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The Daily Grind

Stand And Deliver

Despite being the little guy, Ryan Coffee has managed to emerge unscathed from a challenging industry initiation: Overly competitive representatives, stunned by Victorian House's prime, eye-level shelf space, have attempted everything from moving the company's product into a store's backroom to stealing shelf space. The family employed a food broker who accomplished nothing, and handsomely paid a marketing whiz who failed to land a big account in over 10 months. "We now have a rule that no one is allowed to sell our product without us sitting at the table," says Greg Jr. "We're nervous of anyone who talks a great game--especially when we know we can get it done [ourselves]."

And by working in unison, they have. Thanks to Heather's previously untapped marketing genius and her dedicated demo appearances from 1990 to 1996, Victorian House is fast on its way to becoming a household name.

On occasion, the brand's growing popularity caught the Ryans off guard--like when the Marina Safe-way (the grocery chain's flagship store in San Francisco) account led to a Northern California systemwide account in 1994. Heather says it was Ryan Coffee's defining moment. Greg Jr. remembers the stress. "After leaving the meeting where they told us they wanted to [take the product systemwide] in one to two months, Heather and I looked at each other, walked out and were like, `Oh my God, we can't make that much.' "

They worked around the clock--even slept in their makeshift plant. Then Heather would get up at 4:30 a.m., jump in her Jeep Cherokee, and join the ranks of the huge Budweiser and Coke trucks distributing to their routes. Financial matters weren't any easier. Sales were good, but payments never came soon enough, making it nearly impossible to pay the bills. Says Greg Jr., "We came very close to running out of cash."

But the Ryan Coffee Co. motto is "Yes, we can." Ten years after starting, they're sporting 16 employees and projected sales of $3.4 million this year. A larger conglomerate may acquire and market the heck out of Victorian House someday. But a new facet of the business comprising 30 percent of the company's total revenue--using the concentrate as an ingredient in other foods (Dreyers uses it in its Dreameries Cup O' Joe flavor)--would keep the Ryan Coffee name alive. In all cases, the key to future success is flexibility--a small-business specialty.

And don't forget old-fashioned endurance. "My family was in the ranching business, and we worked a lot of not-so-fun jobs, so we felt prepared to work hard," says Heather. "Even so, it's been more work than we ever guessed." It's good to know hard work can still amount to great things.

Contact Source

Ryan Coffee Co., (800) 452-8311, http://www.ryancoffee.com.

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This article was originally published in the February 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Daily Grind.

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