A Focus On The Fundamentals

Sept. 18, 2017

Starting out with just one truck in 1979, Minnesota-based Berry Coffee Company has now become one of the largest independent coffee distributors in the state and Midwest region. Earning a reputation for world-class service with its fresh-roasted coffee and other refreshment services, the company now distributes more than 1,500 products, which includes the Berry brand in addition to local, regional and national brands.”People like to buy local,”said Founder,CEO and President Steve Brehm. “Farmers’ markets and organic are more popular than ever, which has greatly helped us as a local company.”  

Berry currently runs 12 routes throughout the Midwest. Branding has been especially important as Berry Coffee continues to grow and prosper in the industry. “We have a very recognizable brand and a great street presence,”said Brehm, who describes his business as a hybrid company given its footprint in both the office coffee and foodservice sectors. “We have more than 20 trucks on the road every day. Our drivers are all branded by wearing our shirts, jackets and hats and placing branded equipment. People know our brand.”

When Brehm first opened his doors in the 1970s, he could only dream his business would become a success. Today, the dream is a reality with more than $15 million in annual sales due in large part to the company’s focus on its customers, employees and passion for coffee.

Commitment to the customer 

When Brehm graduated from college, he took a job as a route driver for a local coffee company that also happened to be a paper distributor. The experience quickly introduced him to the world of office coffee service. This experience, he says, greatly shaped the leader he is today. “Starting at the grassroots level, when you get to 30,000 feet, you really have an understanding of the entire organization from top to bottom,” he explained. “You appreciate every aspect of the organization and what it takes at every level to make sure the customer experience is the best it can possibly be.”  

Being a route driver especially served him well and he attributes the experience to aiding his understanding of the value of customer service. “My early experience in route sales provided a greater perspective on how important the customer interactions are in maintaining account retention,” he said. “You can develop a brand, but you have to back it up with great customer service, great response time and providing great equipment and products. By doing all that consistently over time, we have developed our reputation as a strong quality service organization that people trust.”  

Brehm’s experience has also taught him the importance of keeping a robust staff at all levels. He takes pride in his number of service technicians. “We have more people on the street taking care of our customers than most of our competitors,” he said. Currently, Berry Coffee employs eight service technicians, with three employees working on equipment in the shop and the rest of the team out in the field handling installations and repairs. “That helps us keep that customer experience and service level at the highest point out there. People aren’t waiting one or two days to have their equipment fixed, we are making sure it happens within one or two hours. When you have 15,000 pieces of equipment, you need to have people working on that equipment all of the time. There are a lot of moving parts in the industry.”

As Brehm moved up from route sales to a company owner, he has made sure to lead people so that everyone has a shared vision over the entire organization and everyone buys into it. “The single most important tangible asset in our company is our people,” he said. “I’m very proud of the sincere dedication our team displays everyday when dealing with our customer base. We all share a common vision when it comes to the customer care experience. Our professional staff represents the front line of our success as a company.” 

Passion leads to success

Brehm was proud to share his passion for coffee with one new employee in particular — his son, Joey, who joined the “Berry Team” four years ago after graduating from the University of Denver where he earned a degree in business. “His education has brought on a new host of great ideas with more to come as his passion grows for this industry,” said Brehm. “The most important thing I want for him and for every employee is to enjoy getting up and going to work every day. It’s all about creating an atmosphere where everyone is passionate about the work they are doing.”  

One of the most notable things about Brehm, in fact, is his passion for coffee, for his business and for the industry. Brehm credits his father with teaching him the importance of combining work and passion. “He was a man of integrity,” Brehm said. “He loved business and loved to have fun. If you’re having fun, everything else becomes a lot easier.” Brehm gets excited when he talks about his company, something that comes through in every aspect of business from customer service to branding and innovation.  

What excites me most about building a business is the endless stream of creative ideas that it can generate,” said Brehm, including crafting a logo and building a recognizable brand. It also includes getting innovative. “New product offerings are and continue to be a big part of our growth. We are constantly scanning the horizon for the next ‘home run’ idea.”

Berry Coffee has successfully completed more than a dozen competitor acquisitions over the years and last year opened its own coffee roasting production facility. “This will complement our supply chain needs as well as keeping production local and fresh,” said Brehm.

Staying power  

While Brehm has greatly enjoyed the prosperity of today’s industry, he remembers a time that was not so promising. “When I entered the coffee industry in 1976, coffee consumption per capita was actually in decline,” he explained. “That was dubbed the Pepsi Generation where people were starting to drink pop in the morning. I think part of that was because the quality of coffee was starting to go down.”

Back then the way Brehm kept  ran his business was very different. “We didn’t have a web address or know what the tern ‘internet’ meant,” he said. “My lifeline to my customers was worn on my hip and it was called a pager. I carried a lot of quarters in my truck and knew where every pay phone was throughout the city. All of our equipment was analogue and the specialty coffee revolution was just getting started at a little roaster at ‘Pikes Market’ in Seattle. We were fortunate to catch this evolving industry early on and evolve with it through multiple partnerships with many of the big name players.” 

With the popularity of higher quality and unique coffee blends, the industry experienced a resurgence that withstood major economic downturns. “There have always been economic problems, but soon after I started in the industry, I was told ‘welcome to a recession-proof business,’” remembered Brehm. “Every other industry can seem to be imploding, but the coffee industry continues to move forward. People will cut back on pretty much everything else — they may not buy a new car or they may not go on a trip — but they won’t cut back on drinking that daily cup of coffee. People love drinking coffee and quite frankly, they are addicted to it.”

Berry Coffee Company works to be on the cutting-edge of coffee offerings, which is one reason Brehm believes his company continues its success. “I can’t even count how many ways you can make a single cup of coffee these days,” he noted. “[Specialty coffee] is an area we are investing heavily in and will continue to, because this is not a fad; it is the new preferred way coffee is being delivered into the cup.” 

From the top down

In order to continue the company’s success, Brehm wears many hats in the organization. Among Brehm’s many roles as president and CEO, selling is one of his favorite tasks. “It’s a core of my existence in this industry and obviously my roles and duties change dramatically from day to day, but I still have a lot of fun on the occasional sales call,” he said. Another favorite aspect of the job for Brehm is management and leadership. He describes his management style as “participative” and hopes to share his company vision among his staff. “Our sustained success and continued growth is directly attributed to the great team of professionals that I have surrounded myself with through the years,” he said.  

In order to better serve his customers’ needs and wants as well as keep up with the changing dynamics of his company, Brehm regularly reads trade journals and industry resources as well as attends industry events such as NAMA’s OneShow. “It’s a great industry to be in and I absolutely love it,” he said. Brehm is especially excited about the evolution of service, equipment and product offering that has shaped the OCS industry. “I can honestly say I have the same passion today as I did when first getting started.”  

During the last 30 plus years, Brehm and his staff have grown Berry Coffee from mostly pour-over brewers and 30 SKUs in the warehouse to more than 1,500 SKUs and over $15 million in annual revenue, all through great customer service and a passion for coffee. 

About the Author

Adrienne Klein | Contributing Editor

Adrienne Zimmer Klein is a freelance writer with a background in the vending, micro market and office coffee service industry. She worked at Automatic Merchandiser and VendingMarketWatch.com from 2013 until February 2017.