Rapidly growing company aims to become regional coffee giant
The next time you go down to Boulevard Park to admire a sunset or walk the dog, take a moment to smell the air. Mixed in with the crisp smell of salt water is the smooth aroma of fresh coffee, drifting across the park from the new The Woods Coffee shop.
Of course, these days your nose may be too cold to notice the difference.
The Woods Coffee, a local coffee chain that started just six years ago and was a nominee for this year’s Large Business of the Year by the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry, opened their sixth store in September in the approximately 90-year-old building that sits next to the boardwalk in Boulevard Park.
Though the family-owned business opened three stores last year, this branch is by far the most visible and has received the most public attention.
“We opened on a Saturday at 7 a.m., and at 6:30 a.m. there were a dozen people in line out front,” said owner Wes Herman. “Ever since then it’s been a flood.”
Whether you’re seeking a refuge from the weather or just want a cup of coffee, the new store has plenty of warmth to offer. A fireplace blows warm air on customers both inside and outside. The natural wood finish used throughout the store helps create a cozy cabin atmosphere. Wall sconces adorn the walls and show off the signature stand of trees visible in the company’s logo.
Earlier this year, the same building was closed to the public and rarely used by the Parks and Recreation Department, which owns the building. Three years ago, Whatcom Community College decided they no longer wanted to use it as a pottery studio. Long before that, the building was home to a turbine used at the local lumber mill.
Winning the waterfront bid
So how did such prime waterfront real estate go from a utility building to one of the most prominent coffee shops in town?
Frankly, the city didn’t have enough money to fix up the place, said city parks director Paul Leuthold. So last year the Parks Department sent out a public request for proposals to see if any private businesses would be interested in the space. They received several proposals, ranging from a yoga studio to a kayak rental company. In the end, though, they chose Woods Coffee as their tenant because they felt that a such a business would work best to serve the widest possible section of park visitors, Leuthold said.
“A coffee shop serves the people who are already there,” Leuthold said.
It took Woods Coffee a large chunk of change (more than $150,000) to transform the somewhat dilapidated building into a coffee shop. Since that is money that the company invested as a tenant, the city has agreed to give Woods Coffee a rent credit.
Though the two parties have yet to agree upon the exact amount of the rent credit, an initial analysis (based on the monthly rent and excise tax) shows that Woods Coffee stands to gain more than eight years of “free” rent to compensate for the initial investment.
Renovating the concrete building took almost a year and was a touchy project, Herman said, due to its proximity to the water and the historic component of the building. But is was all worth it in the end.
“This building could not have been duplicated,” Herman said. “We feel really privileged to be trusted with the reuse of this building.”
Herman hired a LEED consultant to help determine how to best reuse the original structure and materials, while still transforming it into a functional coffee shop. More than that, Herman said he wanted the store to have a sense of place — to be a destination within the community.
“We put a heavy emphasis on making sure that we are building a genuine relationship within the community,” Herman said. “So when we talk about what we do, it’s not just about what we do within the walls of our establishment, it’s what we do in our community.”
Operating a coffee shop in a public park is something new to Woods Coffee — and to Bellingham — and it provides its own set of challenges, Herman said.
For starters, the store doesn’t have any drive-by traffic. And even though they have a walk-up window, there is no drive-thru. In an age of instant gratification, this breaks away from a growing industry trend.
“This is not a drive-by location — you have to be intentional about coming here,” Herman said. “Yet we have customers who will drive to the park, walk over, get their coffee, go back out to their car and go on to wherever they want.
“For all the people who study coffee and understand traffic patterns and stuff like that, we’ve been told since the day we opened this place that we would fail and it wouldn’t work. In the end, it’s working better than anybody could have predicted.”
This new location is also greatly influenced by the weather, Herman said. But not in the way that you would think. It’s not so much that cold weather drives people away from the park and away from the coffee shop.
Even on cold November days, Herman said, there is a steady stream of customers. It’s the sunny days, when the shop gets swamped with orders, that are proving difficult to keep up with.
Herman wouldn’t have committed to this location if he hadn’t envisioned its working in the long run. For every Woods Coffee location, Herman signs a 30-year lease agreement because he said he wants the community to know that the company is committed to doing business in the region for a long time.
When he started the business in 2002, it was mostly out of the desire of his four teenage kids to work in the coffee industry.
“They were all drinking coffee and they were all spending $150 to $200 apiece on coffee every month. And so we decided as a family that we could maybe save some money if we started our own coffee shop,” Herman said jokingly.
All four children are still involved in the company and working to expand its list of fair-trade-certified coffees and manage the explosive growth experienced within the last year. The company is currently looking at 15 sites around Whatcom County as possibilities for their next store, Herman said.
He said he has even received requests from Birch Bay and Blaine to open a store on their waterfront.
“It’s really funny, because now that we have a waterfront location, everybody thinks that we must be the experts in waterfront locations.”