No bigger a year for Biggby
Changing the name of his coffee franchise from a potentially offensive moniker to one simply referring to the big “B” on the shop’s paper cups wasn’t a problem for Biggby Coffee founder and CEO Bob Fish. Fish, an MSU graduate, began changing the name of the company’s stores in 2007, from Beaner’s Gourmet Coffee to Biggby Coffee. The switch, not provoked by any lawsuits or complaints, was simply a move to avoid offending anyone, Fish said.
“(Beaner’s) was pretty straightforward; it was a reference to coffee beans,” Fish said. “I guess we were a little naive, and over the years it became more and more obvious it was a derogatory name, and we decided to do away with it.”
Fortunately, the name change didn’t stunt the growth of the company. Biggby has doubled its store numbers every two years since Fish began franchising stores in 1999. The company had its best year ever in 2008, opening 35 new stores across the Midwest and Southeast.
Fish was born Aug. 12, 1963 in Augsburg, Germany, where his father was stationed in the U.S. military. Fish graduated high school in 1981 from the American School in London after his father began working abroad for Ford Motor Co. His father’s job with Ford also meant the family had ties to the Detroit area, which is how Fish ended up attending MSU.
“I came here to be a mechanical engineer for about five seconds, then I realized I didn’t have short sleeves and I didn’t have a pocket protector,” he said.
Fish paid for college by working at a restaurant called Flap Jack Shack, where he met his future Biggby partner, Mary Roszel, and developed his love for the food service industry.
Fish, who often goes by “Biggby Bob” now, started the first cafe in 1995, at 270 W. Grand River Ave. His company has seen a 50 percent increase in stores within the last year, and had sales of $38.5 million in 2008.
“Our vision is to be the largest franchise coffee shop system out there,” he said.
Fish maintains a blog at Biggbybob.com and started a campaign this year called “SPOT BOB,” with the aim of being more involved with his stores. He logs his travels from store to store on his blog with essays, news and videos.
“I started as a single unit operator serving the drinks, and as we grew I found myself more and more isolated at my desk, answering my phone, returning my e-mail,” Fish said. “I didn’t feel connected to the stores, so I decided to eliminate my office. It makes me the most connected with the (store) operators.”
In his appearances at each of Biggby’s 115 stores, Fish buys every customer a drink and mingles and greets most who show up. Fish said he cares how the customers feel and wants to know their concerns.
Setting the tone
Mohamed Shetiah, owner of 19 Biggby franchises in the Lansing area and a personal friend of Fish, said the “SPOT BOB” campaign is indicative of the type of person Fish is.
“He sets the cultural tone of the company,” Shetiah said. “(Fish) has always been a visionary guy and ahead of the game.”
The success of the company’s franchise expansion rides on the coattails of the struggling Starbucks Coffee Company, Fish said. Starbucks announced plans to close hundreds of stores last year, and announced Saturday that further cuts of up to 1,000 workers are expected.
“We’ve risen on the good press of Starbucks and we benefit from their demise,” he said. “We’ve shown we have viable product. They were a little aggressive in their land development and have to close stores because they’re paying too much for some real estate.”
Customer is king
Fish also attributes his success to paying more attention to how his customers feel than what his competitors are doing.
“We’re interested in the people we serve. That’s who we look at and talk to, and that’s who our conversations are with,” he said.
Michael Kotia, general manager of the Biggby Coffee at 115 W. Allegan St., in Lansing, said the company thrives off of Fish’s personality.
“I think Biggby has been very inventive in terms of customer service,” Kotia said. “(Fish) takes a lot of time to interact and it takes a certain character to do that. He knows what’s important and to him — it’s great customer service.”
Although Fish holds pride in the company’s coffee, he said it’s not just the java that sets Biggby apart.
“The overriding cultural component are these things: Be happy, have fun, make friends, great coffee,” he said.
“Part of our operating philosophy is to make sure everybody leaves in a better mood than when they arrived.”