From Beans to Brand Management: Lessons from a Coffee Entrepreneur

Don’t be fooled by Jack Mazzola’s suede boots and faded jeans — he could’ve been on a Rolling Stone cover in a past life, but his passions lie elsewhere. The minute Jack begins to talk, you can detect a love for all things coffee, a passion for brand-building, and an infectious entrepreneurial spirit. Jack is founder and owner of Jack’s Stir Brew, a coffeehouse with six locations across New York City and two in the Hamptons where you can be assured your coffee is organic, pesticide-free, and sourced only from producers using environmentally sustainable practices. Jack’s is building a 15-year-old brand among a universe of rapidly proliferating “Third Wave” coffeehouses.

Being the brand geek that I have working at Percolate to thank for, Jack’s story stood out to me for a few reasons. There are valuable lessons for entrepreneurs and established brands alike, all grounded in the question: how do you stay innovative and relevant in a space that’s rapidly getting more crowded?

When Jack’s Stir Brew opened on the Greenwich Village street corner Jack lived on, the Blue Bottles of the coffee world didn’t exist yet. In his words, he “started with an idea without a model to copy.” But he wasn’t without inspiration: Jack credits some of his passion for coffee to the book A Cafecito Story by author Julia Alvarez, in which she emphasizes equality for coffee bean growers and fair trade practices.

The only major, mainstream player at the time was Starbucks, and the New Yorker’s caffeine palate was ripe for a change. We sat down with Jack to learn more about Jack’s brand identity and how he distinguishes the brand from its peers.

Start with an honest interpretation

Jack, who sees himself as a “working entrepreneur,” describes the origins of his brand as “a business without a business plan.” It didn’t start with a conventional need to fill a gap in the market or as yet another organic coffee chain in a crowded space. Inspired to dive into the coffee industry after working on a farm in the Dominican Republic, Jack began by tasting coffees — “I started tasting at Tommy Longo’s in the Village” — and from there, dove into producing his own. He has even built his own, now globally patented brewing device, the stir brewer, that all Jack’s coffee beans pass through before they hit the cup. “It’s a truly differentiated experience that sets us apart,” says Jack’s Stir Brew CMO Rob Friedlander.

Create memorable customer experiences

There’s little disputing that customer satisfaction is critical to brand growth. A few months ago, consumer confidence in the U.S. was at its lowest since the recession. Since then, the verdict has improved only marginally. For brands, this means a renewed focus on customer service and maintaining a consistent consumer experience.

“You have work, home, and your coffee shop. That third place has to have memorable experiences for you.”

Jack approaches the customer experience in terms of its sensory components. There’s the visual element of what a customer sees when they first walk in — are they assaulted by a line out the door, or is it all comfy couches before you hit the counter? Then there’s audio — what the coffee shop sounds like, from the hiss of the espresso machine to the chatter. And finally, a coffee shop isn’t a coffee shop without the smell that tells you it’s time for your daily cup.

But beyond the sensory, there’s got to be a distinctly human element to everything a brand touches. Jack describes his coffeeshops as “where old meets new on a first-name basis.” Inspired by old-school storefronts (and his dad’s auto-parts shop in New Jersey), but conscious of modern elements of the coffeeshop experience, he is determined to preserve the community-centric feel that Jack’s is based on.

Define community for your brand

“Community has to start right from the top.”

Community isn’t something your social media manager can pull out of a hat. Although the explosion of digital channels and content types has dramatically changed the definition — and location — of community, it’s no secret consumers still gravitate to brands that foster a sense of belonging to something beyond transaction.

Lesson from Jack: community should be a top-down concern. Coffee shops are often the “third place” between work and home, fostering interaction between its customers, and based upon a mutual understanding of community members’ lives.

View your brand holistically

We’ve said before that a brand is the sum product of all its interactions with customers, employees, and the audience consuming its marketing. In building the Jack’s Stir Brew brand, Jack and his team are bringing that thinking to life by architecting a memorable experience for their loyal clientele for whom a cup of coffee is more than just a pick-me-up in a paper cup. Jack ensures everything from the way his baristas interact with customers, to the relationships he’s built with the coffee farmers and smaller vendors over the years, is done with intention and consistent with a brand philosophy that has authenticity and honesty at its center.

This was originally published on the Percolate blog, where I write my 9-to-5 musings.

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