We’re so glad Samantha Ribb was able to find the time to answer a few questions about her experience running Chug Coffee! For anyone not familiar, Chug Coffee is a seemingly ordinary coffee stand in southern Portland, OR, but what sets it apart is its rapid growth since it opened in the middle of the COVID pandemic. We talked to Samantha about how Chug Coffee got started.
So what led you personally to opening a coffee business?
Ok, so my very first job was in the food industry as a hostess when I was in high school. I ended up going to culinary school wanting to pursue a career as a pastry chef/cake decorator. Graduated school, had a tough time finding a job in the industry because I didn’t have the experience they were looking for. While trying to find a job as a pastry chef, I ended up landing jobs in restaurants where I got to start working as a barista and just came to really love and enjoy it. I always tell people it’s like I get to be a bartender but without dealing with potential drunks, and I don’t really have to worry about cutting someone off .
I enjoyed it so much that I kept having the thought in my head that maybe one day I would own my own little shop. A drive thru really appealed to me because it was less likely that if someone was unhappy with something that they’d come back and complain (I’m really not a fan of confrontation).
What’s Chug Coffee’s story?
Before opening my shop, I ended up landing a job working for a small cafe that was built into a local car dealership. I was a stay at home mom prior, and was looking to get back into part time work, and this job was just minutes from my house so it was perfect. I loved the staff at the dealership, but didn’t care much for the lack of support from the management of the company I worked for. I eventually moved into a position where I was also controlling ordering and shopping for our shop and essentially kept it running (almost like I was the manager, without the title or pay). The dealership’s management wasn’t really fond of the company who was running the cafe either, and kept trying to push me to consider taking it over myself. At the time I was too nervous about it and didn’t feel ready, and eventually gave notice when I got tired of the lack of support and lack of care from other employees of the cafe. I told the dealership’s management to stay In touch with me if they ever had a change in companies running that cafe.
Sure enough, just about a month after I quit, the company who ran the cafe in the dealership decided they no longer wanted to be in that spot as it wasn’t profitable for them. (Part of the issue was that even though the dealership encouraged the manager of the cafe to promote to the general public that they could come in for just sandwiches and coffee, the manager never acted on it.)
Out of curiosity, my mom urged me to go in and talk to them to see what they were going to do with the space. And after a 2hr long meeting with the management of the dealership, my mom and I had agreed to take it over and had it open and running in a month. It was literally an opportunity that was plopped in my lap with very little, to almost no overhead cost. What better way to get started?!
So, I opened that shop, busted my butt getting it up and going, and started promoting out to the public through social media. It wasn’t easy trying to convince people to come in to a dealership for coffee, but once the first person tried, word started to spread and more people came in to give it a shot, and more of them went on to tell their friends about us.
What things attracted you to operating a coffee truck as opposed to a traditional brick and mortar?
Covid hit and we got shut down by the owners of the dealership (they’re a Canadian based company who bought the dealership just a few months after we opened the cafe inside). We sat for 3 months waiting to hear when we could reopen, but not a word from the owners. Luckily, we actually already had our coffee stand in the works. We had purchased it maybe 5 months prior to being shut down, with the plan to get it set up and parked over at the dealership’s sister store down the road. Their employees would come over from time to time and say “I wish our store had something like this!” And my thought was that if I had it parked outside, it would be easier for the public to get to as well. Luckily, I had a gut feeling that I wanted it somewhere that was even more accessible to the general public and started looking in the town we are now in. I knew what I had to offer was great, and I knew I could do really well if I just found a good spot. So, when we got shut down in the dealership with Covid going on, and didn’t hear a single word from the owners on reopening, as soon as I got the final approval from the city on my location for my stand, we called it quits with our brick and mortar we had and moved solely to our stand best decision I made. We’ve been open only about 4 months and business is steadily increasing every month. Customer response has been incredible, and a good chunk of my customers from my other shop have followed my business through the transition and move.
What’s something that helped your business get through the pandemic?
Deliveries of our “chug jugs” have been a big hit. We started doing deliveries of hot drinks from our other shop when Covid first hit and business slowed way down. I had to quickly figure out how to keep making money, and with people staying home, delivering coffee to them seemed like the way to do it. I was smart, and I started pushing deliveries to the town I knew I was trying to lock in for my stand, so I started building my customer base before I even announced I was opening a location there. Between closing down my brick and mortar, and getting the licensing and everything done for the stand, I switched to cold brew deliveries since I didn’t need an espresso machine for it (I was in between shops at that point). Once we finally opened, we took a break from deliveries to get situated in our new normal as far as business goes, and now that we are feeling more comfortable we started doing our cold brew deliveries again and people are loving it!
What’s your process for social media? Are you pretty freeform or do you plan it out?
As far as social media goes, I don’t really plan anything out. If there’s a new drink I decided to test out and liked, I’ll photograph it and post about it. Or if I have a certain drink that isn’t moving as well, or I think people should try, I hype it up and highlight it to help draw their attention to it. We eat/drink with our eyes, so making sure it’s visually appealing is a biggie. I use an editing app and presets that help me keep the same overall aesthetic and feel to my page. Keeping everything cohesive really helps. But all of my photography I just do with my iPhone. It helps that I’m naturally on the creative side. But, I also look at other pages who’s feed I’m drawn to. I try to look at what I like about their page and essentially try to emulate what I like on their pages through my own
What advice would you give to coffee business owners who are trying to improve their social media and grow their business?
My advice to those trying to grow their social media… keep your look and feel of your social media consistent. Keep it clean and appealing. Try to find a look or feel for your page that matches the look and feel of your shop. If you look at my Instagram feed, it’s all very light and bright. I keep a theme of the teal color and light greys from my stand. I like it looking crisp and tidy, yet soft (if that makes sense). Post at least every other day, and use hashtags! Tag your coffee roaster, or other companies whose products may have gone into your product in the drink. Sometimes they will repost your post which helps to boost you as well! And when posting, try posting what is referred to as a “call to action”, something that gets customers to engage and interact. Ask a question! The more people interact with your posts, the better your visibility is.
If you were starting over, would you do anything differently?
If I was to start over, I’d just look into building an actual brick and mortar stand. Mine is technically considered a mobile unit because it is on wheels and can be moved, but we are parked in one location and do not plan to move. But dealing with grey water tanks and fresh water tanks, hoses to fill, hoses to drain… it’s a lot of work and frustrating at times! Ha. I wish I was just plumbed in.
What’s the most challenging part of running your business that most people wouldn’t expect?
The most challenging part is just not being able to kick myself out of work mode. I’m constantly working. Starting out is a very bumpy ride with lots of issues popping up here and there. Lots of figuring things out as we go.
Where do you see independent coffee shops going in the next 5-10 years?
As for where I see shops going? With COVID, who knows. It’s so sad to see so many places closing, but I hope that a good chunk of us can make it through and thrive despite everything going on. People think I was crazy opening mine in the middle of the pandemic, but I seem to be doing just fine so far.