OCS operator grows into regional giant

What’s in a name? Everything — at least that’s what C.R. Hall believes. In 2007, he was running office coffee service under five brand names, three of them well-known OCS providers, so he hired a professional marketing firm to help rebrand the company. “It was worth it,” Hall said. “Our presence is magnified compared to what it used to be, visually speaking…We couldn’t have done it ourselves.”

The five brands became PrairieFire Coffee, a Midwest roaster and coffee service provider based in Wichita, Kan. Dedicated to quality coffee, personalized service that customers can rely on and a good understanding of the value of marketing, the business has grown 20 percent in five years and increased distribution to seven states.

A Culligan family legacy

Hall grew up a Culligan kid. His father was a Culligan water dealer in Iowa, so Hall learned the business early. After attending college, he got a job at Culligan of Wichita in Kansas in 1988. He bought the franchise in 1992 and has steadily grown his empire to include 26 franchises in multiple states.

About five years ago, Hall decided to add coffee as part of his service. He called it Culligan Coffee. The one brand grew into two, then five after Hall acquired his friendly competitor and the largest OCS provider in Wichita from owner Sam Riffel, which encompassed three different business names. When he realized he was operating so many brands and such a big operation, Hall knew it was time to make a name change, but first he needed someone to run the growing coffee operation. Hall chose Jeff Deitchler. “He was a key employee at Culligan,” said Hall, “And I needed someone I knew and could trust.”

Deitchler had worked in the grocery business for close to 30 years before joining Culligan of Wichita as an operations manager, so he understood about inventory and other aspects important in OCS. He was more than ready for the challenge. “I really enjoy working in the coffee business,” said Deitchler. “There’s a lot to learn every day.”

Deitchler may not have had specific OCS knowledge, but for Hall, other management skills were more important like running day-to-day operations and being a good boss. “The regional managers trust him and him them,” explained Hall. “I wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the industry.”

After getting the right manager into place, building the new brand became top priority.

Professional agency got it right

As a franchise, Culligan has a pre-made brand and marketing plan. With the new coffee business, Hall and Deitchler were making the decisions and wanted professional help. They contacted a number of agencies, but a local company, Tallgrass Marketing, really understood their goal. “We wanted a regional brand, not local, not national,” said Hall. “Carrie Trainer of Tallgrass understood what we wanted it to say without words.” Hall and Deitchler also wanted a brand free of licensing requirements and one that didn’t already exist in another part of the country.

When the agency came back with several names, PrairieFire stood out. “We liked it because it was what a good name should be,” said Deitchler. It indicated the company’s locale within the U.S., without stating the obvious. The addition of fire reminded Deitchler of flame roasting coffee, which fit well with the business.

The agency came back with eight different logos and styles, but Deitchler and Hall thought the strong orange and black of the current design was the best choice. “It has a Latin feel,” said Deitchler, “which works well since much of our coffee comes from South and Central American coffee growers.”

Once decided, the PrairieFire image was added to everything in the organization. All the vehicles were wrapped with the logo, stickers and decals were applied to the brewing equipment, labels, cups, shirts and business cards all bore the new look. “We don’t do TV or radio ads,” Hall said. “This is our advertising.” He is certain the rebrand was worth the money. “It helped bring us up from just service, to a brand,” said Hall, “all the points of contact with the customers, whether its uniforms or coffee bags — it helps connect us to the stuff they’re drinking.”

Roasting custom coffee blends

Because PrairieFire roasts its own coffee, there are some unique services it can provide, such as personalized coffee blends. “We customize the coffee program with whatever their taste preference is,” said Deitchler, “we are a service industry after all.”

Deitchler takes descriptions like ‘we like X brand of coffee, but a little stronger’ or ‘we like it dark’ and puts together some suggested coffee blends based on those comments. He then invites the location decision makers down to the roasting facility for a tasting. The recipe is unique, and while PrairieFire maintains ownership of the recipe, it’s agreed that the blend is proprietary for that location and never used elsewhere.

The most common customers for the customized coffee blends are restaurants and retail outlets, as well as law firms and financial institutions, which want the unique blends for executive staff.

The customized batches are typically small, individual five pound bags that are manually packed and produced, although some of PrairieFire’s larger clients need a 50 to 60 pound custom blend delivery every two weeks.

There is no charge for the customized blends. “We see it as an investment for the future,” said Deitchler. His view is if the location knows there’s a special blend that they can count on from PrairieFire, then they will stay loyal customers. Plus, the customer has control of the price because it’s based on what type of coffee is in the blend. “If there’s a Kona component, for example, it is more expensive,” said Deitchler. “And PrairieFire only uses Arabica beans. We have never purchased any Robusta coffees,” he added.

Updated coffee service software a must

In 2007, the operation was using an antiquated software system that came with the acquisitions, so updating it was a high priority for Deitchler. In 2008, after researching the different programs, PrairieFire went with Prism Visual Software. “We knew another coffee company using them and saw it in action,” said Deitchler. “We’re very impressed with what it can offer from the back office to the accounting to the handhelds out on the street, but what we’re most impressed with is the staff.”

While PrairieFire roasts its own coffee, it also recognizes that customers are diverse. “Our job is to sell what customers are looking for,” said Deitchler. That’s why PrairieFire added single cup to its offerings, providing Keurig and Tassimo brewers. While single cup has grown tremendously, outside competition has also made it more difficult. “There are a lot more options to provide single cup now,” said Deitchler, “like big box stores, office supply stores and even online retailers.” Still, single cup represents about 3 percent of PrairieFire’s coffee sales.

In terms of sales volume, PrairieFire does about 60 percent of business in traditional OCS, but 35 percent is in convenience stores and 5 percent in restaurants in the Wichita metro area. PrairieFire doesn’t offer bottled water, instead giving those leads to its Culligan counterpart when the area is within the Culligan franchise agreements. “From a space standpoint, we’d have to drive completely different vehicles for bottled water delivery,” said Deitchler, “but we also offer point-of-use water coolers.”

Prediction: Tea will be big

Deitchler is always looking for ways to meet the latest customer need. He’s currently investigating iced tea brewers and counter top ice makers, but what he really believes will be the next big trend in OCS is tea. “Tea is the most consumed drink worldwide, and it’s finally beginning to be a contender in the U.S.,” said Deitchler. He has already visited the newly opened tea-specialty shops in Chicago, Ill. and started studying the different tea varieties and brewing methods. “It’s something we can’t ignore,” he concluded.

Regional distribution

PrairieFire uses a hub and spoke distribution system, with the center being a large warehouse and roasting facility in Wichita, Kan. The coffee is then shipped to seven company-owned distribution centers serving parts of Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Nebraska. PrairieFire also partners with other distributors to serve an even wider area.

While Hall knew how to run a water franchise, running a coffee service operation was new. By enlisting the help of professional marketers, dedicating resources to the brand and hiring a trusted, enthusiastic employee to run it, Hall’s second business is as successful as his first.