I remember down to the beers we were drinking how, on a Tuesday in July of 2013, Tim and I decided to open a Summit Coffee on the campus of Davidson College.
We were sitting at the (now closed) Davidson Beverage Company, just after lunch, having promised the powers that be at the college that we’d sign our agreement before July 4th. We’d been in negotiations more-or-less since March, so for most folks involved, the lease signing was probably a mere formality. But that Tuesday, as Tim and I sipped bottled beers (his a saison from Dogfish Head, mine an IPA from Sierra Nevada) in the side room at DBC, we were moments from walking away.
The two of us were running Basecamp together — that was it, more or less — but the idea of opening a second café seemed so daunting. It would mean doubling or even tripling our staff, spreading ourselves two or three times as thin, while we both were expecting baby girls. Not to mention we’d be opening a restaurant as part of the new store concept, a field in which we had a combined zero days experience.
The conversation was almost like an exercise in debate. Tim would make a compelling “pro” case and I’d immediately counter with a list of cons. Then I would pivot, offer all the reasons why this second café was a great idea! And, conversely, Tim had a retort for why were crazy to consider it. We were there for three hours, still on our first beers but now nursing the empty bottles. Who knows what other people in DBC thought of us, and what we were sparring over.
Ultimately, though, we agreed on two things that won the day: 1) we relished the opportunity to employ more people, to provide more good jobs in Davidson; and 2) we wanted to challenge ourselves, to challenge Summit.
This Wednesday, November 13, is the six year anniversary of the Outpost’s opening evening. I remember that date just as vividly, since my wife, Tyler, and I were in Novant hospital awaiting the birth of our daughter, Bay, who was born just a few hours after the Outpost. (FWIW, we didn’t name it the Outpost until 2015 … it was just Summit for a couple years, but students’ insistence on calling it “Nummit” made us both gag and change how we referred to it.)
As I reflect on six years at the Outpost, having more and more clarity each year removed from the chaos of the startup experience, there are a few distinct truths about how that adventure pushed us to become the Summit that we are.
- Those two things Tim and I agreed on in July 2013 remain foundational for Summit today. It’s one thing to provide jobs; it’s another to provide good jobs. This is something we’ve confronted face-to-face for several years. Yes, we ended up tripling our workforce when we opened, but also created a lot of jobs we weren’t anxious (or willing?) to do ourselves. It’s hard to be a champion of entrepreneurship and teamwork when a core part of your staff works until 4:00am, cleaning up after whatever it is college kids do in the middle of the night. The confluence of more jobs and better jobs seems so simple, but was transformational for how we’ve approached managing a team ever since.
Similarly, we learned the very hard way what it looked like to challenge ourselves. I was holding a newborn baby in a hospital room, checking Outpost sales on my phone. Tim spent the first 17 dinner services in the kitchen at the Outpost, cutting chicken and making pizzas and, in a nutshell, not spending dinner with his family. It was a hard first year, so hard we both needed to take sabbaticals the next summer to recover — physically, mentally, emotionally. But we learned how to really grind for our business, because when you’re losing money and people are counting on you to stop losing money, it’s either time to double down or walk away. And we learned how to double down.
- Bigger isn’t better. We were pretty adamant that first year, and I think probably the second and third years, too, that a bigger menu, more ingredients, more specials and more noise would make us better. We operated as if the way to combat negative numbers on an income statement was, simply, to make more money. In hindsight, we cost ourselves tens of thousands of dollars learning how to be smarter, how to pursue what we believe in. But in the grand scheme of Summit, it was the cost for an education that we’ve used every day since.
- It’s imperative to work with the right people. Over the course of six Outpost years, we’ve employed more than 100 people in that café. When you work in tight quarters, and in a job that requires routine and flow, you really get to know your coworkers. It’s important to surround yourself with people, from the boardroom to the dish room, that make your company better. We’ve learned to hire people who are curious, who ask good questions, who want to learn. One of our first Outpost employees was Andrew, who’s now our COO and an owner of Summit (yes, this is news!) while our first student baker was Dora, who’s now our Director of Retail Operations. Leaders can emerge from anywhere if you’re willing to have open eyes.
- Do what you love. Another hard truth, here. But probably the most important one.
We didn’t love the food business, and spent years trying to make it work. This lesson was invaluable when, in 2018, we pulled the plug on our Huntersville café in 10 short weeks. If you’re not having fun, if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, it’s better to fail fast. We love coffee, and community, and working on projects and ideas we’re passionate about. We didn’t love the restaurant business, and we sucked at it. That hard truth has helped us focus on what we do love, what we are good at.
Turns out, running a company is really hard. You’re going to fail a ton, you’re going to make really big and bad mistakes. You’re going to make bad bets, and hire the wrong people, and say the wrong things. There will be times you want to quit, or even worse, times you want to disappear because quitting seems too hard. At the end of those days and weeks, however, if you can fall back on flat-out loving what you’re doing, it will be OK. I don’t think we’ve failed anywhere as much as we’ve failed at the Outpost since 2013, and I don’t think anything has driven us as mad. There were days when I couldn’t get out of bed because we pushed ourselves so hard, built up stress so paralyzing that staying healthy wasn’t even an option.
It’s hard to know what Summit Coffee of 2019 would look like without the Outpost, but I contend we’d be less creative, less flexible, less passionate, less aware. We could have saved ourselves a few hundred headaches in the last six years, but it’s a small price to pay for the education, the joy, and the passion that the Outpost has provided me and so many others.
Cheers to six years, Outpost. We love you.