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Biggby Coffee in Lansing continues to expand nationwide, unafraid of competing with Starbucks. // Photos courtesy of Biggby Coffee
Biggby Coffee's Bob Fish and Mike McFall and
Biggby co-CEO Bob Fish, left, co-founded Biggby Coffee in 1995, while co-CEO Mike McFall started with the company as a barista in 1996.

Biggby Coffee, which started in East Lansing with a single store called Beaner’s Coffee in 1995, has grown into a formidable regional franchise with 344 locations in 11 states, along with six stores in Indonesia. It’s done so by focusing on product consistency, speed, and customer service.

Biggby’s co-founder, Bob Fish, came from the restaurant business and set up his shop utilizing the systems of a high-volume kitchen. “That helps us produce a really consistent product in an efficient, timely manner,” says Mike McFall, co-CEO of Biggby.

Co-founders Fish and Mary Roszel met while attending hospitality courses at Michigan State University and first worked together as managers of a Lansing-based restaurant chain known as the Flap Jack. Roszel has since retired.

The first Beaner’s location opened in April 1995 on Grand River Avenue in East Lansing, in a building previously occupied by an Arby’s.

“The other thing that we’ve worked very hard on is setting up a culture where people have the ability to thrive,” McFall says. “The biggest compliment we get is about the way our people treat customers. That doesn’t happen by accident, and that has been a huge focus of ours.”

McFall, who has been a full partner in the enterprise since 1998, started with the company as a barista in 1996.

“I was in East Lansing working on a research project and I went around to apply at all the coffee shops in the East Lansing area,” he recalls. “I applied and got hired at Biggby. At the time, I didn’t have any aspirations to be anything other than a barista, but (Fish) had built something really special and I started to sense that.”

Charles Solano
Barista Charles Solano in action.

About a year later, Fish came to McFall with an opportunity to join the company’s management team. After a four-hour walk around East Lansing on a “beautiful spring day,” the two shook hands and became equal partners.

By the end of the next year, there was a second store in Lansing, close to the Michigan State Capitol building. The corporate office was moved to Lansing, as well.

The company began to franchise in January 1999 and had four stores by the end of that year, all in the Lansing/East Lansing area.

Fast-forward to 2007, when the franchise had grown to between 60 and 70 stores. By that time, the company, still using its original Beaner’s name, started to hear rumblings of protests since the word “beaner” can be a slur against people of Hispanic origin.

Biggby co-CEO Mike McFall, left, with franchisee Jim Stewart.

“When my partner founded the original company, he didn’t know the name was offensive to anyone,” McFall says. “Fairly quickly thereafter, we started to hear about it. After a couple-year conversation, we decided to change the name and get it behind us. No one was forcing us to. There wasn’t any pressure to change the name, really. We just wanted to do it. It was the right thing to do.”

Fish said at the time, “As we’ve continued to expand into new markets, we’ve heard more and more comments about our name, to the point that we had to take a hard look at changing it. We ultimately felt we would be condoning the use of a disparaging term if we chose to do nothing. What matters most is that the store experience will be exactly the same, only our name will be different.”

McFall says it cost the company close to $1 million to change the name. “It was a major investment on our part,” he says. “Even though our franchise contract states that the franchisees are responsible for any intellectual property changes, we paid for the entire thing. That was a big chunk for us.”

Each store had about $10,000 in signage and the change was made in a matter of days.

“We hired sign companies in all the different markets, and they could do two or three stores a day per truck, and a lot of these companies have multiple trucks,” McFall recalls.
The new name was derived from the large letter B in the company’s original logo.

Since then, Biggby’s has continued to expand. Most of its footprint is in the Midwest, but it has locations as far west as Meridian, Idaho; as far south as Ormond Beach, Fla.; and as far east as Virginia Beach, Va.

Taking it all in, last year Biggby Coffee’s more than 5,000 employees brewed 2.2 million pounds of coffee, went through 35.2 million cups, and processed more than 25 million transactions.

Every ounce of those 2.2 million pounds of coffee is roasted by Paramount Coffee in Lansing, which has been in business since 1937.

“They procure the beans that we ask them to procure, and they roast them to our exact specification,” McFall explains. “It’s a very detailed process. They’ve been an amazing partner for us.”

Paramount then distributes the ready-to-brew coffee to all of Biggby’s stores.
In addition to the beans that Paramount buys, Biggby is developing farm-direct relationships, buying directly from coffee farmers. Paramount still picks up and processes that coffee. McFall says about 23 percent of its coffee comes from farm-direct transactions.

For all of their success, McFall and Fish aren’t satisfied with where they currently stand in the coffee shop universe. McFall says there are signed contracts for more than 130 new Biggby stores to open in the next 12 to 18 months.

“The things that we’ve been working on for the last five years in many ways are all coming together right now,” McFall says. “We’re opening stores at an amazingly rapid clip.”

Approximately six years ago, Biggby started hiring area representatives to boost expansion and assist franchise owners in specific geographic areas. The company currently has 18 area representatives who help new franchisees find real estate, assist with marketing, and are involved with just about everything required to set up shop and get started. They’re rewarded by a percentage of the royalties generated by the outlets with which they work.

Biggby’s cup demonstrates how dedicated the company is to customer service.

“These are franchise veterans who give us a very local connection to those geographic areas,” McFall says. “They can be a sounding board or a coach for that new franchise owner. We have really experienced people in the marketplace (who are) helping our franchise owners develop.”

Although Biggby is expanding rapidly, McFall says the company strives to manage the growth so it doesn’t get out of control.

“We don’t look to open in new states,” he says. “We’d prefer to open in places where we already are. Franchisers can get a little wayward if you open too many new stores in new markets. We’ve been very careful with that over the years.”

When asked if he considers Starbucks locations when deciding on real estate in a new market, McFall says, “They’re a factor, but they’re in the right places — so if you’re scared of competing, then what do you do? We’re certainly not scared to compete.”