After both of their corporate positions were eliminated in November 2014, Doug Bar(ber) and Andréa Haw(kins) decided to combine their names and pursue their dream of opening a coffee shop and starting their own business.
They opened Berkins Blend Café in June 2015 and are currently participating in the 2017 reSET Impact Accelerator, which is designed for entrepreneurs in the early stages of business development.
NAN PRICE: Did you always have it in the back of your mind that you wanted to open a business?
DOUG BARBER: After the job eliminations, we wondered: What now? It was one of those now or never moments. I definitely wanted to own a business, and I’d been talking about opening up a coffee shop forever.
NAN: You’re both coming from corporate backgrounds. Do you feel like it’s helped or do you feel like you’ve stepped into completely different territory?
DOUG: It is different territory, but I think the background has certainly helped. We weren’t afraid. We were able to dive in and use our previous management experience and critical thinking skills to figure things out. For example, when we weren’t able to find a general contractor, we decided to save money and manage the build out ourselves.
ANDRÉA HAWKINS: I think to Doug’s point, we didn’t really have a fear about running a business, it was more of figuring out how and where we were going to do it.
NAN: Do you have experience hiring and managing employees?
ANDRÉA: We both had been in management positions. I have an operations and project management background and managed large projects for a long time.
At the beginning, what I think was different for us—we were used to having experienced employees, people who could take a task and get it done. You didn’t have to take them through step-by-step. But we hired a lot of young people initially. We realized you’ve got to be way more hands-on with younger employees.
Plus we were still establishing our processes and learning what we needed to do. Doug, I remember you noting that at the beginning, how it was exhausting to have to answer so many questions all day long.
DOUG: Right. When we’re working with experienced staff, they know what their task is.
NAN: Why a coffee shop?
ANDRÉA: I don’t drink coffee! Doug loves coffee and I love Doug. So that’s my connection to the coffee.
DOUG: I am a coffee fanatic. There are a lot of roasters and a lot of coffee choices here in Glastonbury. We wanted to do something different. I fell in love with this blend from Portland, OR while we were attending Barista training. I couldn’t find anything like it here on the East Coast.
We also offer nitro coffee—it starts with cold-brewed coffee, then we add nitrogen to give it a beer-like consistency—it pours like a Guinness.
But the atmosphere here is as just important as the coffee. We want people to feel welcome. We want them to sit and stay (but not all day or we will never make money!). We have Wi-Fi and computers for our customers to use. There’s a community table, so people can gather. So that’s what I think sets us apart. We’re really trying to create a sense of community.
NAN: Would you say that’s your social impact tie-in?
ANDRÉA: I think so. We’re really focused on giving back to the community. Also, we offer a significant discount to fire, police, and military personnel.
DOUG: Public service is important to us.
ANDRÉA: Yes, they serve us every day. But we’re also creating a space where people can meet. My mother is actually sitting over there with her former boss, Frank. He lives in town and he’s here every morning. We have several University of Connecticut professors who come in and work as well as Pastor Mark who sits here for hours most days and meets with his congregation.
NAN: You’re really building community.
ANDRÉA: Yes. That’s exactly what we want. They’re all divergent types of groups and people. And sometimes there are people here alone, reading or writing books or on the Internet. We have a few authors who come in.
NAN: To that end, how are you marketing?
DOUG: Word of mouth has been the best.
ANDRÉA: I use Facebook to post a lot about the business.
NAN: Let’s talk about the reSET accelerator. How and why did you become involved?
ANDRÉA:It was through Rich Brown at the MetroHartford Alliance. We started talking about the business to determine our next step from a growth standpoint. He told me to check out the reSET accelerator. He thought we would be a great candidate for the program.
NAN: What are you hoping to gain from the experience? Is business growth your primary focus?
ANDRÉA: It is.
DOUG: That and the connections that being a part of a group like that can bring. We don’t want to just grow without doing it the right way. Sure, we could go out and open another shop, but we want to ensure that we’re well positioned.
ANDRÉA: Yes, the business coaches have been really great. And more importantly, our involvement in the accelerator exposed us to them.
We’re working on really understanding why we’re doing well. We haven’t mastered that yet. We have a general sense of why that is, but we need to understand what the levers are in the business before we venture out and do it again. Sheer luck is not really a strategy.
NAN: Tell us something we don’t know about what’s it’s like to open up a startup or to be an entrepreneur.
ANDRÉA: I would say it’s probably that there are so many surprises you just don’t know about. Our first year we didn’t know what the business cycles were going to look like. We had no idea after the holidays people really don’t want pastry and coffee. They want to pay their bills and lose weight.
So in January there’s always a little slump. We learned that we need to do marketing at the end of December so we get some new people in and sort maintain the level of sales we want.
DOUG: To that point, we opened on June 19. In the middle of the summer everyone went away on vacation. That was a huge eye-opener. Last summer we saw that but nothing as significant as that first year. So you can throw predictability out the window. It’s very hard to predict.
ANDRÉA: The other thing is people assume that because you own a business you’re wealthy. They don’t know how hard it is to run a business, just to break even, which we’re starting to get to now. And it’s a nice feeling to be at break even.
There are also the expense surprises. That’s the big one. You can’t really plan for how many sales you will have or much staff you’re going to need over the course of a year, so it’s hard to plan your tax liability. Then you’ve got to plan out payroll taxes and unemployment insurance. How do you forecast for all of that when you don’t have any experience?
DOUG: We’re figuring it all out.
NAN: You’re going into your second year. How would you say the business has evolved since you first opened?
DOUG: There are still surprises and there are still frustrations—but it’s our frustrations, it’s not the corporate frustrations raining down on us with demands. It’s stuff we need to do.
We’re reviewing some things like our merchant services our point-of-sale system. At the time we went with what we thought was the most economical, but there might be other alternatives out there. So we’re starting to take a look at those systems individually and see what we can do to be more efficient and more cost-effective.
The startup experience has taught us a lot of things, so now we are going back and seeing what we can do to tighten up expenses.
NAN: One year from now where do you want to be in your business?
DOUG: Once we kind of figure out everything, I think I would like to have this packaged and offered somewhere else in another location.
Andréa coined the term “concept cyber café” when we were at reSET. I like that phrase because it’s not just a coffee shop where we’re offering a bunch of different varieties of coffee. The coffee is important. The smooth quality of the coffee is important. But the atmosphere is equally important. That vibe people get when they come in.
And the customer service. With our employees, we’ve found the right people who enjoy interacting with our customers and want to offer them a clean, comfortable environment and quality food choices.
ANDRÉA: I would say in a year my goal would be that we’re making enough money to think about taking that next step.
I don’t want to have another venture just to say we have it and be back where we started trying to break even. Maybe we should enjoy a year of making money…
NAN: First things first.
ANDRÉA: Right. What’s interesting is we’re coming into our second year. We signed a five-year lease. So in a few years we’ll have to decide do we continue to stay here? Do we look for another location to move?
DOUG: Do we do both?
NAN: Those are all exciting questions—we’ll have to see what happens.
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