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S3: Overflow Coffee Bar of Chicago – Episode #67
10th April 2017 • The Bonfires of Social Enterprise with Romy of Gingras Global | Social Enterprise | Entrepreneurship in Detroit • Romy Kochan | Gingras Global | Social Enterprise | Detroit Entrepreneurs
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Overflow Coffee Bar – Brandon & Amanda Neely – Chicago

Season 3 kicks of with a great social enterprise out of Chicago’s South Loop. Get to know owners Amanda and Brandon Neely and listen how they overcame fears, built community, and decided that free is no good! As they sourced ethical coffee, they built a business and even took on a PRI!

 

Romy: Welcome everyone to our official kick-off of Season three! This is Romy, and I want to thank you for hanging in there with us while we worked to prepare some episodes ahead of time. We have about 20 good episodes lined up for you this season. And today, we are starting off with a bang!

You will meet Brandon and Amanda Neely, the owners of the Overflow Coffee Bar in Chicago’s South Loop.  They share some candid thoughts on overcoming fears such as public speaking and perfectionism along with great ideas for community and customer engagement. They even give some of their definitions of ethical sourcing and why ‘free is not okay!’

Stay tuned until the end to listen to a great Detroit artist, Astray, and his song “Dance with you.”

Before we get rolling, let’s see what Jenzten has to share with us about some of the urban legends around the history of coffee in our episode’s Fun Fuel….

 

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Full Transcript

Romy: So welcome Amanda and Brandon to The Bonfires of Social Enterprise.

Amanda: Hi.

Brandon: Hey thanks for having us.

Romy: I'm excited to talk to you guys. We met maybe two or three years ago when I was in Chicago?

Brandon: I think it was three years ago.

Romy: Yeah. I've been following your progress. And you'd been open at that point I think about a year or a year and a half?

Brandon: Yeah. We've been open about five and a half years now.

Romy: Yeah. Well we should tell the listeners that you guys are married and running not just a coffee shop, Overflow Coffee, but we're going to hear today about a ton of cool things that you guys have in the works. So let's anchor everyone that doesn't know you right now about Overflow Coffee. So what is Overflow Coffee right now for Chicago?

Brandon: So Overflow Coffee Bar is the third place, we call that the third place, where you would go as home, work, and then you go somewhere else, like your grandma's house or something. And we wanted to really create a third place in the south loop of Chicago, and that's where we came up with the idea of Overflow. Building community, and then also, the reason we started more of a social enterprise as ethical economics, coffee is the second most widely traded commodity in the world, and Americans, the number one consumer.

And so as we were thinking about this years ago, we were like, we want to build community but we also want to change the world for the better, and what better way to do that then buying ethical coffee, so bridging community building and ethical economics and then we started the idea of Overflow Coffee Bar, and then in the place where we're at, there's a whole lot of space around us, which Amanda will share about, that we're housed in. So we're a part of a school that meets in the building, actually owns the building. And then there's a bunch of non-profits that are here as well.

Romy: So you got some natural traffic there, and just for those that don't know, would you guys mind giving some definition to what ethical coffee means?

Amanda: Okay, let me jump in on that one. So the way that coffee normally happens still has a lot of roots from imperialism and slavery. And a lot of the coffee farmers that grow what you might typically find in a grocery store are paid at very unfairly for the labor that they do. What we do with our ethically treated coffee, is we actually have more of a direct trade relationship with the farmers. And our roaster, his name's Tim Taylor, he goes directly to work with the coffee farmers, and then he arranges the export and the import of the coffee and then roasts it, and then we get it the next day. So we know the whole process of what happened with the coffee and everything. And we know for sure how much he paid those farmers. And typically it's at least 25% more then the fair trade rate, so it's even better then what you might know as fair trade certified coffee, and that money is going directly into the farmer's hands, rather then, all these different middle-men in between, and you're not really sure how much that farm made.

So there's all of those checks and balances in the system, and we can know for sure who that farmer is, what they were paid, and that they're being able to provide for their family. Plus a lot of those same farmers use organic processes for growing their coffee too. They don't use pesticides, and [inaudible 00:04:32] like that. So we know that it's going to be good for the environment as well.

Romy: And so you guys have built a community there. What are some of the things that you found using this coffee sourcing and the coffee bar, how do you feel that that's helped start to create this community?

Brandon: Well first we started knowing our neighbors and then South Loop is a fairly new neighborhood. People tend to think, oh it's the South Loop, so therefore there's a lot of businesses, thriving businesses and all that. It was the fastest growing neighborhood in 2007, then the recession hit, and everything tanked. And so it's still recovering, so there's a lot of people moving here, but there's not a lot of businesses here. One of the things we learned as we were developing Overflow and learning, they always said, "Oh well you need to connect to Chambers of Commerce. You need to connect to those organizations that have been there for a long time."

The challenge for us is there is no Chamber of Commerce for the South Loop because there was no South Loop actually a few years prior. And so we saw this as a challenge of how do we grow our business? How do we develop this? And so when you think about grassroots, doing something from the grassroots, we were like, well let's connect business leaders and all that stuff. And so over the course of time, accidentally started a Chamber of Commerce in the South Loop. We call it the South Loop Business Exchange, that we were helping to lead, start, and now actually, just last month set up a board, and we're able to successfully hand off the presidency to another business owner in the South Loop which was real, really encouraging. And seeing where a community was built and where we are seeing not just our friends coming and customers, but we're developing a relationship of commerce around the neighborhood.

Romy: Well that's great. There's something special about even having a meeting place sometimes.

Brandon: Yes. And seeing as I meet my customers, they have their passions and their dreams, and as they're working here, I'm able to connect them to other people who are in similar industries or similar passions, and that's been really cool to see over the past five years.

Romy: I know you guys do some interesting things too. When I was there about three years ago, you guys were doing some fun things with sticky notes. You're probably way beyond that, but I've never forgotten that because I thought, "Gosh these guys give people that are in and around the all different kinds of ways to opt in and engage at the level that they want to do." And I just thought that, was such an interesting way to keep everyone connected.

Brandon: Yeah, and the sticky note idea, that was, like Amanda's very thoughtful in her language, and so she would come up with a question, "How do you define poverty?" As one of our questions. And then people would respond with the sticky notes of their definition of poverty. And so that was really cool to see our customers interact on that scale.

Romy: Because I feel that that makes you different and I feel like it keeps people in your place, especially when there isn't a street full of other businesses that they would, it's not a destination place other then, it might be convenience in the neighborhood but Amanda, what other things like that have worked well for you guys to keep your customers and well, I'd say beyond customers, these relationships engaged?

Amanda: Yeah, there's been so many things. Starting at customer level, it's definitely taking the time to talk to each person. It's not just what's your order, but how is your day going, and having a longer dialogue that way. Not just accepting fine as an answer, talking more then just about the weather and politics, or maybe a little politics, but not too much. And then we've been blogging since way before we even opened. Just help build that community before we even had a-

Amanda: [inaudible 00:10:00] help build that community before it even had a physical space that we were going to be in. Doing some events too, and now we're actually taking a lot of what we learned and we started a new website overflowyourpossibility.com where we're reaching out to anybody who speaks english or can read english, or can use a google translator and sharing a lot of the things that we've learned that way and hoping that we can, as they engage with that content, we can also help those people engage with each other too. So now that we've got five years under our belt, we're starting to reach out further and figure out how do we take the things that we've learned and our message of ethical economics and community building and share that with like minded people all around the world.

Romy: Well that's great, you're hitting on one of the things that always comes up. And you guys five years in, it's important to talk about the profit thing. Brandon and I dialogued a little bit about it before this interview and it's something that I've always said, when Social Enterprise became a thing and we named it that some years ago, one of the thoughts I always had and I always thought, gosh I kinda have a bent because I came out of financial planning but I'm always like, man one of the first things about sustainability is being able to keep your doors open.

You can deliver all kinds of social impact but you got to have an opportunity to keep it going and so you got to have a positive cash flow and early on, I'd say, seven, eight years ago when this started to become hot topics conversation, when I'd say that people looked at me as if I had some sort of level of evil or something. [inaudible 00:11:58]. And I had to be like, well you know, I was just like, how are we going to keep this going long term? And now it's starting to be a good idea and I'm so thankful.

Brandon: Well, I think that's a big thing. For us, we came into this, and as a younger entrepreneur's coming into this, we come in idealistic, and we have our business plan, and we're like, "Oh yeah it's going to be perfect for that business." And then life happens. And you, realize, like for us, we had Mariano's that came up right next door front to us, and we can't compete with them. But we have other things that we really built into our DNA, the people and planet, that really helped us to be able to take it to this level. But, we also the profit part, it was real, really, scary in that season because we weren't really thinking about that as much. And so having all three of those things did help us, but it really helped us to be more knowing our numbers, knowing how we can overcome things. That was one of those challenges that we had to face.

Amanda: So I would actually add on to what Brandon is saying, that's how we felt when we just had our head down in our business, focused on things, we were so discouraged, how are we going to actually make this work, we had this idea that if it's not profitable, it's not sustainable, so we have to work really hard to make it profitable, and it totally [inaudible 00:13:48] get there [inaudible 00:13:49] we're not ready to let up on pushing the gas pedal. And then after our five year anniversary, we started looking around the social enterprises around us and talking to other people that knew where they were at in terms of profitability and sustainability, and we realized we actually have a ton to be proud of. We got a Program Related Investment after being open for a year, and that really helped us get all of the different loans that we had to take, consolidated the lower interest.

And we've never missed a payment, paying that back, and we're almost, we're seven months from paying it back in full, and we found out that a lot of social enterprises, those Program Related Investments are supposed to be a low interest loan, but it turns into a grant, and they never get paid back. So for us to have paid it almost all the way back, and never missed a payment, we have a lot to be proud of. That means we're a lot more sustainable, or profitable then we thought we were when we look at comparable, other social enterprises around us. And just to make it five years is a big accomplishment as well.

Romy: I'll say. Yeah, and well done on that, for the listeners who aren't familiar with PRI or Program Related Investment, typically that comes from foundations when they are, some foundations are willing to make an investment that's related to their social programming, or their missional programming at their foundation. And then if it doesn't work out, then they can turn it into a grant, just for those that are unfamiliar with it, and they're intended to be investments into for-profit social ventures. So yeah that's incredible, and the five-year mark, that's a real milestone. I don't think people realize what a milestone that is, specifically in a bigger city, where some of the costs are higher for rent, so there are all kinds of challenges in every place in the world but sometimes in the bigger US cities, the expenses are a bit higher, and it's a big deal.

Well, congratulations, there's so many things, I'd love to ask you about, but I want to make sure that we get some of the questions I had in mind about you guys. You guys as thought leaders are moving way beyond, what did you say, Brandon, the barista's behind the bar, could we talk about some of this transitioning you're doing now?

Brandon: Yeah so a lot of times people, this is how we work as individuals. We like to label people, and when we say, "Hey how's it going? And what do you do?" So as soon as we meet somebody, we find out they're a doctor and then we put them in a box, which is good in some aspects, but also it can be challenging especially when, I'm not just a barista, or the owner of a coffee shop, I'm a whole person and that's part of each entrepreneur that starts.

And so we're stepping into being coaches and creating courses and things like that to help people in the social enterprise world because we might not be in the same industry but a lot of our challenges are the same, and maybe the lack of community or people who don't understand what it means to not being able to pay your bills or things like that. From a business side, we want to help foster and create more chances of success, then more chances of failure, and so that's where we're leading into helping, use what we've learned to mobilize other people to make a bigger impact. Whether it's in Chicago, I'd love to do it through the Chicago area, but all around the world. We're a interconnected world, how do we help each other succeed in that? Does that make sense?

Romy: Yeah, so the format is going to be online coaching, or how?

Brandon: Yeah, so we'll be doing some, I'd say we're going to work on creating a course soon, that will come out probably in January. And then the great thing in our time and place in the world right now, is the technology that we have, that we can connect with anybody via like you and I over headphones and a computer, we can build relationships through the technology and really be there with somebody and not sometimes be present. I do think there's an importance of being physically present, that's why we have a brick and mortar spot, that I think is super, super, key, but also when we are in our business we don't have time to necessarily go to a meeting that takes an hour plus travel time and all the other stuff and then you don't build that. So we want to help foster those kind of relationships through maybe masterminds, those kind of things. And leverage the resources and the relationships we've built over the past few years.

Romy: Yeah, and so the goal would be to perhaps encourage others, what would be the overall goal and your target audience sounds like it would be other social enterprises?

Amanda: So I'm really passionate, as a passionate person, that I believe that if people were able to really figure out-

Amanda: Believe that if people were able to really figure out what their passion is and how to pursue that passion in a way that really gives them life, that they're actually doing to change the world and make it better for everybody that's here. For some people that'll look like starting a social enterprise, for other people that might look like volunteering for a nonprofit. For other people that might look like we're working for a big corporation, but being able to connect that in with their passion. That's really the journey that we went on, starting about ten years ago. We were trying to figure out, how do we take what we really, really love to do and what gives us life and creates, and do that as much as possible.

That's what actually led us on this journey towards starting an Overflow Coffee Bar. That's still what's leading us forward in this journey toward helping inspire and teach others. That's what it really boils down to. Because we're social entrepreneurs, we think we might naturally attract people who are social entrepreneurs. It really it could be anybody who really, really can't imagine living their life without accomplishing what they're passionate about, and doing that with as much time as possible. Some people that might mean they get to change a couple of hours a week during this season of their life, but then they're able to really do full time after they "retire." For other people, it might mean that they go on a big journey like us and leave the comfort of a cubicle and start their own business.

We don't want to say that nobody ... We want to say that everybody can do their passion. We really believe that doing that is actually what's going to make the world a better place. We want to be able to empower stay at home moms to do that, or stay at home dads. People who are "retired" from a regular job. College students and everybody in between.

Romy: Wow. It sounds like there's going to potentially be some consulting in there as well.

Amanda: The big thing about what we had ... I'm a millennial, I'll just put that out there. The big thing about us millennials is that we don't like to be told what to do. We like to be asked questions that help us figure it out on our own. With the right questions it's way better than just telling us what to do, and we get the same result. It's actually why we learned about coaching. We actually became certified as coaches. Coaching is all about asking the right questions. We don't want to necessarily just be...

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