By Bruce Milletto
, president Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup

My daughter attends school in one of the most remote regions of Oregon. To visit her from Eugene, I drive three hours through dense forest and mountains populated by little more than trout, squirrels, and deer. After reaching the town of Redmond, I turn right on a small two-lane road and head toward Prineville. A sign at the city limits calls Prineville "Central Oregon's Oldest Town." It's old and quaint—and it's in the middle of nowhere. Bales of hay line the streets for an upcoming summer festival, and pick-up trucks seem to be the vehicle of choice. What does this have to do with specialty coffee?

Oddly enough, there are more drive-thru espresso operations between Eugene and Prineville than on any stretch of highway of comparable length in the United States. And remember, much of that drive is through forest, not urban sprawl.

A Coffee Operation For Every Thousand People
Prineville, population 7,500, has several drive-thru operations and at least two businesses offering a decent cup of coffee in a sit-down environment. How can this be possible? Is the demand that high? After stopping at three drive-thru operations and waiting in a long line at each, I would say, yes. I spoke with one owner who said her business started running in the black after only one week. One reason she was doing so well could be her product. I watched her make a latte, and she definitely understood proper drink preparation and great customer service.

Clinton Country Found Coffee-Less
A couple years ago, former President Clinton purchased a home in Westchester County, an upscale area north of New York City, I received two separate phone calls from individuals living in different towns in Westchester County. Their stories and questions were the same: "I live in a town where the median income is off the charts. Can you believe I have to drive 15 to 20 minutes to find specialty coffee?" Each caller also asked, "Do you think I could make it if I opened a great specialty coffee operation in my town?"

Absolutely. Both people reported large numbers of cars passing through town during the morning commute, so I asked them whether or not they had considered a drive-thru. Neither was familiar with the concept. This sounds like a business venture primed for the taking.

Coffee In The Heartland
I recently returned from a trip to Iowa. While small towns in Iowa tend to be devoid of any coffee culture, specialty coffee has definitely arrived in the city of Des Moines. A friend of mine opened one of Des Moines's first coffeehouses about 12 years ago, and now there are dozens of similar operations. Word has it that Big Green will arrive within a year. I was very surprised by the level of knowledge many locals have regarding espresso and coffee. But when I asked about drive-thrus, I was usually met with blank stares or told the concept would probably not work in Des Moines. I disagree. I believe that with such high awareness of specialty coffee, drive-thru operations present promising opportunity.

Bringing The Idea Home
I know well the blank stared and disbelief I confronted in Des Moines. Twelve years ago, I went to the City of Eugene and asked what hoops I needed to jump through to open a coffee drive-thru. Friends said the idea was wild and would never work in a small town like Eugene. Some people thought drive-thrus were a cute idea, but most seemed confused and puzzled by the concept. Today, Eugene has dozens of coffee drive-thrus, and most seem to be doing well. Of course, this can be attributed to the Northwest's well-developed coffee culture. And based on consumer demand, I believe the Northwest may never reach a saturation point for coffee businesses. Case in point: My consulting partner, Ed Arvidson, who lives over the mountain in Bend, and even smaller town than Eugene, reports the same ratio of people to drive-thrus.

A Country of Opportunity
Whenever I am asked about the viability of our industry, I think of the above examples. In my opinion we have only scratched the surface of potential growth in the specialty coffee industry. There are vast reaches of America that are untouched by specialty coffee. Take a drive through it and see for yourself.


Bruce Milletto is president of Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup. Bellissimo's book, Opening A Specialty Coffee Drive-Thru contains valuable information about opening and operating a coffee drive-thru. Written as a companion piece to Bean Business Basics, this manual covers aspects of concept planning, location selection, drive-thru construction, bureaucratic considerations, and day-to-day operations.

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