Starting a Business

The Art of Coffee

These entrepreneurs have risen above the competition by creating art out of lattes.
2 min read

Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea Inc.
Description: Coffee roaster, retailer and wholesaler
Founders: Emily Mange, 39, & Doug Zell, 39
Location: Chicago
Projected 2005 Sales: $12 million

Picture Perfect: Order a latte at Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, and you've just ordered a work of art. Preparing your beverage is a team of professional espresso makers, or baristas, who have mastered "latte art" and deliver each cup topped with a rosette design so beautifully formed that it's a shame to spoil it with a sip. At Intelligentsia, employees must complete a two-month barista certification program. Consequently, the company is home to some of the finest espresso makers in the nation, three of whom placed in this year's United States Barista Championship finals. Says Doug Zell, "Having this whole latte art presentation and the craft of the barista is something I think is hard to instill across 5,000 stores and is really something that helps to distinguish us from our competitors."

Coffee 101: In a hot market like coffee, competition practically sizzles. But while entering such an industry might be intimidating for some, it didn't keep Zell and wife Emily Mange awake at night. To prepare, Zell worked for several San Francisco-based coffee roasters, moving up from coffee brewer to manager and learning the ins and outs along the way. Driven by a vision of delivering quality coffee in Chicago--a market they felt was overlooked--the couple headed east, where they disappeared into the basement of Zell's parents' house, emerging a month later with their first business plan. Founded in 1995, Intelligentsia has grown to two retail stores with a third set to open early next year, and will eventually expand to other major markets outside Chicago.

Lasting Impression: Breathe deeply, and the scent alone will transport you to another world. Intelligentsia's team of coffee buyers will travel to more than 10 countries this year to meet with local farmers in an effort to create an unforgettable cup of java. With loyal customers and more than 700 restaurants, gourmet food stores and espresso bars carrying Intelligentsia's products, they must have made an impression. Why the obsession with quality? Explains Zell, "For me, the notion of quality has always been easier to defend than something like price."

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