 2010

      Thanks, Ron. The next post will be helpful, I think. It is a distillation of things learned — many of them the hard way! Keep on roasting!

  6. April 9, 2010

    A BIG THANK YOU !!!!!!

    Actually Joe I can’t thank you enough …you changed my life and believed in me !!

    Joe Thanks for this wonderful history!!…You may not remember but in 1994 you guys took a chance on me as a keyboard performer whose repertoire only consisted of original soothing music. This was at your Biltmore store at a time when you had mainly guitar and duos. It was there in the early summer that I met Frank Simon who was completely taken with my music and designed my 1st CD cover ” Love Will Find You” & Gradymusic Logo.

    By Fall of 1995 I re-released my 1st CD then released “Angel Whispers”one of the all time best selling local CDs…..all of this because of all of the fans I accumulated through the Coffee Plantations I was performing at all over the valley. I even performed at your Newport Beach store !

    By 1996 Robert and Michelle (JAVA) who had created my first press releases and ads, were very instrumental in the creative outcome of my “Naptime & Angels on Holiday CDs!
    And helped me with my 1st tours of the Western US Region in 96 & 97 !

    This year Im releasing my 6th Gradymusic CD and have just celebrated my 15yr Anniversary of my performance career…….and I want to personally thank you for this !!!

    It all happened because of Coffee Plantation and your willing to take a chance on an unkown 16 years ago !

    God Bless You !!!!

    Even though each one had its own feel, The Borgata was my all time favorite !

    Thanks again so much & Take care,
    Grady Soine`

    • April 11, 2010

      Thanks, Grady. I remember your music and am glad that in some way The Coffee Plantation contributed to your success! Best wishes for the future.

  7. May 19, 2010

    i cant tell you how many countless hours i spent in your tempe store while attending ASU. there is really something to be said about your brand, and the way it would make people feel. i cant quite put my finger on it but there was something special about that place. i met with so many people there, so many conversations, dinners, cigarettes, and of course, coffee.

    it was more then a coffee shop. more like a friend, a becon, a second home. i am very happy to have measured out my life with your coffee spoons, and wouldn’t mind returning to those days once again.

    • May 28, 2010

      Hey Chris, thanks for your kind comments on The Coffee Plantation. It was a special place and I’m glad that it had a positive impact on your life.

  8. January 6, 2011

    Hey Joe, I have wondered what has happened to CP since Martin’s company bought the stores.
    I didn’t realize all the changes since and was sad to see the Mill ave store go. You may recall that about the time it became a part of Deidrich, you I and Martin made quite a mess of the entry way on Mill with coffee beans, making photographs for the Tribune. That image which won an award in the Arizona Press Club annual competition, is still a part of my portrait portfolio.

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