With drinks named after bears and others that sound like superheroes, it seems unlikely that a coffee shop in East Lansing would become a multi-state franchise. Even co-founder and CEO Bob Fish calls the Biggby Coffee success story a little unlikely, but that’s the charm of Biggby Coffee.
I first found Biggby way back when it was called Beaner’s. I’ve learned that it’s a Michigan company and I’ve had the curtain pulled back a bit. And along the way I’ve become more than a customer: I consider myself a fanatic. I’ve even been to a few “Spot Bob” events. You need to know about these – you get free coffee.
Biggby taught me a lot about how social media can be used by businesses to develop a fan base and make connections. Biggby is the first company I saw use Twitter in an innovative and common sense way: connect with those who talk about your product, good or bad. I saw Biggby folks answering complaints online and taking care of their customers, even from the corporate level. At some point, @BiggbyBob began to re-tweet when I talked about getting a cup of coffee at my local shop. Then I began to see the hashtag #FOBC and my name attached. #FOBC stands for “Friends of Biggby Coffee.” From there, I was asked to guest blog a bit for the Biggby “B-Happy Lounge” online. It was all a great progression of occasional drinker to fanatic.
So when I think of Awesome Mitten companies, Biggby definitely comes to mind. I recently sat down and chatted with co-founder and CEO of Biggby, Bob Fish (also known as Biggby Bob) to talk about his business.
As a consumer, Bob Fish has loved coffee for a very long time. He grew up in Europe, so for 12 years he was exposed to what he calls “great coffee” at a young age. In 1981 Bob returned to Michigan to work on a hospitality degree at Michigan State University. Bob worked at an East Lansing breakfast place to put himself through school, eventually running it and having an ownership stake in it. Bob told me that in the early 90’s he “saw an emerging market of specialty coffee places, specialty beer and other shops.” Bob saw a great opportunity, and jumped on it, opening the first Biggby Cafe.
So, how do you go from 2 stores in East Lansing to a franchise company in multiple states? Bob says the real key to their success is the fact that Biggby sells an experience that’s approachable. Drinks like “Caramel Marvel” instead of Italian names makes it much less intimidating and more fun.
In the early year of 1998 when Biggby only had 2 shops in East Lansing; people were already asking how they could own a Biggby. So it was a matter of demand that drove the founders to unleash the Biggby franchise model. Bob talked to Mary Ellen Sheets about turning the business into a franchise. Two Men and a Truck had done it from East Lansing. Bob figured Biggby could do it, too. Today there are still about 35 coffee stores in East Lansing. Only now 30 of them are Biggby. He says a big part of that success is “We always have our eye on A) the customer and B) the franchisee. We work hard to keep both happy.”
About the name change: At its inception in the mid-90’s Biggby was called Beaner’s after the coffee bean. The founding partners hadn’t heard that term used in any other way. They were not aware of the derogatory use of the word. As the company grew and this knowledge was gleaned, the partnership decided they didn’t want to exclude anyone, regardless of the intent of the name. By keeping the logo (the big B) and the menu the same, the company successfully changed the name to Biggby. Bob said it actually helped put the company on the map. “Newspapers and TV stations were talking about us, creating a big buzz. It was quite a benefit,” Bob told me.
A little about Bob and Michigan:
Bob’s dad worked for Ford Motor Company, so he has deep roots in Michigan. He also figured out from an early age that he didn’t want to work “for the man.” This realization led Bob to develop an entrepreneurial spirit. He says East Lansing is a great melting pot of thinkers, entrepreneurs, and governmental types who all get things done. He says it’s a great place to foster business.
When asked about who the Mitten State really is, Bob said: “Oh I voted on that poll on your website. Hands down it’s Michigan. It’s great that we have the envy of another state though. It shows how great Michigan is!”
Final thought from Biggby Bob: “I live in Michigan. I work in Michigan. I play in Michigan. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” ~Dan Moyle, #FOBC & Contributing Writer