By Nan Price, Content Manager MetroHartford Alliance
When Asta and Andrius Plankis moved from Lithuania to the United States with their one-year-old Dominic in 2013, they brought with them some combined business ownership and sales experience and a love for experiential coffee shops. Neither had roasted or prepared specialty coffee beverages, nor had they owned a retail shop.
“We’ve always enjoyed coffee shops—not just for the coffee itself, but for the experience of just sitting and enjoying,” says Asta. “We missed that when we moved here because we couldn’t find many options.”
One evening during dinner Asta, Andrius, and Andrius’ mother, Gitana, started talking about the idea of opening their own coffee shop. “We all thought, why not?” recalls Asta. “Gitana had been in the United States for more than 20 years and she was ready for change. Andrius and I were ready for something new, too. We decided, let’s do it.”
Andrius adds, “We decided to jump off the cliff without knowing anything.”
So, Asta and Gitana attended the American Barista and Coffee School in New York City and graduated in 2014. Then the trio researched locations and were fortunate to find one of the few available retail spaces available on Route 44 in Avon. They opened Dom’s Coffee in 2015. The shop is named after Dominic.
Opening a coffee shop in a new country came with challenges—from learning a new language to finding a location and building a loyal customer base.
“I had my business back home translating documents from Lithuanian to English, but when we came here in 2013, everything was different,” explains Asta.
“When we first moved here I remember feeling so helpless,” admits Andrius. “In Lithuania, I was always in sales. My tongue was my tool because I used it to speak in with people. I could always find a solution through talking and communicating.”
Fortunately, Asta, Andrius, and Gitana persevered, mainly because they weren’t afraid to ask for help, and because they maintained a strong belief that, “everything happens for a reason,” says Andrius.
True coffee lovers, once they moved to the United States and settled in Connecticut, Asta and Andrius spent weekends exploring and discovering local coffee shops. J.René Coffee Roasters on Park Road in West Hartford quickly became a favorite.
“We understood that to start a coffee business we needed coffee beans and we wanted to work with a local roaster, explains Andrius.
“At the barista school, I learned that roasters can be a big help to shop owners by providing information about the coffee,” adds Asta.
One afternoon at J.Rene Coffee Roasters, they noticed owner José René Martínez at the shop and eventually struck up a conversation. Asta and Andrius explained how they were opening a coffee shop and looking for a roaster.
“I don’t know how and why he believed in us with our broken language!” laughs Asta. “He was extremely helpful.”
Through José, Asta and Andrius were introduced to Michael Acosta, who was a barista at J.Rene Coffee Roasters at the time, before he went on to open Story and Soil Coffee. Michael mentored Asta and Andrius on everything from how to use the equipment to how to lay out the shop. He even helped out on their opening day.
A Love of Cheese
Meanwhile, Asta and Andrius had been in the beginning stages of a business importing cheese from Lithuania. They started with a small, refrigerated grab-and-go supply.
“When we weren’t working at the coffee shop, we were working with cheese,” says Asta. “We’d drop Dominic off at daycare, pack up all the cheeses, and find a random cheese shop to visit and ask to sample our cheeses.”
They knew they wanted to open an additional shop but couldn’t find an affordable location to rent. Then one day, Asta realized exactly where they could have the cheese shop. One area of the coffee shop was spacious and underutilized. It was the perfect solution.
“We already had people coming into the space. We wouldn’t need to do extra work or marketing,” says Asta. “We also thought it would be easy to manage because we can be in both places at the same time. Not only that, but we could also offer our customers much more of an experience. They could stay and have cheese and charcuterie with their coffee or take something home to enjoy later.”
The decision to open the cheese shop was another made over dinner. And, another opportunity to bring in a mentor, a cheesemonger they’d found in New York City. He taught them how to slice meats, cut and wrap the cheeses. They opened Dom’s Cheese in December 2018.
Supplementing their ongoing business has been intentional. “We have so many ideas,” explains Asta. “One we start with something and get that running well, we keep adding things on. It’s like kind of a puzzle.”
Ice Cream – A Natural Progression
Asta and Andrius aren’t just coffee and cheese lovers, they enjoy ice cream, too. After trying many from local shops and supermarkets, they thought about opening their own shop.
Again, connections were everything. Through the cheese shop, Asta and Andrius were involved in various opportunities to meet food vendors, including an annual four-day food show Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center in New York City, where they connected with Steve Christensen, Headmaster at the Scoop School training facility in Missouri.
Initially, the idea of going to Missouri to attend an eight-week training session seemed impossible, admits Andrius. “As a business owner, you can’t just move away and go to school for two months.”
But then COVID-19 happened and everything became available on Zoom. “Once the online school was an option, we realized we couldn’t miss this opportunity,” says Andrius. They attended, passed their exam, and are in the process of waiting for their equipment to arrive so they can practice making their own ice cream and have final product ready for a target opening date in July.
As for location, “When we finished the school, and were thinking about where to open a shop and how to manage our time with the other two businesses, we realized the house next door was available,” explains Asta.
“I think with everything in life, especially with business, you don’t need to be afraid to ask,” advises Andrius.
“We’ve always understood that there’s nothing to lose by asking. And if you ask for help, you’ll get help in one way or another,” adds Asta. “If someone is unwilling or unable to help, we’ll find another person. It’s how we go through life.”
Another key for Asta and Andrius is going through life together—in business and in family. “I can’t imagine a better business partner than my wife. After these last six years we understand, as business partners, we’re ready for anything,” says Andrius.
“We have the same goal. We work for the same reason to offer better life for our son, who’s a big part of the business, too,” agrees Asta.
Another lesson learned is in creating good customer service. As self-proclaimed “people people” who thrive on being surrounded by people, Asta admits that in the beginning, they were nervous about being in a new place and opening a new business, especially with a language barrier.
“Having people in our shop feels like inviting them into our home. We just welcomed them like our guests and we treated them nicely,” she says. “I think that’s why we became so successful because people saw that we were doing everything authentically. That’s how the community is now treating us. What we’ve learned is, if you want to be treated nicely, you need to give to receive.”