My predominant leadership skill, according to Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder analysis, is as an activator. Which is a simple way to summarize my belief that the business will be judged not by what we say and what we think but by what we get done. I was also aware, however, that our coffee shop had blossomed into a coffee business, and retraining a staff of thirty-six could not—and certainly should not—happen overnight.
Here I sit, twenty-four months later, on the other side of this transformation, having learned and relearned that in order to activate a staff to change, you are only as good as the people who surround you. Step one is, and always will be, finding and empowering these people.
Enter Evan Pollitt in February 2014, the first employee I ever recruited. I knew Evan as a regular customer, a mustached man with an obvious knowledge of coffee and an even more obvious awareness of craft. Evan had no professional experience in coffee prior to his hiring, but I knew we needed to think—and hire—outside the box to help steer us in a new direction.
Evan shared my newfound passion that being good wasn’t good enough. That while we were sourcing great coffee, our brewing and preparation fell short. Thus, despite being the greenest employee on staff, Evan dove headfirst into SCAA reading materials, Counter Culture Coffee trainings, and catalog cuppings.
When our previous director of coffee left the business that June, we made a choice—let’s reward ingenuity and foster a culture of improvement by naming Evan his replacement, and let’s work together to bring about the transition necessary at Summit Coffee. Let’s invest in building a leadership team. Let’s make careers out of coffee, not only for Evan, myself, and for my brother, Tim, but also for Andrew Kelleher and Lilly Wilson, two wicked-smart Davidson College graduates who could partner to remake a coffee business.
We believe in action, in the process, in putting ourselves out there on the blind road to excellence.
My two-year-old daughter is in the “why” phase of life, and I love it because it reminds me so dearly of us in 2014, as we were midway through step two: question everything.
Why do we use a timer grinder, instead of a scale, for our batch brewing? Why do we grind coffee at that setting? Is our coffee brewed at the proper ratio? Why do we intentionally over-extract espresso for blender drinks? Why do we have twenty-four syrup options? Why does our twelve-ounce latte have only one shot? Why do we have a twenty-ounce cappuccino?
It’s staggering, in hindsight, all of the little changes we’ve made in two years. But we believe in action, in the process, in putting ourselves out there on the blind road to excellence. Yes, how we extract espresso for a frappe is important because it indicates we care about everything we sell. And if we don’t care about it, we shouldn’t sell it.
As most shop owners realize, it’s really expensive to train an employee properly. It’s spending money on non-revenue-generating work. It’s not just the trainee, but it’s the trainer. It’s also the effort, the energy. And it’s coffee and milk. So much coffee and milk were harmed during the remaking of Summit Coffee. This is step three.
Throughout this process, we have spent tens of thousands of dollars just on training. Yes, let’s send eight employees two hours away for an all-day espresso class. Let’s buy better scales and better grinders and more grinders. Let’s buy a La Marzocco espresso machine just for staff education, because we all know training while trying to serve isn’t a healthy recipe. Let’s take one Counter Culture coffee at a time and, gram by gram, let’s figure it out.
When you have thirty-six employees, it takes time.
At a meeting of our leadership team this January, we each chose a word to help guide us professionally in 2016. I chose patience. I hate inactivity. I hate indecision. But how can you guide a staff this big to forget and then relearn everything about coffee without some patience? You can’t. Step four.
When we made the decision in early 2015 to open a roasting segment of our business, we did so because we wanted to be more intimate with the coffee process. With that comes an inherently deeper care for what coffees you source, how they’re roasted and, ultimately, how they’re prepared for the customer. And that requires a deeper investment in each person who works for Summit Coffee.
At our first all-staff cupping, when we debuted our new catalog to our entire staff (we made a cold turkey swap to our own roasted coffee), one team member described a Guatemalan as “breakfast cereal.” Another could only find the word “bold” for our darkest roast, and a third said, “I don’t really like coffee.” Holy expletive, I thought, we have miles to go before I sleep.
Rome, as they say, was not built in a day. Nor is a coffee business. And, eleven months after that first cupping, our staff has been retrained entirely. It’s been exhausting and exhilarating, trying to uncover a passion for craft in each one of us. It’s taken a whole lot of patience, a whole lot of money, a whole lot of questions, and a whole lot of great people.
Next month, I’ll tell you how our customers took the change.
—Brian Helfrich is the co-owner of Summit Coffee Company in Davidson, North Carolina.