Sunday, March 25, 2001

Partners perked up business

Troubled Mount Lookout store woke up and smelled the coffee

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

        It was passion for coffee that lured Greg Zmich and Erec Hartlieb-Reichardt into entrepreneurship. Through the challenges that have faced them as owners of the Blue Mountain Coffee Co., that passion has proved a sustaining force.

        The two have guided the Blue Mountain Coffee store in Mount Lookout from the brink of financial disaster to solid success. They've also nurtured their downtown location and in the process made some important decisions about the nature of their business.

[photo] Erec Hartlieb-Reichardt (left) and Greg Zmich turned around Blue Mountain Coffee Co. in Mount Lookout
(Enquirer photo)
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        Blue Mountain was well-established in Mount Lookout in 1996 when Mr. Zmich asked the then-owners about starting a second store downtown. The new coffee bar, in the Federated Building, shared the Blue Mountain name but operated independently. According to Mr. Zmich, the downtown store was profitable from the beginning, but trouble was brewing in Mount Lookout.

        Creditors asked him whether he and his financial partners wanted to take over the Mount Lookout location, and they decided to try.

        “The depth of the financial problems was scary. We had no choice but to solve problems,” he said. “We took this location over in '97, and it's only within the last six months that we're at a spot where we can say we're done cleaning up.” A dedicated and experienced staff shared Mr. Zmich's passion for coffee.

        “We all sink or swim together, and we've had a lot of people take ownership here. That's why they've stayed and we've been able to turn things around,” Mr. Zmich said.

        What did it take to bring the business back from the brink?

        Said Mr. Zmich: “There was no magic bullet, just a lot of little things. Starting to do basic things right: getting consistent on hours, getting consistent on product, making sure we kept stock, and making sure we kept things clean.”

   The taste of your coffee depends on the variety of bean, where and how it was grown, and how it was roasted. Here's a quick guide:
    • Coffee beans from Central America and South America are grown at higher elevations and possess more acidity. That doesn't mean they will tear up your stomach lining; the term refers to a snap or briskness of taste.
    • Coffees grown in Indonesia have an earthier, full-bodied flavor and require less processing than do Latin American beans, which must be washed.
    • African coffees combine good body with a good level of acid. Mr. Hartlieb-Reichardt considers Kenyan beans to be among the finest in the world.
    • Organically grown coffees are produced without chemical fertilizers. Some small farms in poor countries grow coffee organically but can't afford certification.
    • Coffee plants grow best in shaded environments. However, harvesting shade-grown coffee beans is slow; so many large producers grow their coffee bushes in open fields. In order to produce, those plants must be heavily fertilized.
    By June 1, Blue Mountain Coffee Co. will become Lookout Joe/Mount Lookout Coffee Roasters because of trademark dispute with the Jamaica Coffee Board. Call the store at 871-8626 or wait and check out the new Web site:
        Added Mr. Hartlieb-Reichardt, the company's vice president of operations and its roaster: “We're working to rebuild a relationship with people in the community, getting them back in the store. People see new products, better products, consistent friendly staffing, and a new look to the store. And the people working behind the counter recognize the importance of building a relationship with the customer.”

        Customers are a mix of local residents, students from Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati, folks who work in the neighborhood, and people from farther afield who hear the store's underwriting announcements on public radio stations.

        To make the store a more appealing place to sit and linger, the owners installed new tables and chairs, comfy couches and activities for children. To keep folks coming back, they began to develop a more comprehensive stock of coffees.

        That was the fun part. Messrs. Zmich and Hartlieb-Reichardt researched coffee farms all over the world, sampling beans from well-known sources and discovering new ones. There are advantages to being a small coffeehouse, they say.

        “We're not buying in huge volume, so our freight costs are higher and our profit margin is not so large, but we can go in and get beans from high quality crops on small estates,” Mr. Zmich said. “A large coffee company can't do that, because there's not enough to satisfy their demand.”

        Because the shelf life of roasted coffee is less than four weeks, Blue Mountain stores its green beans and roasts only what it can sell immediately. The process is done in a machine that sits near the store's front window.

        “I'm here every day, roasting what we need when we need it,” Mr. Hartlieb-Reichardt said. “We serve every single coffee that we roast, and get constant customer feedback.“

        To serve customers more efficiently, the partners have set up a self-serve coffee buffet that includes one standard coffee and several exotic ones. The store also offers specialty teas, fruit drinks, locally produced baked goods and simple lunch items. Both coffee beans and loose teas are available for purchase.

        The partners are turning their attention to additional physical improvements as well as expanding their customer base. Currently, they supply gourmet shops and coffeehouses and ship their products internationally, largely through exposure on the Web. But expansion doesn't necessarily mean starting new stores.

        “We're not actively looking for more locations,” Mr. Zmich said. “If we stumbled across something that was just right ... maybe. The employment market right now is not easy. You can spread out or you can focus on the core business you like to do. We started with coffee and stay focused on coffee.”

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