Octane Coffee Co-Founder on Fueling Up ATL
Octane Coffee has been caffeinating Atlanta for more than 10 years. With spots across the city, including startup hotspots at the Atlanta Tech Village and Switchyards, Octane has been hosting daily brainstorming meetings, daydreaming sessions and once-in-a-lifetime ideas since 2003. Co-founder/CEO Tony Riffel says that those people and their dreams are at the center of his company.
“I hope the local community gets a place and a brand to call their own,” says Riffel. “We are proud to be here and we hope that we add value to the community. If we can be that little slice of comfort in your day, we are doing our job.” And that’s exactly what’s happening.
With gallery shows, great atmosphere, and possibly the best coffee in the city, Octane has gone from mom-and-pop shop level to the place to be in just a few years. It has become the cornerstone of the tech and creative scene here in the city. The company has set a high standard for coffee around these parts too as each cup of coffee is brewed with care by one of their passionate baristas.
Now, after much found success, Riffel shares the lessons he’s learned over the years, why Octane still feels like an entrepreneurial enterprise, and why hiring passionate people is important to achieve your dream.
Octane is over a decade old now. How did you build the Octane brand to what it is today?
When we started, we wanted a place that was the hub of activity for the neighborhood. A place for creatives, artists, community minded people, students, business people, and startups to be able to coexist and hang out. We were lucky that exactly that happened. When we started, we were a place. That is still the case, but we have also evolved into a place that has a great product. We take a lot of pride in learning the craft of coffee and all that we do and creating a great experience for our customers. Our goal is to provide a handcrafted experience and we do this by learning all that we can and providing the best training we can for our staff.
Do you have any lessons from opening that first store on the Westside?
We learned many lessons with that first store. We were pioneers in that neighborhood and we learned that it takes time for a neighborhood to evolve and grow. We learned that you have to build a sustainable business and pay yourself otherwise you won’t last. We learned that there is power in the people who support you. We would not be here today without the dedicated groups of customers who came everyday to make sure that we survived the early days.
After all of this time, do you still take risks as a CEO? If so, when do you know when it would be worth it to take one?
We take risks everyday. In some sense, we still think of ourselves as a startup. Every new store is a huge risk and every new store takes a long time to build momentum. We view it as we are changing peoples habits and that takes time. We are always thinking of the big picture vs. now. Every decision is about what is good for the brand long term. We have certainly made our share of mistakes.
How does it feel to fuel up the local tech and creative community?
We love the startup and tech community. They have always been a part of our ethos. It is just a good fit. We want to provide the fuel for the people who work so hard to follow their passion. We know the challenges of bootstrapping a startup so we can relate this crowd very well.
What are some management tips you’ve learned over the years while managing such a large team?
We have a great team and we hire passionate people. There are a lot of us watching over the brand and the team. I believe that we have empowered people to own their job and they become brand ambassadors for us. My favorite management style is to hire great people, find their strengths, give them responsibility, and get out of their way. Everyone likes to feel valued and that their input is needed.
Why is it essential to hire an A-team? And once you hire them, how do you encourage those people to continue supporting the company?
We strive for all “A” players. It helps the team run efficiently. We know we can get a “B” player to be an “A” player so we will work extra hard to make that happen. Our program will get someone there if that is where they want to go. If not, then this is probably not the place for them.
How do you stay motivated?
It is constantly a challenge and the bigger we get, the bigger the challenges can be. I can honestly say that it is never boring and there is always something to improve.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
It isn’t easy. New stores are expensive and risky. Everything takes twice as long as you think it will and it costs twice as much as you plan for it to.
You’ve seen the city grow over the last few years. What are your thoughts on the city’s entrepreneurship scene and where would you like to see it go?
This city is on fire. It’s an amazing time to be an entrepreneur in Atlanta. Atlanta will be a first class city and the entrepreneurs of today are lucky that we all get to be a part of that. It would be so easy to get lost in a bigger, more established city, but it is fun to be a part of helping Atlanta to grow and continue to get better and better.
Any other words of wisdom for business owners out there?
Follow your dream. Don’t let others tell you that you can’t do it. It is hard work, but it is one of the most fulfilling things that you will do.