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“You Need People On Board Who “Get” The Magic Of Your Incredible Business” With Don Eckles of Scooter’s Coffee

“Another lesson I learned is you need people on board who “get” the magic of this incredible business. Some people believe that because everybody loves great coffee, and because of the strong loyalty nature of this business, that the specialty coffee business is easy. The truth is, this is a spectacular business for the right person. But if you don’t embrace hard work, and if you don’t love people, this is not the right business for you.”
I had the pleasure to interview Don Eckles, the Co-Founder of Scooter’s Coffee

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

The backstory of my success began out of necessity. I was working at a job with a company from Chicago when I was transferred to California. Soon after that transfer, the company went out of business. So, there I was out in California, with no job and a wife and kids to take care of. I decided to go into business for myself by opening an ice cream and popcorn shop. A friend suggested I also look into specialty coffee. This was 1991, when there were only 162 Starbucks nationwide. That friend changed my life for the better. The ice cream/popcorn portion fared well, but the coffee part of the business excelled beyond my imagination. A few years in we noticed that a few drive-thru coffee kiosks were opening in northern California. Drive-thru coffee was in its infancy then, but we felt that the upside was very good. Once my youngest daughter graduated high school, my wife and I decided we wanted to move back to my hometown of Omaha and build upon our Scooter’s Coffee concept.

Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

This is an exciting time for Scooter’s Coffee. We’re focused on solidifying our strengths and preparing ourselves for growth. That includes hiring experienced and highly-skilled people as we prepare to move into the new headquarters and distribution facility to prepare us to support that growth. I’m also keeping a close eye on the 30th and Ames model that just recently made its debut. That store in North Omaha was established with the idea of creating jobs and vibrancy to the area. Scooter’s Coffee is a successful company, and as such, I believe we owe it to the community to give back. It’s off to a great start. We’ll examine the model, and watch closely, to see if we could create similar opportunities in other markets, such as Kansas City, Cincinnati, Chicago and Indianapolis.

Can you tell me a story about a person whom you helped?

My hope is that we’ve made a difference in people’s lives, whether they know us or not. We try to find ways to help others grow in life, either through their job experience with us, or maybe as a franchisee, or by maybe funding their education. We’ve tried to instill in our employees and franchisees that it’s not about us or them… it’s about what we can do to make a difference in other people’s lives.

From that, Scooter’s “Days of Giving” campaigns were born. Many of our stores give thousands of dollars each year to local causes. And not just money… we try to raise awareness of the needs and allow our customers to help us meet those needs.

Tell me something that people don’t know about Scooter’s Coffee.

Linda has always been, in my eyes, the face of Scooter’s Coffee. When we were first getting started, Linda, my wife and Scooter’s Coffee co-founder, was the one in the windows, greeting our customers with a smile each and every day. She’s the reason why you see the smiley face stickers on cups. I tell people Scooter’s Coffee is a customer relations and a customer service business. If everything else is equal, customers will buy from the people they like. People loved Linda, and she loved the customers. We stress to our baristas that if we treat our customers with love and respect, they’ll show us the same affection. The moment we forget how important it is to treat our customers like gold, that’s the moment we become just another coffee shop and risk losing them to someone else. Linda understood that and made sure her customers knew that she was glad they chose Scooter’s.

This obviously is not easy work. What drives you?

When I worked for the company in Chicago, there was a man there named Ron Kreie. Extremely tough guy, but I was his golden boy. He took me under his wing. He was very hard on everyone… myself included. He would chew me up and spit me out, but then he would pick me back up and dust me off. I learned a great deal from Ron. I’ve used some of the lessons he taught me then to help build Scooter’s Coffee, particularly working hard and being dedicated. During one business trip to West Texas, we were standing at an airport at 3:00 a.m. waiting for a taxi. It was cold, we were tired, and we had a meeting to get to early that morning. I complained that nobody even knows that we’ve been up all night working. He looked at me and said, “Nobody has to know. It shows up in the results.”

What are your “things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

The importance of “location, location, location” has been the axiom forever. The challenge is when you look at what it costs to rent an “A” site versus a “B” or “C” location, the difference can be dramatic. I unfortunately passed on a few deals that Starbucks would later capitalize on because of the initial cost of the space. I finally learned that Starbucks is willing to pay the big rent because that’s where the people are. If you get a good site, rarely do you regret it.

Another lesson I learned is you need people on board who “get” the magic of this incredible business. Some people believe that because everybody loves great coffee, and because of the strong loyalty nature of this business, that the specialty coffee business is easy. The truth is, this is a spectacular business for the right person. But if you don’t embrace hard work, and if you don’t love people, this is not the right business for you.

One more example… A few years ago, we began selling frozen yogurt in some of our stores, with the thinking that the customer coming in for a latte on her way to work is the same customer who would bring her kids in for a frozen yogurt after school. That turned out to be true, and we did fairly well, but I came to realize after a year and a half that we had distracted ourselves. During that phase, we weren’t a specialty coffee business, we weren’t a frozen yogurt business — we were in no man’s territory. We quickly abandoned the concept. I don’t mind making mistakes, but I want them to be well thought-out mistakes.

Some of the biggest 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, and why? He or she might just see this. :-)

I like people with integrity, and folks who don’t take themselves too seriously. Former President George W. Bush is someone I’ve appreciated for those qualities. I simply like nice people who care about others, and, no matter what your politics, it seems like he fits that mold. As for Linda, I’ve always joked that I’m safe as long as Denzel Washington doesn’t call her.

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