Picking Mark Swanson’s Brain

The Metropreneur recently profiled prominent local business owners Jeni Britton Bauer and Elizabeth Lessner, and both independently named Mark Swanson, president of Cup o’ Joe/Stauf’s Coffee Roasters, one of their go-to guys for professional guidance and advice.

That fact, combined with his obvious coffee expertise, surely makes Swanson, 43, an entrepreneur worthy of our attention − and yours. Herewith, the Madison, Ohio native shares the biggest challenge he faces when opening a new store, why specialty coffees are pricier than their mainstream counterparts, and the ideology that is critical to his companies’ success.

Question: Stauf’s Coffee Roasters, Cup o’ Joe, and MoJoe Lounge are all part of the same company.  How did that happen?

Answer: Well, that is pretty involved, but here is a short version that might not seem so short. For 22 years, Stauf’s has been helping coffee-loving entrepreneurs create business plans, select sites, layout stores, train staff and operate successful specialty coffee businesses. Of course, that consulting landed us the opportunity to do what we are most passionate about: roasting specialty coffees for these amazing business owners.

In 1998, local businessperson and Stauf’s fan, Andy Tang, bought our company and provided us with the resources and expertise to look for expansion opportunities. In 2000, we purchased one of our top wholesale accounts, Cup o’ Joe. Since then, we have opened several Cup o’ Joe locations and created a new complementary business called MoJoe Lounge.

Q: So a cup of coffee at Stauf’s is technically the same as a cup at Cup o’ Joe and MoJoe? How do you keep each business so distinctly unique if the coffee is all coming from the same source?

A: Awesome coffee is critical, but only the beginning in our business. We know that a friendly staff and a comfortable location make the experience special. With our hundreds of wholesale customers and our own stores, we stress the importance of listening to the customer and embracing each community.

Each of our locations offer a similar menu of coffees, drinks and food, but we are always flexible in order to make certain we deliver what folks want in each community. This is how we train our wholesale customers because we want them to be independent and mindful of their neighborhood. It would definitely be easier to reduce it down to a chain or franchise level. But I think you will miss what is really cool and unique about our business’s relationship with the neighborhood.

Q: How does the MoJoe Lounge concept work with your coffee house business?

A: MoJoe Lounge was a great opportunity to take the coffee house environment and extend it to cocktails and food. We wanted to create a place that was laid-back and accessible to a variety of guests at all hours of the day. So, in addition to our quality coffee and local pastries and desserts, we offer cocktails and a complete menu. The result is a relaxed lounge atmosphere without loud music or attitudes, and the four MoJoe Lounge locations complement their neighboring businesses in German Village, the Short North, Easton and Port Columbus International Airport.

Q: How has helping other businesses get off the ground and grow helped you?

A: So many people have had a profound impact on our business. Andy Tang and Stauf’s Founder Tom Griesemer certainly set the bar high. I do think that our staff has played one of the biggest roles in our success. Current and former co-workers provide insights that make my job much easier. We truly have great people invested in this.

I also have so many peers from the Central Ohio Restaurant Association, like Liz Lessner LaRue from Betty’s Family of Restaurants, the team at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Jeff Benson at G Michaels, Michael Jones with Local Matters, and many of our local vendors who are honest and supportive every time we need it.

Of course, our customers are our friends. So they steer a large portion of what we do.

Q: Why does specialty coffee cost more than other types?

A: I bet Jeff Davis at Café Brioso and Jovan Karcic at Yeah, Me Too would probably say the same thing:  because it is better. The coffees that we buy are the highest grades available.  With over 40 coffee producing countries and innumerable levels of quality produced by each country, it takes time, skill and relationships to consistently offer something truly special for our guests. Our roasters Tommy Goetz and Rich Benson agonize over their work and are quick to kick a coffee off of the cupping table if it doesn’t stack up. We cup without price in mind so we can honestly say our coffee is outstanding.

Q: When opening a store, what is your biggest challenge?

A: I know that everyone can agree that location is big, but I also think that you must find a balance between emotion and the demographic metrics you run into. I have seen many businesses, including our own, fall prey to emotion and metrics. Sometimes you have it in your heart to open a location so you plow through business common sense to get a deal done. Other times you see the demographics and let that drive you. It is terribly difficult.

Our CFO Bill Sturges and I have a mantra: do the right thing by your team and customer, don’t be greedy and always be patient. Find key staff, friends, family, folks who live in the community, and any outside uninvolved peers you trust to consider your plan. Don’t pick people that tell you what you want to hear; pick people who want you and your team to be happy and successful.

[Local Resource Database – Retail & Real Estate Resources]

Q: Your business uses a lot of local products.  Who do you work with and why are local products important?

A: We have always been committed to our local producers and the local economy. Today, we work closely with all of our vendors to source our food products locally whenever possible.

Currently, we work with so many great businesses in the region, including Cup Cake Yum Yum, Zuppa, Sugardaddy’s, Simple Sweets, Jeni’s, Pattycake Bakery, Chocolate Octopus, Eleni Christina, Scooter Buns, Sammy’s Bagels, Sweet Tooth Cottage, Auddinos, Merry Milk Maid, as well as bigger companies that bring in local stuff, like Sysco and Roth Produce.

You can’t beat the quality and we love working with our friends. Buying local is not a fad. It has worked for us for over two decades and we truly believe it is critical to our success.

For more information about Stauf’s Coffee Roasters, Cup o’ Joe, and MoJoe Lounge, visit Staufs.com.