Metro Christian Living Features Seattle Drip Coffee
SEPTEMBER 2010 Metro Christian Living
So what happens when an entrepreneur with a resume checkered more than the tablecloth in a pizza parlor, who loves Jesus, develops success- ful businesses, is tuned into the Great Commission? How far out can a creative idea go before it’s not such a smart idea at all? Can hard work, relationships, coffee and Jesus make a successful business plan?
Business and Faith
The Birth of Seattle Drip
It was the spring of 2001, when Gary noticed a quaint little building going up in the parking lot at the corner of Old Canton and Pear Orchard Road. It was on his beaten path, so he watched with interest for several days trying his best to figure out what in the world it might be. It was too large for an ATM and too small to be a store.
One afternoon he spotted someone on the premises and stopped to inquire. Joel Carver, the proprietor, explained that he was opening a double drive-thru specialty coffee house. He was a recently transplanted Seattle native, now the soccer coach at several area schools. He and his wife Tennille, a dancer with Ballet Magnificat, expected their novel idea to provide a little extra money as well as part time jobs for a few local students. The Seattle Drip name was, of course, in homage to their native city and the coffee-drinking capital of the world. To this day, it always takes people by surprise to learn that Seattle Drip is headquartered in Madison, Mississippi!
Gary’s entrepreneurial tendencies kicked in immediately. “Little building, two people and a wide margin in coffee…awesome.” Finding com- mon ground as believers with the Carvers and as one who enjoyed a good cup of coffee, Gary began to stop by Seattle Drip often. Aside from the coffee, he was drawn to the attitude of the baristas who he calls “Lord-loving kids.” It was a counter-cultural experience. If there was a car ahead of you in line, someone would come out and get your order and bring your drink. They worked so hard to please their customers,” Gary says. “It just made you feel better about your day to make a stop at Seattle Drip.”
The result was that customers kept coming back—most of them on a daily basis. The baristas knew their customers’ names and friendships developed. The bible verses frequently posted on the windows garnered e-mails of thanks for the encouragement. Customers began to share their prayer concerns when they stopped for that cup of coffee. To use an over-used word for lack of a better one Seattle Drip became a conduit for ministry, bearing each other’s burdens and giving the love of Jesus alongside that cup of coffee. Over the next nine months Gary persuaded Joel to let him buy an interest in the company. They thought they would grow that little business on Old Canton Road for a while and then venture into building other stores. “I didn’t know anything at all about franchising, but I saw that this could be easily replicated,” he says. Thus the oil and gas man, former seminary student, ex-investment banker and commercial real estate investor added something else to his resume: coffee business owner.
Building a Business
Initially, Gary was just an investor but as the little business grew, he became more and more involved. He and Joel realized the success of a new business venture was something like raising a child. It required time, commitment, consisten- cy and lots of 24/7 hard work. Prayer has been a key component every time a hire is made. Although Seattle Drip does not make it a policy to hire only believers, they are up front about their values and ask each employee if they can fit into that environment.
Work ethic and a heart for people are key at “The Drip,” as it is affectionately called. Gary cites the biblical principles of “dying to self” and “considering the needs of others ahead of your own.” Those are the keys to their customer service. Then there’s the “right chemistry” necessary among the teams who work together. With only two people manning the drive-thru windows at each location, it becomes a priority that the duo enjoy working together and the customer picks up on that. There is a feeling of family that is foundational to the operation of Seattle Drip.
Abigail Chen had been one of Joel’s first hires. Like Joel’s wife, Abigail had come to Jackson to dance with Ballet Magnificat. In fact, Abigail had dedicated her life to the Lord at a Ballet Magnificat summer workshop. The Nashville native was fresh out of high school when she arrived. Working at Seattle Drip was a chance to make some extra money and she was a veteran waitress who understood relationship marketing. In the process, however, Abigail was given more and more responsibility. From barista to manager to bookkeeper, marketing director and general everything, it was apparent that she had a very good head for business. Nine years into this adventure, Abigail is the owner of four stores in the Metro area, “the most fun job I have ever had. You really have the opportunity to get to know your customers and to speak encourage- ment into their lives.”
In 2003, Joel and Tennille Carver moved away selling their interest in the company to Gary. In the typical restless pursuit of excellence that characterizes Gary, he began to think, “What next? How can we build on what we have?” Although the stores grew in number for a while, the aggressive franchising program they had launched slowed down with the economic melt- down in 2007. In the troubled economy, it was more difficult for a potential franchisee to secure a loan. The slowdown in opening new stores did not dampen Gary’s enthusiasm for Seattle Drip’s future. He simply reordered his thoughts. In those early years Seattle Drip’s coffee was private labeled. The more Gary learned about coffee and the growth of the specialty coffee industry, the more he wanted Seattle Drip to have their unique profiles. Such a step would require a roastery, a great deal of knowledge on coffee beans, and a master “Q-cupper” who knew how to mix, blend and roast the different beans. It took some research, but through a series of God ordained circumstances, Gary was connected to a second generation “Q-Grader” who actually had a coffee lab in California. Willem Boot was from the Netherlands and is one of the lead- ing Coffee Consultants in the world with clients much larger than a little coffee company in Mississippi. But Boot agreed to work with Seattle Drip and over a period of months engineered and developed the proprietary blends that are unique to Seattle Drip. Since 2008, the unique blends offered by Seattle Drip are of such a quality that they can compete on international levels in the coffee industry.
When Seattle Drip got into their own roasting back in 2008, they were then able to offer private labels for other groups. Offering wholesale costs with the best and freshest blends to ministries, schools, churches or other non-profits allows a low cost fund-raising option for many local organizations— among them Mission Mississippi, Mission First, Ballet Magnificat, The Ole Miss Alumni Association, Odyssey Hospice, USM, MSU’s International Business School, and more.
The Coffee Club has been another idea that has met with much success and helps many a ministry. By subscribing through one of the participating private label partners, fresh coffee in varying quantities can be delivered to you every month and twenty- five cents of every dollar goes back to the charity. For more information visit www.seattledrip.com.
When Chris Newcomb began to expand his Newk’s Express Café business, he chose Seattle Drip as Newk’s exclusive coffee provider. Gary calls that “such an honor” and has made it possi- ble to serve wholesale accounts in eight states.
In the middle of educating himself on every aspect of the coffee business, Gary is forever conscious of building a business that is intentionally God-honoring in every way. He learned a con- cept during his seminary days that has stuck with him—the principle of concentric circles.
One of his seminary professors told him that our lives are like concentric circles representing relationships with God, ourselves and others. Anything we do that affects any one of those relationships also affects the other two. Therefore, business is not some separate compartment completely unrelated to his faith or anything else as far as Gary Slade is concerned.
“We always wanted Seattle Drip to glorify God,” he says. “So, we took the route of not opening on Sundays and creating an environment where our employees had the freedom to post scriptures on the windows.”
For several years employees and management supported orphans in coffee producing countries through Compassion International. Gary and the management team felt burdened by the injustices, inequities and unrest in other parts of the world. He says, “Our heart’s desire has been to somehow make an impact in some way—in a way that could somehow create the ‘flywheel effect,’ essentially meaning ‘teach people to fish’ versus ‘giving them a fish.”
In 2009, while attending the Willowcreek Leadership Summit, Gary learned about micro-lending. Kiva.org and World Vision are organizations both providing a vehicle for individuals and businesses to make small loans to entrepreneurs in third world countries. “This was finally what I had been looking for,” Gary shares.
After reading World Vision President Richard Stearns’ book The Hole in Our Gospel, Gary was completely sold and so was everyone else at Seattle Drip. Gary explains, “We established Seattle Drip Lending Teams in partnership with KIVA and World Vision so that anyone could lend to third world country entrepreneurs on our website, www.seattledrip.com. Our goal is for this to be a large part of our business.” One of the most compelling aspects of Kiva and World Vision’s programs are the fact that anyone who wants to participate in a micro-loan can select the entrepreneur they help. Stories of potential entrepreneurs are posted on their Web sites. Frequent updates and even YouTube videos keep you connected with the progress of the endeavor. It is an incredible venue of mission work because it becomes personal.
To date Seattle Drip lending teams have helped 25 entrepreneurs in about 12 countries. Anyone can be a part of their lending teams by going to the Web site and signing up.
Gary says, “In a place where the concept of entrepreneurship is non-existent, we have the potential of changing lives thru partnerships with organizations like World Vision and Kiva by mak- ing loans as small as $25 that can be the catalyst for change not only in a family’s life, but an entire community.” With the benefit of World Vision’s and Kiva’s proficiency in underwriting and mon- itoring the loans and thru World Vision’s mentor- ing program, the default rate on these loans is less than 1.5%!
Advice from an Entrepreneur
At age 53, Gary has spent decades in the business world. He has been through the best of economic times and some of the worst as well. He admits that he hasn’t always stopped to let the Lord direct, and he usually learned an expensive lesson in the process. But today as he looks back, his perspective is clear and as smooth and mellow as a cup of his favorite brew. Building this particular business, working with the believers who have worked beside him, share a common desire to make this a truly God-honoring endeavor, has brought a wealth of blessing and a sense of living out a very purpose-filled calling on his life.
He talks about a “paradigm shift,” saying that he spent much of his life building and gathering impermanent things. “What really matters,” he says, “is not the accumulation of things. I look back on all this time and energy and money I spent investing in other things and realize it can all change so quickly.” His counsel to other business entrepreneurs is to “be sure you’re doing whatever you are doing for all the right reasons.”
For the group at Seattle Drip, business is just one more avenue of blessing others with the blessings God has showered on them. It’s about so much more than enjoying the best coffee on the road!