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Visiting Entrepreneurs From Summit Coffee Co. Coach I-Tri Students

Two principals from North Carolina-based Summit Coffee Company coached Innovation Trimester (I-Tri) students in an entrepreneurial exercise last week.

CEO and co-owner Brian Helfrich '03 and Chief Operating Officer Andrew Kelleher posed a two-day design innovation challenge to the 10 I-Tri students during their visit.

Brian's brother, Tim Helfrich '96, who teaches the I-Tri course alongside Associate Director of Innovation Jennine Solomon, introduced Brian and Mr. Kelleher to the class in the Pearse Hub for Innovation (PHI). Tim, Brian, and other Helfrich family members co-own Summit Coffee, a chain of three retail cafes and a wholesale coffee bean sourcing, roasting, and distribution business.

Before the family owned the company, Tim worked as a barista at the Summit Coffee café in Davidson, North Carolina, when he was a student at Davidson College. It was Tim's idea to purchase the company from its original owner, and he ran and expanded the business from 2003 until 2016, when he joined the Loomis Chaffee faculty.

Before unveiling the innovation design challenge, Brian and Mr. Kelleher presented the I-Tri students with an overview of Summit Coffee's history, philosophy, current operations, and product offerings. They pointed to the company's commitment to sourcing great coffee from small coffee farmers from around the globe; to being active in the communities where their businesses are located; to being good global citizens; and to delivering excellent customer experiences.

Brian and Mr. Kelleher challenged the I-Tri students to come up with a project or product that partnered Summit Coffee with another recognized brand — one not already associated with coffee. Their proposal had to define how a collaboration between the two brands could establish new coffee markets, promote both brands, and be a sound investment in time, energy, and resources from a business perspective for both organizations. The only other specification for the challenge was that each proposal address the company's commitment to community.

"We're open to any and all ideas — let your imagination run wild," Brian said.

The parameters of the challenge were left intentionally broad to encourage the students to think big and be creative. "One of the lessons I took away from my time at Loomis was the importance of asking questions," Brian said and noted that asking questions and thinking outside the box are the ways to building a brand.

To direct their questioning, Brian and Mr. Kelleher introduced students to the "Hedgehog Concept" — based on an old parable that says "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." In Good to Great, a 2001 business advice book that has become a go-to classic for entrepreneurs, author Jim Collins advances the idea that organizations improve their chances for success when they identify the one thing that they do best — their "Hedgehog Concept."

The 10 I-Tri students split into three groups, chose a brand for collaboration, researched and developed their ideas, and then presented their plan to Brian, Mr. Kelleher, and the teachers and the other I-Tri students.

One group suggested partnering with the outdoor product company The North Face, whose mountain logo is similar to Summit's rocky peaks. The group proposed locating a high-end coffee café within Summit's Charlotte, North Carolina, retail location in a busy shopping mall. The solution would fill a perceived need in The North Face product line and create more local brand exposure for Summit Coffee, according to the students.

A second group identified Sweetgreen, a fast-casual restaurant chain that serves salads, as a partner for collaboration. The students suggested that Sweetgreen's simple, sustainably-sourced, high-quality food and its commitment to community fit well with Summit Coffee's business philosophy. The students proposed that Sweetgreen expand its drinks offerings with cold-brewed coffee from Summit.

The third group proposed a collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Celebrating the "art of coffee," this group brainstormed a special outdoor exhibition in a space adjacent to the museum featuring the work of artists who come from coffee-growing regions of South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Summit Coffee products would be served in a retail café on site for the duration of the exhibition, according to the group's plan. Additionally, hand-crafted coffee mugs from local artisans and coffee beans for home brewing would be available for purchase, they suggested.

To learn more about Summit Coffee Company, connect to the company's website. For more about the I-Tri course at Loomis and other activities in the PHI, connect to the PHI page of the school's website.