I’m not burying the lede: As of January 2020, Summit Coffee will be in the franchising business. We’re going to sell new branches of our cafés to new partners who are as excited as we are to spread the Summit Coffee brand — first in the Southeast, and (in the not too distant future), around the country.
Summit has always approached business trying to be a leader, trying to find creative ways to grow and be a good employer and a positive resource in our communities. In 2013, that meant bringing craft coffee onto the Davidson College campus. In 2015, it meant jumping into the southeast coffee scene as a small-batch roaster with a sincere focus on relationships and transparency. In 2017, it meant opening a café in Asheville that would instantly become one of the “go to” coffee shops in Western North Carolina. And in 2019, turning into 2020, that means becoming the highest-quality coffee franchise in the U.S.
The genesis of this idea came from the confluence of two trains of thought: 1) we want to grow our roasting business in new and creative ways; and 2) we want to determine what we, as a company, are best at.
I spelled out in our five-year vision document that all future decisions must keep our roasting and wholesale business front-of-mind, and as we’ve tried to grow our roasting business, we’ve come face-to-face with increased competition. The coffee roasting market has gotten a whole lot more saturated since we dropped our first batch in 2015, and while we’re continuing to grow, we’re finding it more difficult to distinguish ourselves among some pretty great competition.
The author Jim Collins, whose book “Good to Great” is one of my four business staples and I refer to quite often, has developed a theory called the “Hedgehog Concept.” Collins opines that companies who’ve made the transition into great from merely good all managed to find something that hits three key factors: something you’re passionate about, something that makes you money, and something you can be best at. Dating back several years to when Tim and I ran Summit together, I’ve been waxing poetic about “Good to Great” to staff, friends, other businesses, etc. But when it came to explaining how Summit approached the Hedgehog Concept, I for years have had an impossible time clearly defining that third factor: What can we be best at?
It dawned on me recently — though it was more of a building thought than an “AHA” moment — that what we’re best at has been right in front of us all along. We run a remarkable café business. They make money, they help provide foundations for communities, they employ talented people and provide them myriad opportunities to learn. We’ve managed to bridge waves of specialty coffee — the drinkers of the 20th century, the consumers of the 21st century — by providing a menu and experience that welcomes folks wanting different things out of their coffee shop. Since 1998, we’ve found new ways to keep our business fresh without neglecting people who’ve supported us since day one. We’re in the habit of evolving, of seeking to improve and, at the core, make lives better.
We also have failed, as I have written and spoken about at length. From decisions we’ve made, to how we’ve explained them. Frankly, I think that makes us able to provide even greater counsel to folks interested in starting their own coffee shops. We can share what works, and we can just as easily share what doesn’t. From location, to menu items, to management principles — we’ve done and tried lots of things, and have a great filter between success and failure.
The Summit brand is ready to grow, to grow faster. If we had bottomless pockets, we might very well open all of these cafés ourselves. But the reality is, we’re about at the bottom of those pockets. So in the pursuit of continuing to grow, and take the brand to more people and more communities, franchising makes all the sense in the world. We can spread our wings by setting others up for success. I’ve always had a passion for leading, for teaching, for developing, and so helping others open and run successful Summit franchises is a logical extension of how I want to pursue work each day.
Growth provides us lots of opportunities. It allows the Summit brand to have a deep impact in even more communities. It allows budding entrepreneurs the guidance to get their first coffee shop off the ground. It allows us to continue to be the employer we have promised to be — offering development and growth, new and better jobs, better pay and deeper benefits. It allows us to strengthen our relationships with coffee producers all over the world. If we can buy more coffee, our impact will be more measurable and significant.
If anything, this franchising pivot may finally bring Summit up to speed with our aspirations.
Curiosity is a word I come back to often. It’s one of our macro goals, and it’s my “Word of 2019.” I approached this fall with a curiosity for how to make Summit more remarkable, and this is the product. We have the right team to preserve the Summit of today, and the right team to help build the Summit of tomorrow. If you want to talk about opening a franchise, or know someone who might, or just want to drop me a line to let me know your thoughts on this — my inbox is always open.
Our aim is to be the best specialty coffee franchise in the U.S. I am immensely confident that we can do this, that we will do this. It’s gonna be a ride, for sure, but we have the right team to get going. It’s time to buckle up and enjoy the ride. Here ‘s to the thrill of curiosity.