When Bob Fish opened the first Biggby Coffee shop at 270 W. Grand River Ave. in 1995, he knew he didn’t just want a hometown, mom-and-pop coffee shop.
“Biggby Bob,” as he’s now known, wanted to expand.
And 16 years after he began personally pouring customers’ cups in East Lansing, the MSU alumnus’ once single-store operation has done just that.
Thursday evening, the chain will be featured on a CNBC special for National Coffee Day after being cited as the fastest-growing coffee chain in America — ahead of Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and other nationally-recognized brands. Last year, Fish said Biggby opened 10 new stores, totaling 118 nationwide. CNBC calculates the number at a 7.3 percent growth, the highest in the nation.
Although larger companies have drawn far greater profits and opened more stores, none have expanded at a faster rate.
Fish said the chain’s success is the result of their franchise model — an abnormality in the big-money coffee business — which allows the company to expand on itself as independent local owners choose to invest in new locations across an increasing number of states.
“There’s really no limit to our growth,” Fish said.
Although Fish credits the franchise model as the key to Biggby’s aggressive expansion, others in the East Lansing coffeehouse scene are fine keeping it old school.
Espresso Royale, an Ann Arbor-based chain also with a location on Grand River Avenue, relies on what founder and CEO Marcus Goller describes as a more traditional, manager-operated approach. It’s more than just a model, Goller said. It’s a different ideology to the business.
“We’re quite happy being smaller,” Goller said. “We don’t seek to dominate the world.”
Espresso Royale has 26 stores across the country, all of them in college towns, which has served as a keel in recent years.
“Universities don’t have recessions,” Goller said. “They don’t go out of business, they don’t pick up and move to China.”
Still for Fish, Biggby is more than just a business model. It’s customer experience as well, the goal being that customers “leave in a better mood than they arrived.”
One of the company’s founding principles, the website says, is a “less pretentious approach” than standard gourmet coffee shops.
Some students notice the difference. Prenursing freshman Peter Ferszet often goes to the Biggby inside the Union after getting hooked on the store in his hometown.
Unlike other chain coffee houses, Ferszet said he isn’t intimidated by long, fancy drink titles at Biggby. On the wall-sized menus behind the counter , names such as “Caramel Mellow” and “Teddy Bear” prevail. Latin and Italian are no where to be found.
“It’s very much welcome and open,” Ferszet said.
“And it’s Michigan-owned, which I like.”