Claudia McMullin of Hugo Coffee Roasters: Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life
An Interview With Pirie Jones Grossman
You MUST be flexible. — If anything proved this, it was/is the pandemic. When the world shut down, Hugo Coffee’s 95% food service clients closed and all of that revenue evaporated overnight. I had to immediately pivot to online direct-to- consumer and brick and mortar grocery sales. My job became to raise money — as much as I could and as quickly as I could. I needed money to stay alive and fund these pivots. Luckily, I got grants and low interest loans to do so and it’s worked!
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their lives. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50's.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Claudia McMullin.
Claudia McMullin is a reformed Wall Street attorney who married her love of animals with her love of coffee by launching Hugo Coffee Roasters in 2015 at the age of 55. At age 39, single and with no job, Claudia sought simpler living and escaped the hectic hustle and bustle of the East Coast to relocate to the serene setting of Park City, Utah. There she practiced law on her own, ran the animal rescue Nuzzles & Co, held public office for two terms, and purchased a coffee shop that she named after her handsome rescue pup, Hugo.
Today, Claudia is a happily married adventure traveler with a mission to roast and sell great coffee, and save animals.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in upstate New York in the village of Menands, just outside of Albany. The youngest of five children, the nuns in Cathorlic School told my parents that I was an underachiever.
That still makes me laugh. Underestimate me once. You’ll never do it again.
I had an uneventful, yet wonderful childhood. For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve always loved and been obsessed with animals. Growing up, I always had a dog and carried stuffed toy dogs with me everywhere I went. At 4 years old, my neighbor gave me three stuffed Beagles for Christmas. It was like I’d hit the jackpot. For years, I gave my beloved stuffed dogs to my dad for his birthday and Christmas only to slink up to his room before I went to bed and ask for them back!
Dogs of all kinds have very special places in my heart.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I think about life lessons a lot, and when I do I think of my late father, whom I loved and admired so greatly. He was an imposing man with a huge heart. Even if he seemed scary, he wasn’t. He was also the most honest man I have ever known. His integrity meant everything to him., as it does me. Dad always told me that if something seemed too good to be true, it was. He also used to always tell me that you don’t get anywhere taking short cuts; you do the work and don’t fall for something that appears too good to be true.
But, if I had to pick just one of his quotes to share, it would be, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This phrase has informed countless decisions in my life.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Fearlessness. I am not afraid of taking risks and taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves. For example, in 2013 I was the Chair of the Summit County Council and sat on the Executive Committee of the local Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber owned a beautiful visitor information center with a coffee amenity located inside. After just a year, I learned that the coffee shop operator wasn’t going to renew the shop’s lease and because it was a place that held so many business meetings, it made me sad. That night I went home and said to my husband, “I can do that”. So, I did. I bought the coffee shop and 18 months later I launched a roasting company.
Decisiveness. I love to make decisions and am the queen of delegation. I would rather focus on the skills that I know I possess rather than spend the time learning disciplines like accounting, bookkeeping, and marketing, So, I outsource these skills. This leaves me the time to focus on sales, growing the brand, raising capital and being the face/voice of the brand I so love.
Confidence. Without confidence, I would never have picked up, quit my job, and moved to Park City, Utah at 39 with no job. If I hadn’ t done that, I would have never had the fulfilling life and career I do today.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
My Second Chapter is really my third or fourth chapter. I graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1982 with a finance degree and moved to NYC, where I was a stock broker until 1987. After that, I went to law school at Brooklyn Law and in 1990 I started as a litigator at the law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed. In 1999 I started feeling the chaotic lifestyle wear on me and left my job, sold my apartment, and moved to Park City, Utah with the idea of not practicing law. Well, that didn’t last long. After a little time, I realized that law is what I knew best and though I went back to practicing, I eventually quit law and became the executive director of an animal rescue. During that time I also ran for public office and was a two term Summit County Council member until 2016. I eventually let go of my law license, let go of public service, and decided that I didn’t want a career or job in which I was constantly fighting and upsetting people. That’s when I started Hugo. Coffee and animals make people happy.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
I threw out the suits and heels. I stopped fighting with people for a living and instead became the fun and approachable face of my brand. I finally started loving what I was doing and even decided to give myself a little rebrand to match the business — purple and blue hair, fun & colorful eyeglass frames, and Doc Martens or fun sneakers.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
It all started at that Chamber Executive Committee meeting in December 2013 when we were informed that the coffee shop operator in the Visitor Information Center was not renewing its lease. Without a new vendor, the space would close. That’s when I started thinking, “I can do this.” So, I did. I bought the shop, renamed it Hugo Coffee after my dog, Hugo, and opened in February 2014. I loved every second of it. It was like throwing a dinner party every day. I hugged friends, kissed dogs and babies, and gave my customers a great experience. Eighteen months later, I launched Hugo Coffee Roasters because I wanted to vertically integrate, improve my coffee quality, and most importantly, give back to the world of animal welfare. Now, all I do is make people happy and help animals and that makes me happy.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skill set inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
When I launched Hugo Coffee Roasters I had never before tapped into any skill sets involving sales and marketing.
While I had fundraised as a candidate for office and for a nonprofit, I had never really sold a product. I had never created sales presentations or pitches. Now, I do both all the time because I have to in order to grow. And, I have learned that I actually LOVE selling Hugo Coffee Roasters products and animal welfare mission!
I had never dealt with marketing in any way, shape or form either. While I outsource all marketing functions today, I still had to learn the lingo of all things marketing: SEO, ad spend, PR, content creation, affiliate and influencer management. Marketing is definitely not my forte but I understand its critical role in growing my brand and I happily pay the experts to make marketing magic happen.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
Things are great! We are in an accelerated growth phase of the business. Hugo Coffee is now sold nationwide online and in grocery stores. By the end of 2022, we hope to be in over 500 stores, which is a big deal because when Covid hit in March 2020, we had almost no online or retail presence. We were all food service: hotels, restaurants, resorts etc. The last year or so has been filled with huge accomplishments.
But, my absolute favorite part of the business involves our ongoing weekly fundraisers that benefit different small animal rescue or sanctuary each week. I get to meet and chat with all of these amazing people about their missions and how our donation has a direct impact on the organization. Last year, for example, our donations helped us do incredible things, such as build a shade structure for pigs, purchase large animal equipment to help evacuate animals in the event of wildfires, and help offset numerous medical bills for ailing animals. We were even able to assist a new organization that temporarily takes in animals of folks facing life issues, such eviction, hospitalization, or domestic violence.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
With respect to this Second (or Third or Fourth) Chapter, I could not have done any of it without the support of my amazing husband, Tim. He has supported me financially and emotionally throughout and even more so during very difficult times (like Covid when I lost everything overnight). Tim is also an engineer who can figure out all things mechanical and can troubleshoot any and all roasting equipment issues, which is a huge bonus.
In my life in general, I would not be where I am without my mother and father, both of whom are deceased. My mother, a stay at home mom, from the moment I could remember always told me I could do and be whatever I wanted, which was a rare idea for women in the 60’s and 70’s. I owe my confidence to my mom. From my father, I learned principles that have guided me in life and business — honor, honesty, and integrity.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
In the fall of 2020, the owner of Fluffy Cow Coffee messaged me on Instagram with a proposition to have Huge Coffee buy the brand. I was approached specifically because both Fluffy Cow and Hugo shared the same mission of animal welfare. That brand supports farm animal sanctuaries and Hugo Coffee supports domesticated animal rescues (mostly, dog & cat). We both love animals — all animals. So, I bought it and both brands have been brewing coffee and fundraising for animals ever since.
I learned a lot about the fundraising model from the first Fluffy Cow owner. Prior to me purchasing that brand, I’d always struggled with our give back model because I hated the very vague model of “we give x%” of some metric (profit, revenue, net revenue or whatever). It never felt authentic to me. Fluffy Cow held weeklong online fundraisers for specific sanctuaries, during which they donated $2.50/item sold on the website over the course of that week. I loved this new approach because during my time as an executive director of a rescue, I knew the work done behind the scenes to help animals is by the thousands of small, volunteer based, cash strapped organizations and sanctuaries around the country. I wanted our donations to have an impact.
We immediately started doing these fundraisers for Hugo Coffee and today, we have a fundraiser every single week for a small rescue or sanctuary. It’s the best part of my job. To date, we’ve donated over $50k to organizations across the country.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
Oh yes. It is very intimidating to work in a top tier Wall Street law firm, especially true when you didn’t graduate from a top tier law school or college, for that matter. I was plagued by “imposter syndrome” at Hughes Hubbard. Everyone was so damn smart and all graduated from Yale, Harvard, NYU, BU, Stanford etc. I carried this idea that they made a mistake letting me into this world. I eventually overcame this limiting belief with the help of my colleagues and mentors at Hughes Hubbard. Their support and confidence in me eventually translated into me changing my thinking and believing that I was smart enough.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
Unfortunately, I didn’t. I just jumped in head first with the support of my husband, Tim. My support system came later. Today, my support system is a combination of the amazing people I have met through the Utah Women’s Networking Group, Goldman Sachs 10000 Small Business Program, Stacy’s Rise Project, and Tory Burch Fellowship.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
When I launched Hugo Coffee Roasters in 2015, I hadn’t really thought through pretty much anything. Sure, I had a business plan. But, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. Who in their right mind starts a manufacturing company out of whole cloth at 55 with zero background in manufacturing or sales? Selling was especially intimidating for me. But, I put on my “big girl pants” and just did it. My strategy at first was focused on food service. I’d figure out what new restaurants/hotels were opening, find out who the new F&B manager, chef, GM, and decision makers were, and reach out to them directly. Once I got Hugo in one hotel, it led to more. The same went for corporate headquarters.
While corporate and hospitality are still on my radar. Today, my focus is on becoming a nationally recognized brand via grocery stores and online sales.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Whatever cash you think you’ll need, you will need a whole lot more.
I started Hugo Coffee Roasters with a $125K home equity line of credit, which I thought this was sufficient. Within a year, I was withdrawing from my 401K routinely to keep my business afloat. This continued for the next 3 years.
You need to decide if you want Debt or Equity to fund operations and growth (unless, of course, you are independently wealthy).
I went old school. First, I self funded. Eventually I sought out assistance from friends and family and non traditional loans. I didn’t want to take on investors, I wanted to own my company. Now, in scaling mode. I am seeking angel investment and debt restructuring to grow Hugo Coffee into a nationally recognized brand. I’d rather have a smaller piece of a bigger pie than a big piece of a small pie
You MUST be flexible.
If anything proved this, it was/is the pandemic. When the world shut down, Hugo Coffee’s 95% food service clients closed and all of that revenue evaporated overnight. I had to immediately pivot to online direct-to- consumer and brick and mortar grocery sales. My job became to raise money — as much as I could and as quickly as I could. I needed money to stay alive and fund these pivots. Luckily, I got grants and low interest loans to do so and it’s worked!
You CANNOT do this alone.
You need a support system. You need mentors and advisors. It truly is lonely and isolating at the top. I found my people via women’s networking groups, fellow female founders that I met through Stacy’s Rise and Tory Burch, and successful fellow entrepreneurs. You’ll be amazed how many wonderful people there are out there who want to help you succeed!
Surround yourself with people smarter than you.
You will never grow as a person or in business unless you are always curious and willing to learn. That’s why I try to hire and get mentored by people much smarter than me to keep me on my toes
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
My goal is to inspire a movement to end animal cruelty, neglect, and abuse. I want the animal curious and animal lover alike to understand that, like us, animals are sentient beings that feel love, joy, abandonment, loneliness, and pain. Accordingly, I want our fellow sentient beings treated with love and respect.
For 2 years I ran the animal rescue Nuzzles & Co. I thought it was my dream job. But, what I found was that I couldn’t handle the origin stories of neglect and abuse. The emotional toll was just too much. That’s how I became a foster failure of my handsome rescue, Hugo. I fostered him at 3 weeks. He was no bigger than my hand and needless to say, after bottle feeding this adorable 3 lb puppy, I simply could not give him up. Today, Hugo is a 90lb mass of solid muscle and love. That’s why I launched a coffee roasting company on a mission to save animals in his name. Then I purchased Fluffy Cow Coffee to help farm animal sanctuaries.
Why did I do that?
To impact those that CAN handle the reality of animal neglect and abuse. This is a world that consists of a web of thousands of mutually supportive small, largely volunteer based organizations working together with few resources but millions of supporters. In addition to loving animals, these wonderful folks share one other thing in common: a lack of sufficient financial resources.
In addition to being an animal lover, I am also a coffee lover, and thought: “What if something we consume with caffeinated vigor could be tied to animal rescue?” That is how my brands Hugo Coffee, then Fluffy Cow Coffee, and now Sentient Bean Brands were born.
Why tie animal philanthropy with commerce? Because consumers WANT to know that their purchase choice will make a difference. Millions of consumers love animals, often understand that they too are sentient beings who feel love, pain, and loneliness, AND want their purchase to have an impact.
Over 63 million households in America have a pet and drink coffee. Imagine a world where you can have your cup of organic, rich coffee AND drink in the satisfaction of helping animals too. That’s how I envision the Sentient Bean movement.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
Ryan Cohen, founder of Chewy.com because he LOVES animals, is an activist investor, and sold Chewy.com to Petsmart for 3.37B.
Martha Stewart because she LOVES animals, likes Hugo Coffee (she drank it at a private event with Cesar Milan during Sundance 2020), has a great sense of humor, is wildly successful, and overcame tremendous adversity.
Reese Witherspoon because she supports female founders and is an amazing entrepreneur who grew and sold her business, Hello Sunshine, for $900M.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find us at hugo.coffee or on social media @thehugocoffee.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!