Long before it arrived in instant and freeze-dried forms, coffee was seen as something more sacred than systemic to so many morning routines. Legend claims a Ninth Century Ethiopian named Kaldi observed how his goat herd went gaga after grazing on berries from the “Bunna” (their name for the coffee plant). Kaldi shared his findings with tribal priests who determined that by boiling the beans in water, consumption of the resulting concoction helped them maintain alertness through the ardors and hours of their devotions. It spread to Egypt and Yemen where the Sufi Monasteries adopted it in their rituals. The Arab world helped elevate coffee roasting into an artisanal process, referring to the drink as “qahhwat al-bun” or “wine of the bean.” World exploration, trade and even conquest would lead to coffee plants being gifted to reining monarchs, or in some cases, secretly smuggled from one country to the next in years that followed. Today, so much of coffee’s historical and cultural mystique would be lost in packaged processes and functions of cookie-cutter fast-serve concepts were it not for the bold standards of a business brewed-up by two brothers in Minnesota. While their efforts have benefitted coffee consumers and coffee growers alike, for entrepreneurs percolating over business prospects, this one brims in all kinds of aromatic potential.
It has been said that without passion all would be ineffectual, and indeed, it is Ed and Dan Dunn’s passionate reverence for coffee roasting which has prompted popularity and increasing market proliferation of the café franchise known as Dunn Bros Coffee. Described as “really fanatical coffee enthusiasts” by Dunn Bros President and CFO Kim Plahn, Ed and Dan Dunn set out to change the coffee consuming world a little more than 25 years ago, and the fact remains, this company has helped transform lives in degrees that most patrons might not even realize.
To put that in proper context, Plahn explains that Ed and Dan drew inspiration from the burgeoning array of coffee houses catering to aficionados in Oregon. The brothers, being more connoisseur than casual consumer, noticed that too many of these operations relied on blends that had been ground together and packaged so many months previous to actual preparation as to negate the appropriate pleasing of the palate, or to put it plainly, they lacked flavor. So in 1987, after arriving in Minnesota, Ed and Dan went on to establish the first Dunn Bros location on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. Having procured a 12 kilo Probat roaster along with the finest of fine coffee beans, they immersed themselves in the artisanal, in-house, craft of roasting and refused to compromise on quality. As Plahn explains, in a manner likened to that which customers encounter when walking into a bakery where fresh bread is being prepared, the Dunn Brothers wanted their store to be enticingly instilled by a similar aromatic aesthetic. Coffee lovers soon clamored to the store and the sheer extent of their demands ultimately forced the brothers to begin serving brewed coffee as well as espresso.
The menu selections were a showcase of single-origin coffee varieties, not blends, but the distinct offering of particular growers from particular geographies whose product was then specially roasted to allow the nuances of that flavor profile to be fully experienced. A caffeinated crescendo of demand would further prompt opening of a second location and business swelled with media recognition of their coffee as “the best” in Minnesota.
In 1994, the Dunn Brothers determined to franchise the concept and two partners (Chris Eilers and Skip Fay) became the first franchisees. Eilers and Fay opened five new locations over a three year period and went on to secure full franchising rights from the brothers in 1998.
Today, with approximately 80 locations roasting in roosts among nine states, Dunn Bros has continued to annually garner acclaim as the best in its business. While that expansion and all the media tributes to taste represent certain achievement in industry, there is so much more that equates to excellence concerning this enterprise.
The Bold Standard
Several years ago, the company created a set of protocols that governs the process, and producers, from which they procure the coffee sold throughout their locations. The coffees are from independently certified farms or cooperatives or from farms Dunn Bros had visited for themselves. Plahn says the company partners with the most respected certifiers of sustainably grown coffees including Fair Trade, Rain Forest Alliance and UTZ Kapeh. This basically means that the coffee tantalizing consumer tastes at Dunn Bros is coming from growers who are responsibly adhering to standards of sustainable agriculture. It also means the workers who assist in the growing and harvesting of that coffee operate in full measure of the safe and dignified conditions that all humanity deserves. Additionally, the company travels to many of its countries of origin. Whether it is South America, Africa, Indonesia or some village in a little ventured-to corridor of the world, the journeys culminate with meeting the farmers and assessing all aspects of the operation prior to making any purchase. “Our coffee can’t just taste good, it has to come from growers who are following good environmental practices … whose employees are being treated well and benefit from the appropriate medical, housing and basic resources anyone should expect,” says Plahn.
That process has led to remarkable changes in communities throughout the world. In one case, after a recent trip to Kenya where the company discovered a fascinatingly flavorful coffee variety, it was learned that drought conditions severely impacted the residents and growers alike. Dunn Bros provided the community with an “aquapulper” a device that allows farmers to use only a tenth of the water they would traditionally use to process coffee. The only problem was that the device runs on electricity and this small town had no electrical infrastructure. Dunn Bros went a step further and through the project ensured that the power lines were in place so that today, the villagers all have access to electricity.
Another Dunn Bros initiative is known as Project Elevation. In this program, Dunn Bros partners with a variety of non-profit organizations striving to create healthier and stronger communities in the countries where coffee is produced. Dunn Bros customers in America may already know that each month, Dunn Bros features a unique origin of coffee, say, something originating from Uganda, El Salvador or Rwanda. Through Project Elevation, a portion of the proceeds from sale of designated coffees is directed back to non-profit organizations serving the communities in coffee producing countries. In addition to bringing greater awareness to the organizations, the contributions help make improvements to schools, homes and lives of people who often have desperate needs.
Through such interactions, Plahn says travels will often lead to company representatives being greeted by hundreds of cheering (or dancing) people for an experience she describes as “amazing” and very atypical from that most consider as an ordinary day at work. These encounters are not solely relegated to corporate leadership either. Franchisees are provided opportunity to gain firsthand experience of the same. Plahn says this not only helps educate franchisees about coffee procurement and the principles that guide the company, but it also helps acquire greater appreciation of how their respective work is also helping to make a beneficial difference in the world.
Flavor in Franchising
Dunn Bros’ follows an owner/operator franchising model. As opposed to selling developing agreements that encompass, say, a whole state, the company enters into an agreement with a principal in a particular market. Depending on location, construction and real estate costs, a typical unit of 1800 to 2000 square feet costs in the range of approximately $230,000 to $460,000 for a traditional store in 2012. Though it is a chain, Dunn Bros prides itself as being a “non-chain” chain. Plahn says each location can be customized to reflect the nuances of the respective market in which it operates, therefore, no two are exactly the same. In any case, however, Dunn Bros provides the full range of site selection, architectural design, building and supply services on which a franchisee can depend.
The company also offers the full measure of training in all aspects of the operation, which includes coffee roasting, preparing of specialty drinks, using of accounting software or marketing tools, and more. Today, the technical aspects of the point-of-sale systems are accomplished through cloud computing systems. Basically, this means that software upgrades, product pricing and data mining can be generated to each location from a centralized network with little or no input from the franchisee. The system not only helps franchisees rapidly access marketing, sales performance and pricing data, but also enables them to focus more on the work at hand, which is delighting their guests.
And these days, customers are not only coming to Dunn Bros for coffee, some actually seek more substantial cuisine through a modification the company began testing four years ago. From 2008 to 2009, when all were hunkering down in the recession, Plahn says Dunn Bros took their profits and reinvested in the company with the idea that they could take the approach in coffee and apply it to a bakery concept. “Our goal was to elevate the food experience. We saw that all the large players were missing-out on having a high quality food program,” explains Plahn.
The company brought in a chef and partnered with masters of meat and cheese in Boar’s Head, and soon, salads, signature dishes and fresh baked goods were complementing the deliciousness doled out at four designated locations. There are now more than a dozen locations that have seen sales significantly increase through the menu additions, in some cases, in-unit sales have almost doubled. Plahn says the elevated food menu will be implemented in additional existing locations while new franchisees will be able to more readily benefit from this new offering.
In the same way that Dunn Bros relies on special coffee roasting equipment, the bakery also makes use of innovative mechanisms. In this case, a Turbo Chef Oven that uses the heat of circulated air to cook. The mechanism doesn’t require the same space as traditional ovens, and unlike the texture-destroying properties of a microwave, it is able to bake, and brown bread, and produce a higher quality food than is found among other coffee concepts currently out there.
Book lovers can also find new reading flavors at Dunn Bros through CoffeeandBooks.com where customers can now find downloadable or unique hardcopy offerings whenever they visit Dunn Bros. Through this initiative, Plahn says the company wants to both encourage reading and provide a platform for bringing greater recognition to the work of writers whose titles might not otherwise be found in the customary market place. She says the program supports Dunn Bros as a community partner providing venues for hosting book clubs and special book-signing events with authors, and she anticipates that trend to increase.
Plahn also hints that more “interesting” things are to come, but without disclosing, she says the company is both encouraged and excited by their outlook on the future. She says Dunn Bros “has always strived to distinguish itself.” Whether that is reflected in the taste of their coffee, their elevated menu options, the environments in which they operate or their honorable operational standards, Dunn Bros delights in being a destination where coffee drinkers can experience a bold new standard in both quality and experience.
For more information, please visit their website at: Dunn Bros Coffee