What was once a simple business of providing a workplace convenience has given way to the need to provide high-quality products and equipment in a price-sensitive environment. To succeed, an OCS operator must establish a reputation for excellence and at the same time be a professional businessperson.
Another caveat: He (or she) must understand the nuances of the market he serves. What works in Manhattan might not succeed in Upstate New York. The customer is different depending on the market, and so are the economics of providing OCS.
Chris Nachtrieb, owner of Chris' Coffee Service in Albany, N.Y., has weathered the changes that have battered the OCS industry since the early days of easy growth. Rising from a single-man operation in 1978 to a company that has in excess of $6 million in annual sales has been an ongoing learning experience — one that has required commitment to service, a willingness to learn new ideas, tireless focus on financial management, and a passion for coffee excellence.
Entrepreneur's success bodes well for the industry
Nachtrieb has proven that coffee service still offers opportunity to entrepreneurs willing to dedicate themselves to mastering their trade. The company has doubled its sales in the last four years in a region with a less than vibrant economy.
Automatic Merchandiser has reported for years the importance of higher quality products and equipment in the OCS industry. In recent years, delivery systems that can provide better quality and more variety have driven additional growth, but this growth has mainly occurred in markets where specialty coffee stores have raised demand for better quality coffee.
A passionate student of coffee
Nachtrieb has carefully studied these developments, and then some. Having built his business in both the office and foodservice markets, he has educated himself about all aspects of coffee, and uses this expertise as a tool for both selling and satisfying customers.
"The man is a walking encyclopedia," observed Bob Richter, co-owner of Empire Coffee Co. Inc., a roaster in Port Chester, N.Y., Nachtrieb's private label roaster. "He is obsessed with quality, service and delivering a quality product. His customers believe he's an expert on coffee, and he has earned their loyalty."
Nachtrieb first learned the importance of customer service selling precast concrete steps for single-family homes following his military service in the early 1970s. A trained welder, he was able to sell the product to homeowners knowing that he could guarantee a high level of craftsmanship — his own.
He also worked part time in a golf pro shop, where he learned about merchandising. One of his pro shop customers had a small OCS business and made him an offer. Nachtrieb would purchase all his coffee and machines from him, and at the end of six months, if he didn't want to keep the business, he could sell back all the machines and inventory.
Nachtrieb quickly realized that OCS was a growing business, so he gave up the concrete step business to start his own OCS operation. He stored coffee in his parents' basement and made deliveries in a red 1975 El Camino SS with a cap on it so the coffee wouldn't get wet if it rained while he was inside making a delivery.
The company grew largely by word-of-mouth in its first five years. Nachtrieb became active in local charities, providing free coffee at public events. While the industry was relatively young back then, these were challenging times nonetheless, as roasters were diluting pack weights to save costs.
Nachtrieb resisted these attempts and continued to sell 2-ounce OCS packs. "I don't sell coffee," Nachtrieb explained. "I sell quality and service second to none. The supermarkets sell coffee."