How to Start Coffee Business Tips. Coffee By Design, Mary Allen Lindemann



Interview with Mary Allen Lindemann, Co-Owner, Coffee by Design

Mary Allen Lindemann and Alan Spear, her business partner and husband, opened their first shop in 1994, when the coffee industry was relatively new, and competition correspondingly low. 20 years and 5 shops later, competition abounds locally, nationally and globally.  In 2014, Mary Allen and Alan opened their 5th location in a 45.000 square foot building, far larger than their other facilities. This has become company headquarters, their greatly expanded roastery, and a state of the art coffee bar. Coffee By Design (CBD) has flourished through innovation in all aspects of business. Check out CBD's website to learn more about their overall operations, values, honors, and awards.




Shared leadership is a keystone of innovation at CBD. "We’re still the decision makers, ultimately. We believe in bringing other people to the table. We think constantly about how to bring people along to share the vision, and having other people at the table for the journey."

With the new facility, they took on a huge space. They brought in outside experts. Maine Manufacturing Extension helped define the project for growth. Then they got the entire roastery team engaged. Each person kept a notebook during the course of the days in the old space. “This is not efficient...” “I wish I could do this differently…” They ended up with 95 touch points out of the notebooks that the roastery crew shared. "We took all of these points into consideration as we designed. Interestingly, the space we would have designed ended up being the complete reverse.”

"We found, to our surprise, that workdays in the new facility were longer than in the old, despite a more efficient workspace and flow. We brought the staff together again, and asked why. The clear answer was that in the old cramped space, people constantly bumped into each other, thus there was constant information exchange. With that thread of informal communication gone, it was taking longer to coordinate. The team initiated how they wanted to solve this problem. They created more small meetings, informal trainings during breaks in the day, physical exercises together every morning. It all comes down to communication and providing as many avenues as possible for that to happen well."

People come forth with ideas confidently. "We work hard to stay approachable as the organization grows. We let people know through managers and consultants that their ideas are important. Everyone’s focus is on the mission."

This is a challenge with multiple locations. The Roastery staff see Mary Allen and Alan every day, but they are not so accessible at the other 4 coffeehouses. They use managers to bridge the gaps and make sure each staff member knows why they are here. A challenge for this year is how to help everyone understand “We’re the owners, but we need your ideas. If you have an idea that we can’t use, we’ll discuss why. Sometimes ideas are not right for us as a company, or at this point in time, so we don’t want people to feel shut down if we can’t use their idea right away. We want them to bring us other ideas."

Staff development is continual. "Technology, and how we communicate as people, have evolved. How does a staff member who I might not see for weeks at a time know that I still care about him or her? We want them to feel comfortable coming in here and sharing their ideas and visions with us. The managers are our representatives, our ambassadors. How do we make sure we give them the skills? They are the critical link between Alan and me, and everyone else in the company."

If someone wants a career in coffee, Mary Allen and Alan want to know. They train internally so that when there is an opportunity available, there are people ready to step in. CBD has a whole program to make sure people get the skills to step up to the next tier, if that is their goal. They train people for needs they anticipate a year out.  People have ideas about where they want to go in the company. "We recently interviewed everyone on the Roastery team about career goals. More than one team member said 'This is what I’d like to be doing, but you tell me what is in the best interest of the company and the team.' We’ve worked almost 21 years now to get that answer. We want to take this moment to show that it’s about individual development and it’s also about 'you understand what our vision and mission are, and you’re willing to do what it takes to help the whole team to get there.' One employee wrote 'We are each a link to the whole, let us each be a strong link.' "

There have been some people who have not shared the dream, and they've had to have that hard conversation about “Maybe this is not the right match for you. Things happen for a reason. You can go and find your dream.”

Scaling up sustainably. "You have to be an entrepreneur at heart. You’re learning all the time, yet always going back to the vision and mission. It’s important to view growth as a journey. As you grow, you wish this or that system was still great, but it’s not. You have to look at current systems and how they will evolve as you continue to grow.  You have to keep asking questions. As much as some days I wish a problem was done, you have to have the courage to examine everything on a regular basis. Does that still work? Is that still valid? “Is there still a place in the market for us? No one has all the answers. What may not have been successful 10 years ago might work now. We need to be looking at what we’re doing all the time."

"And at the end of the day, if we’re not having fun, then why are we doing this?  We had a lot of the fun factor in the early days. We have to build it in now. Coming to work should be enjoyable. When you come to work, you want to create an experience that’s about a great  cup of coffee and a whole lot more. Look at crazy ideas that make no sense, yet make a lot of sense."

"We are passionate about our mission and vision. We use competitors to learn. What categories are the large competitors creating, and how can we benefit? They put ideas in customers’ minds. Let them raise awareness for the consumer. We think about what we can take away and make better, targeting our special customers. We listen to the customer. If you listen and stay true to quality, customer feedback can create important changes."

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