Restaurants and cafés throughout Greater Hartford are continuing business by offering takeout and delivery options. With two locations in Farmington and Plainville, including The Tavern at Rebel Dog, Rebel Dog Coffee is keeping its doors open by encouraging call-ahead orders, providing curbside pickup, and cleaning and sanitizing all points of contact.
MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price caught up with Rebel Dog Coffee co-owners Peter Lemnotis and Harrison Poltorak and Digital and Community Manager Kaitlin Higgins for coffee and conversation about the business’ growth since its 2017 launch.
NAN PRICE: I feel like Rebel Dog is a classic story of starting small and growing big. But it didn’t just happen overnight.
PETER LEMNOTIS: It certainly didn’t. I’ve owned Confetti Restaurant, now The Tavern at Rebel Dog, since 1998. The idea for Rebel Dog started with the idea to put a food truck in front of the restaurant and sell egg sandwiches, coffee, and cold brew, which we did for about a year. We had enough clientele that one morning I woke up and had a revelation. I decided to put a coffee shop into the bar and change the restaurant around.
NAN: How did Harrison become involved?
HARRISON POLTORAK: When I was working at J.René Coffee Roasters in West Hartford, I had talked about possibly having my own coffee shop in the future. A friend there mentioned there was a business owner in Plainville thinking about opening one.
I had written a business plan for opening a coffee shop as a college project when I was at Central Connecticut State University studying marketing. I plugged in the information—location, date, traffic counts—and scheduled a meeting with Peter. When we met, we both saw value in what each of us was bringing to the business. Put it this way: I’m his retirement, he’s my way in.
NAN: That’s an interesting angle to your story. Peter has the long-term business owner experience and Harrison, you’re just beginning your entrepreneurial journey. What are you learning from this experience?
HARRISON: As a business owner in the food or coffee industry, you’re in the commodity business. I’ve learned a lot from Peter. He’s opened restaurants and kept them open because he pays close attention to the logistics and numbers to make the pricing work for the customer. It’s helped us grasp multiple demographics because we’re paying attention to our prices to make sure we can operate efficiently and be sustainable as business. That’s been a learning process.
I’ve also learned to hire from within as the company grows. We promote our staff internally into positions we need. For example, Kaitlin started off as a barista. So, as this company grows, we have people naturally at our foundational levels—baristas and kitchen staff who are helping us grow.
PETER: I’m learning a lot from Harrison and our staff, too. I’ve been in this business for 50 years and this is the first time we’ve actually been in front of a food trend, which is amazing.
HARRISON: I’m also learning about commercial real estate and development, the terminology and the process. New entrepreneurs who are thinking of a brick-and-mortar location are going to be looking for office space. It’s beneficial to understand how that works and how you can negotiate.
NAN: Speaking of real estate, let’s talk about having two locations.
HARRISON: We only were open for a year and a half in Plainville when we started the process of planning out the second location, which took almost a year.
PETER: I had contacted a local real estate agent to look at space in Elmwood and Avon, which weren’t a good fit. He told me about the location at Five Corners in Farmington before it had even broken ground. I knew that exact spot. And I knew when he talked about it that we were going into that spot. I didn’t even have to look at the traffic.
NAN: The two locations are fairly close together. How does that work for business?
PETER: It works very well. The businesses feed off each other. Business in Plainville dropped just slightly when the second location opened, and now it’s beyond what it originally was.
[Photo pizza and tacos from The Tavern at Rebel Dog]
HARRISON: I think that’s because some of the Farmington customers have started to go to Plainville because, through the branding, they discovered we have two locations. And they discovered we had the restaurant. So, it’s cross-marketed both locations in a positive way.
NAN: In what ways is Rebel Dog supporting other local businesses?
KAITLIN HIGGINS: We focus on “community over competition” for the local Connecticut coffee scene. I think people are surprised when I tell them they should check out Silk City Coffee if they’re in Manchester or Story and Soil Coffee if they’re in Hartford. We’re all offering something unique in different places.
In terms of sustainability, we want everyone to drink and enjoy specialty coffee, so we’re big on promoting not just our coffee shop, but other local coffee shops that are doing similar things as us to help sustain the coffee industry. If we all help each other, the industry becomes more stable. And that ensures our success in the end, as well.
HARRISON: The more you promote local businesses, the more it benefits your business. Even if you’re right next to each other, if you promote each other, it only brings more business to that area.
KAITLIN: We also work with other local small businesses, like Idlewilde Printing Company, which prints our apparel, and local artist Jaime La Jones, who has done murals in both our shops. We do a lot of cross promoting, too, which is really fun. And, now that we’re settled in Farmington, we’re doing more to bring the community into us through events.
NAN: Do you plan on opening additional locations?
HARRISON: Yes, absolutely. We have plans to open our third location in East Hartford this summer. Overall, we’re trying to grow at our own pace, at our own ability, keep it in our own family, and just see where it takes us.
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