For a man whose time is so commonly consumed by coffee and regional recognition, I was surprised he so readily agreed to an interview—a three-hour conversation that was supposed to last only one, I should say. We met shortly after two o’clock at a large wooden table surrounded by various coffee-brewing equipment and posters revealing more tasting notes than I thought existed. We both took our seats, adjusted a bit, and started talking.
“So, who are you and what do you do at Lucky Goat Coffee?”
“My name’s Ben. In short, my wife and I are the owners and creators of Lucky Goat Coffee.”
“Impressive. I think that pretty much wraps up the interview.”
He chuckles and continues answering. Really what I’m doing right now is working on strategies and plans for future growth. Visionary stuff. Basically, I work on the business, not in the business.
He went on to talk about how the café isn’t exactly his day-to-day. More big-picture responsibilities. He is the owner after all. So, then I asked what that currently looks like. He paused and began answering a question I didn’t realized I asked, but to be sure, I was pleasantly surprised.
“So, what does that look like right now?”
“Our employees and the people of Tallahassee made Lucky Goat Coffee, it wasn’t me and Joe. We did some things, but it was the people who made the brand. So, what’s my job? The job we have right now is taking care of our people. You treat your people right—you train them, you educate them, you pay them well, and you be good to them. You do that, and they’ll take care of your customers. If we don’t protect our people, we’re not protecting our brand. That’s vague, but simple. I’m basically a brand cheerleader.”
“Interesting! But it’s hard to imagine a grown man jumping around with pom-poms. Care to elaborate?”
“We’re good at what we do. We’re consistent, we take care of people, and we educate them. We do that, and we create and protect our brand. That’s my job. Sure, we have meetings on sales, profit margins, and expenses, but if we’re not doing those other things right, no one’s going to want our coffee.”
“That sounds like a whole lot of wisdom. Where did you learn all that? The bird’s eye view isn’t something everyone gets to see. Any challenges, funny stories, things like that?”
“Capital. Capital was an issue at first. We didn’t have the money to put into the business for infrastructure and things like that. So, we took our time and did it the hard way. I did it by myself basically. That takes longer, but in the long run if you can persevere, I can sit here 13 years later and say that things are alright. Were there some challenges? Absolutely. But we took it slow and worked hard. So, now I can say I work on the business, not in the business.”
“Full circle!” I interrupted.
“And as our business grew, I did every single job here.” “So, you were someone’s barista?”
“I was someone’s barista. I was a bad barista, but I was a barista. I packaged the coffee, I helped roast the coffee, I made the coffee, and I sold the coffee. There’s nothing we do today that I didn’t do. Can I make latte art? No.” (as he shrugged).
“So, between slowly gaining capital and working every job here, how do those experiences actively impact the way Lucky Goat operates today?”
“We’re a bit conservative now. We’ve had bad times before, and my wife reminds me that we don’t want to go back to those bad times. So, sometimes I dig my heels in. No, we’re not going to change this or change that. You’ve got to be conservative in your plan and reinvest in your company. You’ve got to delegate to good people and get out of their way. Empower them, give them direction, and step back. I say conservative, but I really mean to say a marathon isn’t a sprint. Quality, simplicity, and education.”
He continued “So, to answer your question and make long story short, I have a management background and I’ve been in the coffee industry for over 20 years now. I didn’t set out to retail coffee shops. I just know how to run a business and I know coffee. “
“Wait, you didn’t set out to start coffee shops? That doesn’t sound like the typical story from a coffee shop owner.”
“Well, I’m an atypical.” (as he shrugged and laughed)
I learned the truth of that statement over the course of this interview. I then asked him to tell me more about how the retail shops came into existence. Why he didn’t want them initially and what that transition looked like.
“Currently, only half of our business consists of retail shops. We initially started in wholesale as a coffee equipment supplier. We’re one of the few coffee companies out there that’s completely vertically integrated. Meaning we have our own service, we have our own equipment, we have our own product, and we roast our own product. Everything we do from a wholesale stand point, we distribute to our retail. But retail shops were never the focus. We started from the back end and only roasted coffee for fun. People just started liking it. We didn’t expect this, but when it happened we realized it wasn’t that bad. More and more people started coming in so we opened up more shops to pull traffic away from Capital Circle. You can’t plan this.
“Apparently not! Anything else you didn’t plan?”
“The cold brew.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“We’ve never really talked about this… When we were just starting, I swapped an espresso back-bar for a kegerator with a guy in Destin. I was sitting on it for a while, thinking I could sell it to someone in Tallahassee until Colin suggested throwing coffee in there! Since we were already a wholesale coffee supplier we had everything we needed. We just had to experiment a little. That’s how Cold Gold started.”
“You’re making my questions seem boring, what gives?” I asked as we’re both laughing at this point.
“Well you want a common, one-line answer, I don’t have that. I’m a weird, complex individual."
I didn’t disagree. Eventually I asked about his employees and why they seem so solid.
“I want Lucky Goat to be a career for people. I want this to be a profession that offers similar or better resources and opportunities that an entry-level job would offer. Think about it, if we want to grow, why would we just want people to move on? I want people who want to be in coffee.”
We continued talking for a while. We covered topics related to various coffee blends, times where things went wrong, and what he does in his free time—which he admits is all spent with his family. I found that endearing. Finally, I asked him why people buy his coffee. Why Tallahassee loves and supports this brand.
“Listen, I’m going to tell you a secret, and I don’t want this printed. The way that we developed, we were involved in the community and we gave back to it. We gave back to the schools, back to the churches—we were involved. We met our customers out in their fields and brought them back. Those people stick with us. I don’t want people to know that.”
“You don’t want people to know that?” I thought, but after talking with Ben for so long, I realized he just didn’t want to say that. He’s humble. I told him that it sounded like he was giving me the same answer to all of my questions. I asked him what the deal was.
“My core is the same! My outside is all over the place, but the core is the same!” as he laughed.
Ben surprised me. His answers we’re clear, convicted, and decisive. He spent no time thinking about what to say and he never took back any of it. I kept asking questions and he kept giving me the same response: “We treat people well”.
Tell me about Lucky Goat’s coming-of-age.
“We treated people well.”
What do you attribute Lucky Goat’s growth to?
“The way we treat people well.”
What do you think the focus of moving forward will be?
“Treating people well."
Over the course of the interview, the biggest secret he revealed to me is that he was involved with his community. I have to admit, I was annoyed at first until I realized this man wasn’t joking. He did agree to talk to me after all. The more him and I spoke, the more I realized the truth of that response: “my core is the same”. Every answer tied in. The same reason people love this coffee, is the same reason working here can be a career, is the same reason he’s so intertwined with the coffee community.
A “weird, complex individual” I said. We laughed and joked a bit more as we wrapped things up.