Brewing a strong brand


Stone Creek Coffee, which started in 1993 with one cafe on Silver Spring Drive in Whitefish Bay, has grown into a company with nine retail locations throughout the Milwaukee area and a downtown roasting and office facility.
The company continues to look for new locations and expects to open one to two new cafés per year.
Eric Resch, president and owner of the company, admits to being passionate about coffee. However, he says his best investments aren’t his nine cafes, his downtown roasting facility and headquarters or even his brand-new roasting machine.
Instead, he says his company’s best investment is in its people.
A 1991 visit to Seattle, the coffee capital of the country and the home of Starbucks’ corporate headquarters, lured Resch to enter the coffee business after graduating from college.
He spent the next 18 months working at a Starbucks near the Loop in Chicago.
"I was working 5:30 in the morning to noon every day, making lattes," Resch said.
He did that until he decided it was time to start his own coffee operation in the Milwaukee area, which only had a few coffee shops at the time.
"It was kind of open (here)," Resch said. "Seattle and the West Coast were starting to boom, and Starbucks was starting to take off in Chicago. They had like 30 or 40 locations there. And Madison had a handful of coffee shops."
While he was still working in Chicago, Resch attended trade shows, where he began learning the nuances of coffee roasting. After moving to the Milwaukee area, he had the guts to invest in a coffee roaster and started experimenting in an old mill in Grafton, roasting 21-pound batches of coffee at a time.
"When I roasted my first batch, my heart was beating quite hard," he said. "I was hoping I wouldn’t burn the building down. That’s how I learned to roast. I attended some clinics and seminars, but it becomes like a craft. You just have to practice it."
Over time, Resch has developed his own "profiles," his signature coffee blends roasted at specific temperatures for certain times with set amounts of airflow, allowing him and the company’s other roasters to produce consistent coffee blends, even with subtle variations between crops.
Those blends have helped propel Stone Creek Coffee to about 31 percent average annual revenue growth over its 12-year history, including 29 percent revenue growth last year. Although Resch likes his coffee, he won’t tell you that it’s the key to his success.
Instead, he’ll point to his more than 100 employees, whether they’re behind the counter making drinks, running his cafés or roasting beans for him in the downtown headquarters.
"We happen to sell coffee," he said. "What we really work on is making this an amazing place to work. The staff and leadership are the heart and soul of this, the thing I cherish the most about the company."
To further the development of Stone Creek’s staff, the company has a strong employee review process. New workers are reviewed after four weeks, three months, six months and one year, to ensure they’re on the right track, Resch said.
"We’re rigid in our reviews," he said. "They’re a guidepost for staff development and growth."
"Greatness cards," which are placed behind the counter in each café and in the headquarters, are filled out by co-workers and managers when they see someone do something noteworthy. The cards are placed in the employees’ personnel files.
Employees also fill out idea cards, where they submit their thoughts about improving customer assistance developing new products. Those cards are reviewed every two weeks during management meetings, Resch said.
The company engages a process called Find Amazing People (FAP) when it interviews prospective employees, according to Athena Agoudemos, executive manager of retail for the firm. The process asks applicants how they would react to specific situations or how they have handled various workplace scenarios in the past.
"The biggest thing we’re looking for is a general caring for people," Agoudemos said. "Respect is the biggest thing, a common thread, to make sure that we all respect one another."
Agoudemos said the FAP process helps her select workers who share the company’s views and has helped reduce employee turnover. Hiring people who care about others has also led to more internal promotions.
"It’s vital for us to promote (from) within," she said. "It’s vital to have employee growth. And when you have store managers who were once baristas, they can empathize with the staff. Our staff always have the first chance to apply for open positions in the company."
Stone Creek Coffee is hoping to open one to two new locations per year, Resch said. In February, it opened a new café at Port Washington Road and Green Tree Road in Glendale.
Deciding upon ideal locations for new cafés is crucial for Stone Creek’s recipe for success, Resch said.
"One is that it has to meet our site criteria," he said. "Is it on a corner? Does it have adequate parking, an outdoor café area and other tenants? And then, we (the team leaders) as a group have to sit down. I’ll ask if they think this will be fun to do a project at the location."
Earlier this year, Stone Creek Coffee sought to open a café in Cedarburg. Although the company cleared several hurdles in the approval process, Stone Creek and village officials could not agree on the architectural design for the building, and the company eventually dropped its plans.
"The project started to not be fun," he said. "So we decided to take our ball and go home."
Stone Creek is still looking for a far north shore site for another café, Resch said.
As part of its mission of respect for the communities where it does business, the company regularly donates coffee and coupons for free coffee drinks to area charities and community organizations, Resch said.
The name of the Giri Corp., the parent company of Stone Creek, which Resch started at the same time he opened his cafés, is derived from Bushido, the Japanese sword-fighting martial art used by the Samurai.
"Translated, it means social obligation," Resch said. "When I started the company, I knew we needed to have and continue to have a commitment to give back to the societies we live and work in."

Stone Creek Coffee
Address: Headquarters and roasting facility, 422 N. 5th St., Milwaukee
Web site: Industry: Café and mail order coffee
Revenues: 31 percent average annual growth; 29 percent growth last year
Employees: More than 100
Stone Creek Coffee retail locations: 215 E. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee; 2266 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Milwaukee; 275 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee; 4106 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood; 8340 W. Bluemound Road, Wauwatosa; 601 E. Silver Spring Dr., Whitefish Bay; 6969 N. Port Washington Road, Glendale; 2644 Hillside Dr., Delafield; 1043 E. Summit Ave., Oconomowoc.
• Serving an untapped market – Company founder Eric Resch visited Seattle and picked up on the early growth of the Starbucks chain. He believed the coffeehouse trend would eventually reach Milwaukee, and he took action to be ahead of the curve.
• Recognizing employees – Stone Creek uses a consistent, ongoing and thorough employee review process, and managers are promoted from the ranks.
• Creating a set of core values – The company’s values are posted on the walls of its downtown facility, in company literature and in its cafés. The first value is having fun in the business. The others are: employee accountability; the worth of the company’s people; respect; the importance of customer service; and the need to constantly learn more about coffee.

May 27, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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