Dec. 7 2017 10:24 AM

Co-founder Bob Fish reveals the secrets behind Biggby’s bigness


Co-founder Bob Fish reveals the secrets behind Biggby’s bigness

It’s not hard to understand how Biggby exploded from one East Lansing café in 1995 to 230 franchises this year, with another 12 slated to open in early 2018. Just check out a famous scene from “The Sopranos,” the small screen’s most influential tv show in the coffee chain’s early years.

Paulie and a mobster pal walk into a Starbucks. A server is shouting for a “decaf cappuccino primo nonfat double espresso magnifico regulare.”

Paulie shifts his feet uncomfortably, as if wondering whom to strangle.

“Ya got any just coffee?” “Our café du jour is New Zealand Peaberry,” the server explains.

“Whatever,” Paulie snaps. The rest of the scene is not fit to print, even in City Pulse.

Biggby co-founder and CEO Robert Fish is not out to win the mobster trade, but in the mid-90s he sensed a culture gap between the new phenomenon of coffee shops and the 70 percent of Americans who drink coffee.

Fish imagined a shop where his own dad and other coffee drinkers who “weren’t hip to the language of specialty coffees” could walk in “not feeling like a dope.”

Fish and co-founders Mary Rozsel, now retired, and Michael McFall started in 1995 with one East Lansing café, an old Arby’s restaurant with the covered wagon roof.

“I was one of many independent operators,” Fish said.

Espresso Emporium, Cuppa Java, the Cappucino Café and the Dancing Goat were part of greater Lansing’s first wave of specialty coffee shops.

Fish credits Biggby’s “approachable” culture with outlasting them all.

In 1995, it was a big plus to have drinks named White Lighting, Teddy Bear and Caramel Marvel rather than frappucino or macchiato.

“We were less Euro-chic, less Italianized,” Fish said.

Fish found that except for a small percentage of cognoscenti, people “didn’t care whether we were selling Guatemalan hue hue tanango or Java Estate.

But they were very interested in knowing whether their coffee tasted good.”

That’s the other half of Biggby’s formula. Behind the unpretentious orange “B” is some serious quality control.

Before he opened a single shop, Fish spent four months in 1994 in Seattle, hanging out with micro-roasters and coffee shop owners. He studied hand extraction (brewing) methods and other techniques that are standard at Biggby.

One of them is the wet foam method used to “velvetize” the milk in a latte.

“The milk and the air all pour out as a homogenized product, like a milk shake,” he explained. Not scalding the milk is also crucial. “Heat it naturally and the milk turns sweet, but if you hit a tipping point in temperature, it begins to deteriorate,” he said.

Using whipped cream with a higher fat content doesn’t hurt, either.

Fish also credits Biggby’s phenomenal growth to its upbeat, friendly staff. After hundreds of visits, I can’t recall seeing a sullen face at Biggby, but I had to ask Fish how they enforce slogans like “we exist to love people.”

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘enforce,’” he said. “That’s a little like” — he put on a German accent — ’You vill haff a good time.’” As it happens, the culture is self-selecting. If you can’t stomach Biggby’s steamed-up culture of love — check out its “beliefs” web page — don’t get in the kitchen. At Discovery Day events where potential franchisees learn about the chain, “we’re talking about love and happiness and friendship,” Fish said. “If that kind of language, freaks you out, we want you to sort yourself out. If you dig it, you’re in.”

About 90 percent of Biggby shops are in Michigan, but the chain is making headway in Ohio, Indiana and Illiinois outside of Chicago. A few outliers in Florida, Texas, Kentucky and South Carolina are mostly owned by Michigan transplants.

Fish thought the limit was reached several times already, but “the finish line keeps moving,” he said.

At $110 million in annual sales, Biggby is averaging at about 15 percent growth a year, which means the company doubles in size every five years.

Fish and his team keep a sharp eye on the broader cultural and economic trends that drive business growth. Until now, Biggbys have popped up primarily along busy work routes or near retail centers, but retail is imploding fast and more people are working at home. In the near future, expect more Biggbys to be embedded in neighborhoods, where people can use them as places to work as well as socialize.

“It’s the place around the corner, rather than the place on the way to work or to Wal-Mart,” Fish said.

Finally, Fish admitted that almost 20 years after Starbucks’ snobbery had Paulie steaming, it’s time for Biggby to nudge into artisanal territory and offer products that are “a bit more mysterious to the average consumer.”

“It’s an elusive term, but the idea of ‘craft’ is getting more and more important to people,” Fish said. “We moved away from that, and now I find we’re coming back. People want to know a little more of the story behind what they’re drinking.”

About 15 Biggbys have already uncorked nitrogen cold brewed coffee. “You’d think you’ve died and gone to heaven,” Fish said.

Take is easy, Paulie. They still got just coffee.