Indie Coffee Shop Thrives in the Shadow of the Dunkin’ Empire

I’m at the Coffee Break Cafe in Quincy, Mass., waiting to meet the shop’s co-owner, Jenn Ormond. The line was five deep when I got here, so I figured I’d sit down and wait for the rush to die down before ordering a coffee.

That was almost an hour ago, and I’m still waiting for a lull. The people just keep pouring in.

That’s a good sign at any business, but it’s even more impressive here. Quincy is the birthplace of two presidents and one global coffee chain: The first Dunkin’ Donuts location opened here in 1950 (and still stands).

While Dunkin’ Brands is a mega-corporation with more than 11,000 locations worldwide, it’s an even bigger deal in New England; in this part of the country, Dunkin’ Donuts outnumber Starbucks by a landslide. There are more than a dozen Dunkin’ locations in Quincy alone; there’s even one inside the local Home Depot.

So how does little Coffee Break Cafe manage to thrive in the birthplace of the Dunkin’ empire?

‘We Did Everything Wrong’

The answer to that question goes back to the early ’90s. While in college, Ormond worked as a waitress and bartender, and her boyfriend (and eventual husband and business partner) Donny worked as a chef at the same restaurant.

They both relied on coffee to get through long and late-night shifts, but Ormond was constantly and vocally disappointed by the quality of coffee available outside her home and the restaurant they worked at — not to mention the scowling customer service that usually accompanied it.

Donny finally convinced her to stop complaining about it and open her own coffee shop. They started putting $75 a week into a savings account to one day open the business.

Two weeks later, Ormond says, “We stumbled upon this place.”

“We had no money, we had no experience, we had nothing,” she says. But the location was perfect, so they went for it.

“We paid for stuff with credit cards and personal loans. We eventually got a business loan, probably a year into it,” Ormond says.

“We did everything wrong,” she jokes.

Well, not everything. They had two core principles that have helped steer the business since the outset.

“The only thing I knew was that we wanted to have really good coffee and excellent customer service,” she says. As a waitress, “I made a living by making people happy, and it infuriated me to stand in line at Dunkin’ Donuts and then be barked at: ‘NEXT!'”

Specialize in Specialties

Besides the friendly, one-on-one service, another way Coffee Break has distinguished itself in the Land of Dunkin’ is by offering premium and unique products.

While you can get a cup of Dunkin’s or Starbucks pretty much anywhere in the world, Ormond says, “The stuff we make here, you literally cannot get it anywhere else.”

Coffee Break only uses specialty coffee micro-roasted in small batches from four different roasters. Ormond tries to source her products from local suppliers whenever possible — or make them herself.

For example, when they first started out, they bought vanilla powder from a major distributor. “We didn’t like them, truthfully, so we started looking around and now we make our own vanilla powder. … And we make our own chai, brewed with real tea, whereas if you go to one of the big chains it comes in a carton.”

Coffee Break also started making their own cream cheese a couple of years ago, in flavors such as buffalo chicken and maple bacon. It’s something Ormond excitedly admits to being obsessed with. “I held a managers meeting to explain that we were going to start making our own cream cheese and people’s eyes were rolling — like, really? Now a few years later, we can barely keep up with it,” she says.

The Coffee Grind

Not that things were always so fun. The startup process was nonstop work. Ormond and her husband kept their restaurant jobs for the first year or so while running the coffee shop during the day.

“We were here [at the coffee shop] at 5 a.m., and then my mom and two of my friends would come in after they got out of their jobs at around 5 p.m., and I would go in and waitress or tend bar until 11 p.m. or 2 a.m.,” she recalls. “They were long, long days.”

But then, things settled down into a profitable rhythm, right? Err … not exactly.

“And then we opened up our second location two years into it,” Ormond says. They continued opening new stores every couple of years, so they were constantly in startup mode, sinking money into new locations.

“Then, once everything’s open, something breaks. Right now we have a broken espresso machine,” she says. “You’re never rolling in it. Ever.

“If you want to get rich quick, do not open a coffee shop!” Ormond says. “People think, ‘Oh, coffee costs like a penny and you charge three bucks,’ but it’s not like that.”

Expansion and Contraction, Leasing and Buying

With three locations and just under 50 employees currently, Ormond says they’ve been looking to open a fourth store this year. I asked her how they scout potential locations.

“I definitely go with my gut,” she says. “Would I pull up and get out of my car and get coffee there? And if the answer is yes, we will get up and park outside at 5 a.m. and count cars and count people walking by. We’ll go on different days of the week and see what kind of foot traffic it gets.”

This time around, Ormond wants to buy a property. “We still lease after 19 years. We could have owned a building like three times over by now, so we’d like to own something property-wise,” she says.

Ormond has had some bad luck with leases. One of their early expansion locations was a leased property in the nearby town of Holbrook. Not long after they pumped money into opening the store, however, the building changed hands and the new owners decided to tear it down. “We were there for less than a year,” Ormond says. “It was devastating.”

Another location, in neighboring Braintree, was forced to close after a full decade of operation when Ormond couldn’t negotiate a new lease. “Closing down a store that you’ve been in for 10 years is worse than moving out of a house,” she says.

Ormond says that’s not the only leasing decision they regret. They originally leased some of their equipment, and at one point decided they didn’t want to lease it anymore. “We paid off two pieces of equipment and, of course, literally the day after, one of them broke,” she says. “Under the lease it would have been covered.”

But it also taught them that they’d rather own their equipment than lease. Coffee suppliers will often give you free equipment if you buy their beans. “It took us a long time to realize that it’s better to own your own equipment and be free so you can choose whoever you want to do business with.”

Write a Business Plan

Thinking back, Ormond says her best advice to new entrepreneurs is to write out a business plan.

“Nobody wants to do a business plan,” she says. “Argghhhh, it’s so long and boring and depressing. But I really recommend you do it, even if you don’t do it officially for a bank.

“The one thing you just can’t account for are the what-ifs,” she says. “What if in five years I decide to have a child? What if I get sick? If you have a business partner, what if he or she gets sick? How are we going to split up the work duties? What if I want to get out and you want to stay?

“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” she insists. But even if the answers aren’t right — no one knows what their life or the economy will be like in five years — you’ve at least given it some thought and opened up a dialogue.

coffee break coffee

Coffee Break Cafe has managed to thrive in the birthplace of global coffee goliath Dunkin’ Donuts. Photo: Coffee Break Cafe

Surviving the Great Recession

Speaking of sudden economic changes: Most longtime small business owners have war stories about the 2008-09 recession, and Ormond is no exception.

“The economy kicked our butts,” she says. “It still gets hairy. Any small business owner would be lying if they said it doesn’t get hairy.”

A lot of her regular customers started brewing their own coffee to save money. “We’d still see them once a week,” she says, “but it was to buy a pound of coffee to brew at home, whereas they used to come in twice a day, every day.”

On top of that, people started using K-Cups more, which mystifies her. “You’ve got this food movement, where everyone wants to know where their food is grown, what’s been injected into it. But they have no problem heating up a little plastic pod that’s been injected with chemicals to keep the ground coffee fresh, and then they’re throwing it into a landfill.”

But the recession wasn’t without its silver lining. “We gained some really good habits, I think. We were definitely spending too much money with a lot our vendors and the economy made us look at that and see where can we cut back creatively,” Ormond says.

A Square-Shaped Cost Cutter

When I ask if there’s any technology out there that makes her life easier or cuts costs, Ormond swears by Square, the credit-card reader you can attach to an iPhone or iPad.

“I love Square. They are simple and affordable and honest as far as fees, and there’s nothing hidden,” she says.

Credit card companies continually call her with promises of low rates, she says, but there are always hidden costs.

“One month I looked at my bank account and they had taken $2,500 out of my account just for fees … and I was like, I’m paying more in credit card fees than I am for rent. So I literally went to Apple that day and I bought the [Square] swiper and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Another life-saver? Good, loyal staff in an industry known for its high employee turnover. “I have awesome staff,” Ormond says. “I treat them well and they treat me well. They make my life a lot easier.”

The Small Business Life

Like many small business owners, Ormond struggles to save for retirement, though one of her New Year’s resolutions is to focus on finances.

“I have a teeny-tiny IRA,” she says. “We took on more debt than we wanted to [during the recession], and we did whatever we had to do to make it work. Because closing was never an option.”

The Ormonds, who have four school-age children, are still involved in day-to-day operations of the business. Ormond hires and fires employees, handles all the scheduling, oversees inventory, and does the books. Her husband still takes the truck to Restaurant Depot to buy their supplies. It’s an unpredictable, always-on lifestyle, but the flexibility helps.

“We’re only closed on Christmas Day, so that’s the only day that I truly have off,” she says. “But it’s awesome because of the flexibility. I can pick up my kids after school, I can go to school plays, I can go to parent-teacher conferences during the day when other people can’t.”

The business is simply intertwined with her life, right down to its aroma. “I can tell when my husband’s picked up the kids and brought them here,” she says, because they come home smelling like the coffee shop.

Ormond likes the scent. “Which is a good sign,” she says, “that I don’t hate the smell after 19 years!”

Jon Gorey
Jon Gorey
Contributing Editor

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte's work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications. Notte earned a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 1998.

Loading Disqus Comments ...