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J onathan Smiga wasn’t sure quite what he was getting into when he took over the helm as president and CEO of the then-struggling Barnie’s Coffee & Tea Co. in 2010.
The Winter Park, Fla.-based firm’s board had just fired founder Barnie “Phil” Jones Jr. after falling from 120 cafes in 15 states during the early 2000s to about 50. Sales also had declined to $5 million-$6 million from a peak of $67.3 million in 2005.
But rather than trying to compete with coffee giant Starbucks by opening new cafes in every trendy city, Smiga instead pared down the store count to just two — the original store on Park Avenue in Winter Park and one in downtown Orlando’s CityArts Factory — and put a heavier focus on branding and expanding its high-quality products that target socially and environmentally responsible consumers. The idea was to put the new Barnie’s CoffeeKitchen into the movement known as the third wave of coffee, where coffee is looked at as an artisanal culinary specialty from production to brewed cup, rather than a commodity.
The result: The company’s products now are available in grocery stores, convenience stores and specialty stores in 22 states. And 2014 was a breakout year for the new-and-improved Barnie’s, where revenue doubled and earnings were up by $2 million year-over-year.
Today, Barnie’s is in its 35th year and expects to see sales back up to about $20 million this year, up 50-80 percent from 2014.
“We’re breaking out from being that regional coffee shop in town,” Smiga told Orlando Business Journal in an exclusive interview. “We bring the nimbleness of a third wave of coffee company — from production to our talent to our intellectual property — married with a mature company which allows for us to take our business to a national scale.”
No pain, no gain
The first year Smiga was top executive at Barnie’s wasn’t easy. Stores had to shutter, employees were let go and revenue dropped by one-third.
And things appeared bleak when stores started to close because of what had happened in Barnie’s history: The company in 2006 sold off 56 shops mostly in malls, cutting sales nearly in half.
But Smiga said the Barnie’s team hunkered down and focused on building its intellectual property, brand and figuring out the best way to shed its former reputation. Rather than being known as the local Starbucks competitor, the firm wanted a more global reach by making its products the first thing people think of when they hear Barnie’s.
“We stayed in that zone a couple of years, but we were not dormant,” Smiga said. “We were figuring out the puzzle pieces.”
It all paid off, as last year the firm achieved positive cash flow without venture funding.
Much of the growth came from signing deals to sell its packaged products in large retail chains. And last year, Barnie’s relaunched its website to capitalize on the growing e-commerce industry with online sales, which today represents about 10 percent of the company’s sales. It has been known to draw buyers fro m as far away as Germany.
Along with bringing an analytical look at the coffee business, Smiga also brought a change to the culture at Barnie’s CoffeeKitchen, according to Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Sonya Hardy, who has worked for the company for more than 20 years.
Barnie’s originated as a company that celebrated the purity of international coffees, but got away from that as it ventured into growing its store count.
“Smiga really got us to refocus on the coffee and getting us into the third wave of coffee movement,” Hardy said. “Then we were able to work that into the guest experience.”
Reining in growth
Now that the company is back on a growth trajectory, the difficult part is not falling into that same trap of trying to grow by opening a slew of new stores, Smiga said.
Though Barnie’s is looking at potential new stores in strategic areas in the Southeast, Midwest and Texas, Smiga said the focus still will be on Barnie’s coffee and tea products. The firm will continue to create new Barnie’s-branded packaged products, including a new cold-brewed bottled drink expected to hit the market later this year.
“We’re next going to focus internally on strategy in the small business sense,” he said. “When you’re underwater, you only want to get to the surface. You’re focused on surviving. But once you get to the surface, you can start making executive decisions.”
However, there’s still room to add stores, according to Darren Tristano, executive vice president of food industry research firm Technomic Inc.
Making a mark in the highly competitive coffee house industry won’t be easy, but it is possible, he said. About 27,000 coffee houses in the U.S. generated $23.5 billion in sales last year, mostly dominated by mega-chain Starbucks and then Dunkin’ Donuts, Technomic reported. “Barnie’s focus has been more on retail, and they’ve been doing well with the restaurants or stores they currently have,” Tristano said. “They should have opportunities on the retail side as a smaller brand to continue to expand as profitability rises.”
Background: Grew up in the food business in Sarasota and Palm Beach; was co-director of education at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.; recruited by Darden Restaurants Inc. to oversee a turnaround for Olive Garden in the mid-1990s; was general manager of a Robert Mondavi Winery-oriented attraction at the 55-acre Disney’s California Adventure theme park in Disneyland Resort
Education: MBA, New York University; master’s in hotel administration, Cornell University
Projected 2015 revenue: $20 million
Barnie’s CoffeeKitchen cafes are no longer the only place to get a cup of your favorite java or tea. Here’s where else you can find your favorite flavors and brews:
On the web: Order any of Barnie’s products on the company’s website at http://bizj.us/1bp5gd or search for coffee and related products on Amazon.com.
In stores: Barnie’s can be found on the shelves in supermarkets and retail locations, including Publix Super Markets, Winn-Dixie, Sweetbay, H-E-B Grocery, Food Lion, Hannaford Supermarkets and Harveys.
In cafes: Two full-service cafes still exist, 118 S. Park Ave. in Winter Park and 29 S. Orange Ave. in downtown Orlando’s CityArts Factory.
Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts: Two Barnie’s coffee bars can be found in downtown Orlando’s arts center.
Some original products created by Barnie’s CoffeeKitchen:
CupUp: A single-cup brewing machine compatible capsule that holds 30 percent more coffee than other leading brands. Features a patent-pending channel design to create a particular extraction of flavor and aroma. Available in several of Barnie’s most popular flavors.
Brewsticks: Single-serve liquid instant coffee that comes in portable packets. Features 100 percent cold-brewed Arabica coffee soluble in hot, iced or bottled water.
Publix Premium Ice Cream: Publix-branded ice cream in Barnie’s CoffeeKitchen flavors, including Barnie’s Coffee and Santa’s White Christmas
Publix Premium Espresso Chip Frozen Yogurt: Barnie’s Santa’s White Christmas coffee-flavored frozen yogurt with chocolate espresso chips
Publix Premium Indulgent Yogurt: Barnie’s Santa’s White Christmas coffee-flavored yogurt with mocha chips
Sources: Barnie’s CoffeeKitchen, Publix Super Markets Inc.
By the numbers
Stats on Barnie’s CoffeeKitchen:
120: Total U.S. stores at its peak
22: States where you can buy its products in convenience, grocery and specialty stores
4: Barnie’s ice cream flavors you can get at Publix supermarkets
2: Remaining stores under the firm’s new business strategy
Source: Barnie’s CoffeeKitchen