When you are selling love there is no limit to what you can expect to accomplish. Selling amazing coffee doesn’t hurt, either.
But perhaps it’s that love that explains the optimism and enthusiasm of Dutch Bros. co-founder Travis Boersma.
“We are uniquely different,” Boersma says. “The mindset of our service is ‘quality.’ And the product is ‘love.’ Love is the product. I don’t know any other company that love is their product.”
He’s got a point, and yet speaking to a guy who built a coffee cart into a $150 million dollar coffee empire, one quickly realizes he is anything but esoteric. He’s serious and enthusiastic—and more importantly, successful. The man sells love and has made millions doing it. Can’t argue with that.
Coffee talk… or not
I expected to talk to Boersma about coffee. Lots and lots of coffee sold in hundreds of franchises throughout seven states all from a hub in little known Grants Pass, Oregon. Still, I can’t help but drill down just a bit on this love thing.
Boersma is happy to provide specifics.
“What is love, right?” he says. “To me it’s really just demonstrating your heart for the cause. That’s what our people achieve in so many different ways.”
The product of love, he says, is given when a dog bone is ready for the pooch that’s a regular customer just like the human driving the car. Or when the haggard mom who is always running a bit late drives to the window and the Not So Hot Chocolate is already being made for the kids in the backseat.
“It may just be a quick pit-stop, and the customers are in a hurry,” Boersma says. “But it’s a magical experience that can be a positive aspect of their entire day.”
That’s love, Boersma says, and few things make him so happy as to see the mission exemplified by his employees.
Dutch Bros. Creative Director Dan Buck says this focus is far more than just a slogan. It is the measuring stick for everything an employee does.
“Our philosophy, at its core, is just love our customers. And you are empowered to do whatever you have to do to do that,” he says.
Buck says he sees it play out every day, especially when employees try to “play a role” they think the company expects.
“People have a B.S. meter,” Buck says. “We work tirelessly to coach our people up or move them out. We try to truly love each other. We repeat that over and over again. Talk about it, practice it, coach it, train it, preach it, and teach it. We mean it when we say it.”
Few things thrill Boersma more than when he sees that effort filter through his company.
“One of our new managers had a meeting with his crew and said ‘Two things are most important to me: Love on the customers and love each other as a crew,’” Boersma recalls. “That’s all that needs to be said. That was the message. Everything else then falls into place with the recipes and prices and black and white realities we are conditioned to in the business world.”
Born of caffeine
At 21 years old, Boersma was just kicking around the idea of a career about the same time a grunge band from Seattle launched a whole new genre of music. Boersma didn’t know it, but his Nirvana came in the form of cataclysmic change in the local economy that had sustained his family for three generations.
“Back in the day, before we got into coffee, my family was third-generation dairy farmers,” he says. “My brother and I were in a place that we had to adapt to a change. That meant selling the cows and doing something different. What seemed devastating at the time was a blessing. The objective is to find the seedling of the equivalent advantage and realize it’s an opportunity.”
The opportunity was that coffee cart. The brothers wanted to be near the main shopping center but ended up downtown. It worked. And the original store that came out of it remains in business to this day.
Boersma credits those early years with his brother Dane, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2009, and his parents with building the foundation for Dutch Bros.
“Mom and Dad demonstrated love regularly,” he says.
His brother, who Boersma still refers to as “the wise man,” mentored him through the business expansion, leading by example.
“He was my brother and business partner and he was my best friend,” Boersma says of Dane. “He exemplified it. He didn’t just preach it. He walked it.”
Growing the love
Together they set a course for expansion that would honor first Dutch Bros.—affectionately called DB by everyone in the company including the founder—core product of love. They are far more than talking points but a real culture, Boersma insists, for himself, the franchise owners, the corporate staff and the barista’s themselves.
“Culture is never-ending journey and a focus of never arriving,” he says. “The customer experience is everything. The employees and people involved in every area of the business are responsible for providing that experience. The coffee is the product they come for, but they come back for the people—the interactions and the feeling. Generally it’s a day-in and day-out experience.”
But for Buck and others in DB, the culture starts with Boersma.
“Whatever you see with Trav is whatever you get,” Buck says. “He happens to be one of my favorite people because he tells you what it is and tells you what he thinks. He doesn’t spin it.”
Observing and borrowing
Boersma points out that he and his brother didn’t reinvent the wheel of a company culture with an emphasis on the customer experience. He adopted models of success that preceded them, including In-N-Out Burger and Les Schwab Tires, among others.
When Les Schwab died in 2007, former Oregon business owner and retired management consultant Joe Sherlock wrote a blog post that captured this unique approach to business.
“How did this remarkable success happen? Les Schwab formulated an ironclad policy that ‘the customer rules’ and built a culture within every employee and every store which embraced this philosophy… The company actually does what every company ought to do,” Sherlock wrote.
Boersma had already long applied those same lessons to DB, much like he adopted In-N-Out’s culture of quality and service.
Business Week writer Stacy Perman wrote a book about the burger franchise’s success, including treating employees generously, keeping the menu simple and focusing on customer experience, all things central to DB operations.
The DB mission
As Perman wrote, In-N-Out burger’s unique focus on controlled expansion has protected the company’s brand and ensured that quality has not suffered. Expand slowly on your own terms with your own goals, she writes, which might as well be the playbook used by Boersma and the Dutch Bros. team.
Boersma is well aware that the coffee culture of the Pacific Northwest has started to take on across the country. Drive-thru coffee stands are not yet as ubiquitous as they are locally. Yet he refuses to lose the company culture.
“We probably could have sold 1,000 to 2,000 franchises and made a gazillion dollars that would have rode a wave that is typical today in America, but it likely would have crashed.”
It all goes back to mission, he says more than once. Each franchise is a part of the company’s long-term “compelling future” and also part of the same “compelling future” for the owner, the employees and the local community. All have to fit together or the mission is compromised.
“Ten years from now I see a healthy growth rate that is sustainable with our company that’s providing young people a chance to live their dream, inside of DB or outside of DB,” Boersma says.
This explains why the company only sells franchises to employees and protects the territories of its franchise owners. Buck says the company sold initial franchises to non-employees and the impact on culture was profound and immediate. They quickly adapted a policy of selling only to employees. Buck says every day from points all across the country offers to buy franchises come in.
“We just say, ‘with all due respect, no’” Buck says. “We are just not going to do that. We would just be another coffee company. Our culture is our top priority.”
“Fear has no seat at the table”
Having met most of the ambitions he and his brother first laid out back in the 1990s, Boersma does not lack for current challenges nor see significant changes up ahead. The business works, it fulfills his ambitions and his personal mission statement, which has a lot to do with those principals of integrity and character. Asked about threats to his business, he changes the word to change.
“Fear doesn’t get a vote at our table,” he says. “The objective is to adapt to change and be wired into what’s going on in the world, because the world is changing even faster than before. So we have to adapt to change. If you don’t adapt to change then that’s when you can get blindsided.”
Just as the changing world forced him off the dairy farm and into the business of selling love, he is ready for those challenges that will inevitably arise.
“Life happens,” he says.
While some would say he’s “made it,” it’s a flawed concept as far as he’s concerned.
“The most important thing that I don’t think a lot of people realize is a lot of people think if I can get to this point I’ll have it made,” he says. “We see it all around us. They get to that spot and that’s when they become complacent and that’s when they start to descend. They fall into this fallacy of ‘I made it and now I’m going to live this life on Easy Street.’ Easy Street is a lie. The reality is its constant never-ending improvement and we’re going to grow until we depart.”
That’s why the mission continues. He refers to it often and even at one point recites it verbatim without being prompted. It flows from his thoughts as a normal part of the day. “I Travis Boersma…” he begins. As it concludes it says as much about where Boersma has been as where he fully intends on continuing to go. “… defy the odds to be a force for God and a force for good. I hope to meet the man that I am someday when I die, not the man I could’ve been.”
I still didn’t get to talk about the coffee.