Forever Young

Andy Stenzler, 32

Xando Cosi
Year Started: 1994
Based in: New York City
2001 Projections: $100 million

In 1994, Andy Stenzler was your typical Gen X poster boy: hip, educated, with no clue what to do with his life. The then-25-year-old had just graduated from NYU business school when he saw the slacker classic Reality Bites with best friend Nick Marsh. After watching the film's characters skulk around coffee shops by day and pine at home by night, Stenzler and Marsh saw an opportunity. "We figured those people needed a better place to hang out," jokes Stenzler.

In less than a year, Stenzler and Marsh created that place-and, eventually, a chain of places. The two scoured the East Coast and raised $400,000 to open their first day/night coffee bar in Hartford, Connecticut. The concept soon caught on with the same young hipsters that the Reality Bites characters were based on, and within a few years, Xando Coffee Bars became the hot spot for the East Coast in crowd. While Stenzler doesn't like to name drop (ahem . . . ), regular patrons wouldn't be surprised to bump into Ethan Hawke lounging in an overstuffed chair, Uma Thurman perched on a bar stool, Allen Iverson swinging to R&B music or Julia Roberts roasting s'mores. S'mores?

"We serve them to you in a Chinese poo-poo platter with hibachi sticks and a heater," says Stenzler. "You roast the s'mores yourself right at the table. It's a good icebreaker. Nobody can stay straight-laced while they're roasting s'mores.

"I want each location to be a comfortable place that takes on its neighborhood's feel and personality," says Stenzler. "I walked into one location and saw two 70-year-old women drinking Bass ales and roasting s'mores."

Xando Cosi's motto is "From wake-up call to last call," and it's not unusual for the same businesspeople who grab cappuccinos and "squagles" (square bagels) in the morning to come back at lunch for Cosi's signature sandwiches or unwind after work with a Chai Lullaby or Mocha Kiss.

"The concept changes throughout the day," says Stenzler. "We're unique because you order at the counter during the day, but after 5 o'clock, we unveil our liquor bar and have full table service."

In 1999, Xando acquired Cosi Sandwich Co., and the marriage has been a perfect fit. This year, the New York City-based company will open 21 new locations, with sales for all 60 stores approaching $100 million. Plans include West Coast expansion next year. -Peter Kooiman

Entrepreneur: What's with the s'mores?
Andy Stenzler: You roast the s'mores yourself right at your table. Our menu explains how to make them because so many people only sort of remember. It's the best first-date product in America because it breaks the ice. It's messy. It's an ice breaker. I highly recommend it.

Entrepreneur: How did you handle the merger with Cosi Sandwich Co.?
Stenzler: Whenever you have a merger, certainly there's an overlap, a consolidation of functions. We found that overcommunication was the key to our success-letting people know where they stood, what was going to happen to the concepts, to the name. Early on, people were very worried about what would happen to their jobs and what would happen with the concept going forward. Would it maintain the same culture? We also read case studies on how to do an acquisition.

Entrepreneur: Why is Xando Cosi so popular with famous people?
Stenzler: The thing about Xando Cosi is people feel comfortable there. Celebrities are attracted to them because they're neighborhood places where people feel comfortable. It's the same reason why more of our customers are women than men.

Entrepreneur: What's the most satisfying aspect of your job?
Stenzler: The reason I'm in the hospitality business is because there's immediate gratification. There's no better feeling than walking into one of the cafes and seeing people smile because they're enjoying our products. We love the idea that we're a little part of making somebody's day better. A lot of our customers come more than 10 to 15 times a month. That's what gets us excited.

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This article was originally published in the November 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Forever Young.

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