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Small Coffee Chains Brewing Big Success

Bracha Arnold
December 7, 2023
Small Coffee Chains Brewing Big Success

In the competitive American coffee scene ruled by major players like Starbucks, Dunkin', and Dutch Bros, it can be easy to overlook the thriving community of regional coffee brands. These smaller chains, which command store fleets ranging from just a handful to hundreds, offer something for everyone. We take a closer look at five thriving less-known coffee companies to see what sets them apart from the competition. 

  1. Colectivo Coffee: Community-Centric Chain Captures 

Milwaukee-based Colectivo Coffee operates 20 locations in Wisconsin and Illinois. The chain recently celebrated its 30th birthday and has taken a measured approach to expanding, choosing to add stores that provide a local, small-business feel. Colectivo is also known for having the largest cafe-worker union in the country, a point of pride for the community-centric chain. 

The chain’s branding may be particularly attractive to younger consumers, with trade area demographic data suggesting that Colectivo’s customer base skews toward the younger, urban, and highly educated. This may be due to the chain’s remote-work friendly vibe as well as a reflection of the brand's resonance with a socially conscious audience. 

  1. Black Rifle Coffee Company: Family Friendly Fuel

Utah-based, veteran-owned Black Rifle Coffee Company (BRCC) is known for its military-themed coffee blends with names like “Gunship Roast.” The digitally-native chain got its start in 2014 when founder Evan Hafer began selling his carefully roasted beans on a friend's website. The coffee was a quick success, selling 300 bags within 5 days. The company, recognizing the demand for its coffee, began operating its own digital channels before opening its first store in September 2019. BRCC now operates 17 company-owned locations and 17 franchise-owned stores as of Q3 2023

Using the Personalive dataset to analyze the audience segments of BRCC’s store reveals that the suburban consumer segments are overrepresented in the company’s trade areas: The share of suburban households in Black Rifle’s captured market exceeded their share in the company’s potential market. (A business’ potential market refers to its trade area, with each census block in the trade area weighted according to the size of its population. A business’ captured market, on the other hand, refers to the trade area with each census block weighted according to its share of visits to the chain or venue in question.) Meanwhile, the share of “Young Professionals” and “Young Urban Singles” in BRCC stores’ captured market was lower than their share in the company’s potential market.

In an increasingly crowded coffee market, and with many chains courting the same pool of younger consumers, BRCC seems to have found its niche by appealing to suburban coffee-drinkers.

  1. PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans: Ramping Up Growth

Phyllis Jordan moved from Iowa to New Orleans in 1977 and opened the first of her eponymously named coffee stores in 1978. Since then, PJ’s has become known for its homey, welcoming atmosphere as much as its beans and brews. The chain, recently featured as one of Restaurant Business Online’s “Future 50,” operates over 100 stores in Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Mississippi.  

PJ’s was acquired by Ballard Brands in 2008, a move which has helped the chain ramp up its store openings. The chain began a more aggressive expansion campaign several years ago, in one case even opening three stores in one day. And the baseline change in monthly visits highlights this growth, with visits up by 91.6% in November 2023 compared to November 2019. With the chain expanding its presence in states like Florida and Texas, owners hope that the company’s coffee and beignets can continue attracting visitors to its stores. 

  1. Ziggi’s Coffee: Returning to a Pre-Pandemic Normal

Colorado-based Ziggi’s Coffee was opened in 2004 by husband-and-wife team Brandon and Camrin Knudsen and has since grown into a 71-unit chain. The franchise-based coffee chain has been expanding dramatically, signing agreements to increase its presence in states like Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. 

The chain continued to thrive over the pandemic thanks to its emphasis on drive-thru. And now, Ziggi’s is continuing to reap the benefits of its COVID-era expansion as the chain’s visitors settle back into their pre-pandemic visitation patterns. Between August and November 2023, with many employees back in the office, a larger share of Ziggi’s visitors stopped by the chain before and after work when compared to the same period in 2022. Between 2022 and 2023, the chain also saw an increase in evening visits and decrease in mid-day visits. As shoppers and coffee drinkers alike continue returning to pre-pandemic routines – strong chains like Ziggi’s are poised to benefit.

  1. Black Rock Coffee Bar: Big in Oregon

Black Rock Coffee Bar, a 15-year-old coffee chain based in Beaverton, Oregon, has seen substantial growth recently, driven in part by its franchise model. The Southwestern chain currently boasts 115 stores and hopes to add 30 more locations each year.  

Diving into the visits suggests that, even as the chain expands, Black Rock Coffee Bar’s homegrown fans continue to boost the chain’s performance in its home state. While nationwide visits per venue to the chain were slightly below 2022’s levels for most months analyzed – as the chain grew its store count and opened more venues where Black Rock patrons could get their coffee fix – average visits per venue in Oregon continued to increase. This suggests that, even as the chain continues its expansion, it is staying true to its original character which helped propel its growth in the first place. 

Final Sips

Coffee is a daily ritual for billions around the world, and there are coffee shops that cater to every kind of drinker. From community-centric chains like Colectivo to family shops like BRCC, the coffee space offers something for everyone. 

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