How did a guy manage to open a coffee shop in a state he had never been to, with no prior business experience, and have it end up on a list of the top 100 coffee shops in America? Well according to Jeff Excell, owner of Fox in the Snow, the secret to his success is something that you may not expect: his wife. After meeting in New York City, Jeff and his wife Lauren set out on a mission to bring a brand new coffee shop concept to Columbus. Lauren is the brains behind the vision and aesthetic and has curated an experience that is unmatched in the city.Jeff and Lauren have narrowed their business philosophy down to three things: aesthetics, deliciousness, and hospitality - in their minds if you hit these things, you are going to find success. A big takeaway from my conversation with Jeff is that it is okay to not have all of the answers, as long as you can admit when you’re wrong. Sometimes naivety can be a blessing in disguise, allowing you to carve out a path you otherwise wouldn’t have gone down. Jeff made it clear that you don’t need to know it all to make something great - you just need to continue on in your pursuit of learning, let go of the need to always be right, and most of all: listen to your wife.
J: Ok, that's a long story. I'm from California originally, and I moved to New York on a whim with my then-girlfriend because it was cheaper to live there. Once I was in New York, I was working in coffee shops, I'd always been working in the service industry. I'd been working in the service industry in New York for like 15 years at that point. At a certain point in New York, I was offered a management position in a coffee shop and I realized that I was good at it and I enjoyed it, which was a revelation at that point to me. I was just a skater kid who played music and skateboarded and dabbled in writing and I thought I was going to do that for the rest of my life.I started really enjoying management, which is weird, and I was just managing a pretty big chain shop over in Brooklyn. I met my wife, who was freshly off her career as a book publisher - she wanted to bake so she got a job at this coffee shop scooping cookies, essentially. So we met, first day, and fell in love. She's from Ohio. We got together and started thinking about our future. At a certain point she went home to visit her parents and realized that there wasn't really a great [bakery] - well there were some really good bakeries back then, but there wasn't anything that she envisioned back here. She came back [from visiting her parents] and was like hey, do you want to open a bakery in Ohio? I was thinking, yeah, a coffee shop, sure. So I was all for it. I had never been to Ohio, I really didn't know where Ohio was on a map to be honest. So we moved here, it was like the middle of winter. She found a building on Craigslist. This whole time she was teaching herself recipes on YouTube and stuff, and you know, you think you know what you're doing going into a business, but you don't really. It's nice not to know to be honest, ahead of time. If I would've known how hard it was, I don't know if I would have been so excited about building a business. The naivety is nice in the beginning. We spent like all of our money in the rest of that year, I think it was 2014, building shop out over on 4th Street, and just like scraped together dollars. We got an investor interested and then opened our doors in October, and we had very, very low expectations. Then it kind of just blew up on us. It's been only now, five years later, that I have caught my breath, to be honest. It's just been a lot more than I thought it would be. So that's the long story.
J: So the shop I was working at in Brooklyn, there was this really great community vibe. Everybody there went off to build their own businesses, so there's this very nurturing business environment where the business didn't feel like this evil thing. I think a lot of people lump businesses and corporations together these days and they're like, oh, businesses, these terrible soul-sucking things. For me, it was this wonderful place where I could be together with a bunch of my friends who were very creative and driven, and we can think about what our futures were going to be. And in the meantime, acquire the skills of how to run a business. So my goal was always to build something where the employees of that business could feel the same way I did. Make no mistake, I don't know exactly what I'm doing all the time, and I've made a bunch of mistakes. But I do think that we have created that environment to a certain extent here to where people feel like it's a family. There are these glimpses I get of like - and I know it's kind of pathetic - but I'm a new parent, so I sit at home a lot on Instagram. So I get glimpses of how the employees' lives are going, how they're like “oh we all went out to eat, we all went out for drinks after work.” They have this life when I'm not here. Those moments where I realized that the people in the business are having a good time, they're growing professionally, and they're seeing opportunities and understanding who they are and figuring out what they want to do, those are the most rewarding things for me personally. Sometimes I actually get to see people really grow into positions, like one of the people I first hired who was just a coffee guy is now becoming our accountant, which is such a gratifying feeling for me. I'm like oh my God, this guy really took what he had and made it into something really great. Our head baker came over and she's just built this amazing thing, amazing system, and she's really grown. Those little moments that I see are the most gratifying thing that I can get as an owner. I've learned to get my real pleasure outside of the business because a lot of business is just stuff I don't want to do. But yeah, it's harder than you think.
J: Well, a few things. For one, it's really hard to stay in the mindset of "I could be wrong about this." You just constantly have to stay in that mindset because what you're doing isn't always the right way to go about things, so you always have to be open to the idea that you're completely wrong about this and you have to fix it, so that's been hard. I was just thinking about this one employee who I actually have never talked to about this, but every review we give for him, he's like we should be getting this, we should be getting this. When I get those reviews, I'm like ugh, so annoying, doesn't he know that it takes so long to do that? But because that person's always chirping in my ear, I've been working on those things and now we're beginning to roll out paid time off, which has been a journey. It's just taken forever for us, along with health care and stuff like that. That's exciting stuff, but it's also a bureaucratic nightmare. The paperwork you have to fill out and the amount of seemingly unnecessary obstacles that you have to hurdle to run the paperwork of a business is so mind-numbing. I don't think it's appreciated by the people who don't understand what that is, like me two years ago when I wasn't doing this stuff, I didn't appreciate how hard it was. I think people think, oh you own a coffee shop, you own a bakery, what an amazing job. It is, it is, but my day-to-day for the last three or four months has been “how do I implement health care?” which is not what I thought I was gonna be doing owning a bakery. Not because I didn't want to give health care, I do. I just thought it would be like, oh, sign up for health care, check a box. Cool. I'm signed up. That's really naive, but like I said, you have to go in naive. Otherwise, if I knew the amount of paperwork I had to do, I'd be like, I don't know if I can do this man. From someone without a business background and a French degree, the technical aspects of running a business is all stuff that no one tells you. Like oh, what about this specific tax? I'm like I didn't even know that existed. Like, you have to pay that? Alright I guess we'll pay that tax. I just didn't know that stuff. Learning that stuff has been difficult from someone who was just a barista and didn't know better.
My wife, probably. While I'm dragging my face through the mud with this health care stuff she's creating beautiful spaces - she helped design this space. She helps pick the buildings. All of the aesthetic choices are choices that she is making. All of the pastries that we serve, she has heavy input on, too. She's like "I want this type of pastry" and our pastry chefs are fantastic, they work together to create those things. So my wife creates beautiful spaces, she creates beautiful products, and she is very aware of what things should look like and how you should feel walking into a shop. Me and the guy who does a lot of the work here, Jack, we do a lot of the, "how can we make that work in real life?" I think what makes us special is, and what we've built the business on from the very beginning is, everything should be delicious and amazing. Everything should look amazing. So aesthetics, deliciousness, and hospitality. I definitely deal a lot more with the hospitality aspect of that - I push hospitality very hard. So those three things, if we nail those three things, then I think that sets us apart from other people. I'm not saying that other people don't nail those things, or one or two of those things, but I think we consistently nail all three of those things. Honestly, if you hit two of those notes in any service industry business, you're doing really good. But yeah, it's hard.
Honestly, before this year we didn't have one. It was my wife and this photographer that used to work here, they would do Instagram. That was our marketing team. We didn't really ever pay for marketing. We based a lot of things on the business we came from and the business we came from never paid a dime for marketing or advertising. So we're just like, oh that works, why would we do that? So for four and a half years we just did Instagram and it was wildly successful, which was great. Recently we've been thinking - we have this great following on Instagram, and everything seemed a little like it wasn't moving. There's just stages of business: the first couple of years you're just trying to survive, and then you have to say, OK, what is it gonna take for us to get from here to the next five years? And you have to look at what you're doing and say, do we just do this for the next five years? People are going to get tired of it, so we went out and got a PR team, who's great. They're always looking for opportunities for us to do interviews or just try to get our brand out there a little bit more. We thought we would spend our money better with a PR team than we would with direct advertising in newspapers or magazines or anything, mainly because I ignore advertising completely. They do a really good job of getting us interviews and having us push our story, which I think is an interesting story. My wife is taking over Instagram - she was just walking around taking pictures, actually. I think she's doing a fantastic job. We're trying to personalize it a little bit more because for a long time we were just like "this is a picture of a sticky bun, it's so good." Which is true, and it was a good campaign, but we wanted to make it more like "this is what we're doing, this is why this is important to us, this is why we're invested in it." I'm hoping that that starts to come through pretty soon.
J: It certainly helped. I wouldn't deflect from social media, but I would say Columbus in general loves "stuff", and so they get really excited about not everything, but they get really excited about good things, and I think we're a good thing and they got really excited about us. I think Instagram was a way for us to capitalize on that. It also helps that we're in this, for better or for worse, "influencer bubble" where people come in and they get a coffee and they post coffee, which is cool and they have a million followers so then they follow us. So, yeah, I would say that definitely, Instagram has helped us a lot. We haven't done really anything on Facebook recently, which has been not great, but mainly because we weren't paying attention to it and I think we needed to pay attention to it. When you have five people running something, the ball gets dropped somewhere, so we're kinda dropping the ball on Facebook, so we're trying to pick that back up. I think it's a key demographic for us. That's what's great about our shop is that we have the archetype of the person who we are targeting market-wise, but everybody comes in. If you look around it's 60 plus, to teenagers, to the middle of the pack. We just try to say hey, we think this is really good, and then when they come in we try to back that up. I think I'm the most happy about the diversity that comes in.
I was just working on my presentation for our meeting later where I'm going to lay out our vision. You know, you're always like, "oh, this is our vision for the next three to five years" but it never ends up being where you actually go. We'd like to put a couple more shops in Columbus. I'm looking in specific areas - there's no buildings there. That's my assignment for the next three or four months is to find a building. It's going terribly. So if anybody knows where a building is, let me know. So a couple more shops in Columbus. Probably two. Maybe one more, maybe three. I don't know, but I don't want to saturate something. Then, probably trying to find a similar market. We've been looking at a lot of similar markets around here. We would like to stay in this kind of geographic area and not go to the coasts or anything. [pullquote]Everyone loves Jeni's, but I actually love Jeni's... even though I can't eat dairy.[/pullquote]
J: Oh, man. Putting me on the spot. I will put the caveat out there that I have two brand new kids and I don't get out ever... "brand new" like there are things I buy. But anyways, I literally haven't been out at night for three years. But, with that said - I love Jeni's. Everyone loves Jeni's, but I actually love Jeni's... even though I can't eat dairy. I love Philco. I think Philco is my favorite restaurant town. It's so good and I feel like no one talks about it, and really everyone should be talking about it because it's really good. I love Philco. You know, there's the usual like Service Bar which is fantastic, but everyone kind of knows that Service Bar is fantastic. I really like, well he's one of our friends also, but Kevin Crowley has Lox bagels. I think they're great. They do really well. I love Seventh Son. You know what? I'm going to say something unpopular maybe. I really like Cameron Mitchell restaurants. I think they're great. Also I know him, but I respect the hell out that guy. Running that many businesses is so hard. It's so hard. When I walk into his businesses, everyone is really nice. And you go into these really cool or popular places and they're not nice. And so I'm like yeah, it's cool that you're cool and popular, but you're a jerk! Cameron Mitchell has done a tremendous amount for the community here, and I like his restaurants. I think I say it like that because, you know, some people roll their eyes when they're like "another Cameron Mitchell restaurant." But I think they're good. There's a reason why he's here. It's good food and good service, and you can't underrate good service.