Hostile Takeover

Feature

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On my first day at my first real job out of college, I met my office nemesis. It wasn’t an angry boss or a vindictive fellow intern, but a black-and-gray K-cup coffee maker in the floor’s break room. The person I received a tour from excitedly pointed it out to me, explaining how it had replaced an espresso vending machine. It later claimed the drip coffee maker, after which I started decamping from the office for fresh coffee. The trips were sometimes met by side-eye from managers worried about my productivity, even though my hand had been forced. Luckily, today there are office coffee services bringing specialty coffee to replace bad, environmentally unfriendly pod coffee.

“There’s three different places people drink coffee: at home, at cafés, at the office,” says Noah Belanich. He then claims, “Before Joyride, you could only get good coffee at two of those locations.”
Belanich founded Joyride Coffee with his older siblings David and Adam back in 2011, though in its infancy, the company was simply one truck serving frozen yogurt and Stumptown coffee in New York. David, the oldest of the three, noticed that some workers would stop by more than once a day and wondered how bad the coffee must be to drive them out—into the streets!—for $4 cups of coffee. The company started to pivot towards office fulfillment, signing up Quirky, a development company geared towards inventors, as their first office partner. “It was two pounds a week, so we’re not talking a lot of volume,” Belanich laughs over the phone.

The client list grew to the point where Joyride sold its food truck in 2012 and focused full time on distribution. The company expanded to San Francisco in 2014, signing on to work with big tech brands like Twitter and Twitch. Its list of roasting partners was also growing. Now office customers in New York get local roasters like Joe Coffee and Toby’s Estate while those in the Bay Area have hometown beans like Four Barrel, Sightglass, and Ritual, while both coasts offer Blue Bottle, Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture. A concierge service option provides offices with a rotating sample in addition to their steady deliveries.

Belanich insists that equipment and service determine the quality of office coffee. Early on, the company realized clients wouldn’t clean equipment properly—if at all. “They were brewing awesome coffee into dirty airpots and their coffees tasted old,” says Belanich, which led Joyride to swap its airpots out every month, along with twice-monthly cleaning of its Fetco brewers. The service and attention necessary to keep an office’s coffee fresh is why roasters like Intelligentsia, which has its own office coffee service, have preferred to partner with Joyride on the coasts. “There’s no way you can remotely do equipment service,” says Belanich. “So there’s no way you can do office service from Chicago in New York.”

They were brewing awesome coffee into dirty airpots and their coffees tasted old.

Another distributor found that specialty roasters weren’t keen on handing over the keys to their kingdoms quickly. The Classic Group, a traditional vending and office coffee service based in Chicago, will spin off its coffee branch Workwell this year, after demand for third-wave roasters pushed it to explore specialty coffee. “We started in offices with the standards, literally Maxwell House, Peet’s, Starbucks,” says president Michael Klong. It was only when a client reached out with a special request—beans from local roastery Metropolis—that Klong considered coffee’s specialty counterparts. The price of entry for representing Metropolis was a two-month crash course of daily visits to the roastery to train Klong up on sourcing, roasting, and brewing. That’s where he received his epiphany. “It was an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe—I didn’t know coffee could taste this good.”

David and Noah Belanich prepare coffee at the offices of Barrel, a web design and development company in New York City. (Photo: courtesy Joyride.)
David and Noah Belanich prepare coffee at the offices of Barrel, a web design and development company in New York City. (Photo: courtesy Joyride.)

Klong has made these coffees—which also includes Stumptown cold- brew and beans from Intelligentsia and Milwaukee-based Colectivo—the centerpiece of the Work Well brand as it plans to expand in Chicago and into Los Angeles. Workwell does office cuppings for employees and gives office managers extensive instruction at its training café in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Having been in vending and office coffee service since 2005, the company has more muscle to cater to the demands of bigger companies looking to broaden their office coffee services. In-office espresso, once only the realm of vending and pod coffee machines, is now being sought by companies like Google and Yelp. When Google wanted to set up an espresso bar in their Chicago office, there were trained baristas on staff to help deliver. Workwell can also train managers on their La Marzocco GB5 for espresso service.

The initial demand for increasing the quality of office coffee has come, as one might expect, from the well-funded tech and media industries, dominated by coffee-addicted coders, writers, and designers. In the competition for top talent, even small companies can set up in-office delivery of rotating roasts and brewing equipment that include Chemexes or pour-over racks—it’s still cheaper than a pool table. “Google has all of these amenities that they offer, so how does Sprout or LinkedIn compete?” Klong muses.

Though specialty coffee might seem unimaginative up against perks like personal trainers or dry cleaning, it’s something concrete and eye catching for prospects. Birchbox, a subscription beauty and grooming service and a client of Joyride, puts the fact that it has Stumptown coffee right on its hiring page. In cities where startups tend to settle, the bar for food and beverage quality has been raised, and offices find themselves needing to keep up. “Twenty years ago having coffee in your office was the standard. Now it’s having coffee and granola and fresh fruit,” says Belanich.

Cold-brew coffee, which both companies offer, is its own separate perk, and one that’s perfect for customers who miss the convenience of K-cup machines. Klong’s company, already a distributor of Stumptown’s stubbies, stocks their brew in offices. Joyride went a step further with their own brew. They began with Filtrons, but when customers wanted bigger deliveries, the company developed its own cold-brew extractor that could brew fifty-five gallon batches, which are pulled from in-office kegerators. The cool factor and extra convenience of their kegerators helped earn the two younger brothers of Joyride a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in the food and wine category.

The key was explaining that the pod systems they thought served their employees so well cost them more per cup than beans like Stumptown’s prepared on a traditional drip brewer.

Beyond tech and creative industries, most offices will not seek out specialty roasters such as Intelligentsia. “A lot of people didn’t really get it,” Belanich says about the companies Joyride pitched to early on. He and his brothers finally broke through by going on the offensive against Keurig machines. The key was explaining that the pod systems they thought served their employees so well cost them more per cup than beans like Stumptown’s prepared on a traditional drip brewer. Other companies, like Jet Blue, simply found that the waste pod coffee produced had a shocking effect on their carbon footprint and switched to a local roaster.

“We want to let the roasters keep their eyes on the prize with roasting and origins,” says Klong, who says Workwell tries to act as a complementary partner to its small stable of roasters by focusing on its “core competencies”—training and equipment. Both companies recognize that trying to satisfy both offices and specialty roasters means intently focusing on bringing beverages into the office without sacrificing quality. While Joyride expands, it’s cautious about adding beverages whose quality the company doesn’t have full control over. “We were trying to find an awesome solution for hot chocolate because one of our customers wanted hot chocolate,” Belanich says. “But any good quality chocolate brand is not willing to put in dehydrated milk. Our offices don’t want to be boiling milk and mixing in chocolate shavings.”

Last month Green Mountain, the company that makes Keurig machines, released a survey that found eighty-nine percent of office workers thought a good cup of coffee could make the workday noticeably better. Every year, though, the bar gets raised on what defines a good cup of coffee, and these days, there are companies able to deliver the highest quality to offices demanding it.

—Peter D’Amato is a writer based in New York City.