Coffee Royalty

Omaha-based coffee shop is nationally known

Photos by Daniel Muller

There’s no better way to start the day than with a fast, fresh, great-tasting cup of coffee, especially when it’s served with a smile. That has been the business model that Scooter’s Coffee co-founders Don and Linda Eckles established 17 years ago when they started the company with their first drive-thru location in Bellevue, and it’s still the business model for expanding Scooter’s to more than 150 franchises across the country this year.

Don and Linda’s first foray into the coffee business began while they were living in California when they opened a coffee shop. They learned about the coffee world with only an hour of training and worked the shop themselves. “One day I saw someone building a drive-thru coffee kiosk, and I knew he was on to something,” Don said. They relocated back to Omaha and opened their first drive-thru Scooter’s Java Express, named for the quick “scoot in-and-out service.”

“Linda worked the window and I helped make coffee,” said Don. “She was the face of the business and always greeted everyone with a smile.” In fact, she was the one who started the smiley face stickers that now go on every cup of coffee. “I love smiley faces and thought it’d be fun for people to get their coffee and know someone hoped they had a good day,” Linda said. “I used to buy the stickers at Walmart, and now we have our own that are trademarked.”

The Eckles never imagined their company would grow nationally. After the first few years, Don said family, friends, and customers wanted to open their own Scooter’s franchises. “We realized we had a nice business,” Don said. “But franchising is a lot of work if you want to do it right because you have to help everyone figure out how to be successful. So we brought in some really smart people to help us, and we’ve developed a great team who have positioned us to be a national company.”

Not only does the Scooter’s executive team bring an impressive amount of experience, but their enthusiasm for the company, its goals, and every person within the organization is evident. Heidi Bedlan, National Director of Business Development, said Don and Linda’s values carry through every part of the company. “They are such good people, from the way they believe in the quality of our product, to how they run the business, and even how they’ve raised their family,” she said.

One of her projects was developing a partnership between Scooter’s and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to sell Husker coffees in stores, both bagged and single serve cups. “Don loves the Huskers and wanted to support the university, so we give 10 percent of all Husker coffee sales back to the UNL Athletic Fund,” Heidi said. “It’s great coffee supporting a great Nebraska tradition.”

Representing the community is important to Scooter’s. Jen Chaney, National Director of Franchising, said it’s surprising how many people don’t realize Scooter’s is an Omaha-based company. “As we continue to grow nationally, we want everyone to know that we’re from Omaha and have Midwestern roots and values,” she said. Every day Jen fields calls from people interested in owning a franchise, and she wants to help educate them on a national level. “Through our new web site, advertising, and marketing, we want to get the word out that we have many franchise opportunities available,” she said.

Although the Omaha and Lincoln markets are full for new business owners, Jen said they would love to talk to people from Omaha who are interested in owning a franchise in another market. “If you’re within a comfortable driving distance of the location and have a strong foundation for operational support through family or friends, then we can look at that,” she said. “It’s really about us and our franchise owners being compatible, sharing goals, and growing together.”

The relationship the company has with its franchise owners is extremely important and one that Chief Financial Officer Todd Graeve spends a lot of time cultivating. “For us, a good franchise owner is one who understands the importance of the strength of the system,” he said. “Franchise strength comes through consistency from store to store, communication, protecting the quality of the brand, and aligning with our vision for customer service as we expand nationally.”

Site selection is critical for any retail location and even more so for a drive-thru business. In addition to obtaining city or county traffic studies, Scooter’s will conduct its own traffic studies to determine daily counts, especially during the morning commute. The site also needs to be on the correct side of the road, avoid medians, and have good visibility. It doesn’t stop there. “Even if you have the location right and get the customer to drive thru, we still need to give them a great experience,” he said.

That great experience is based upon three principles listed in the company’s slogan: Amazing people, serving amazing drinks, amazingly fast. “To be successful, we have to drive our unit profitability,” Todd said. “And when the franchisees are providing a great cup of coffee, quickly, and with great customer service, then we gain loyalty and it increases sales for them. When we experience same store sales growth annually, then we’re able to experience franchise growth annually. It’s not a complicated business when you focus on what works.”

Bringing in leaders who have experience in what works when it comes to franchise growth is key as well. Clay Cox, Chief Operating Officer, spent years growing another company’s national franchise. He recently came out of retirement to help Scooter’s with its national growth. “I decided it would be a fun opportunity and brought in a great team of people to help,” he said. There are currently 117 locations throughout nine states and 30 new stores going up this year. The company is also doubling its 45,000 square foot corporate offices. “We’ve built up to a point where we’ve got the people and systems in place to deliver on a national basis.”

As Scooter’s grows nationally, they want the brand that has become so strong in the Midwest to flourish nationally as well. Director of Marketing, Jamie Hamburg, said using technology is one way they can expand their reach to customers. “We’ve been developing a mobile app for the past six months,” she said. “It’s a way we can help our customers have an easier, faster experience and also expand our customer rewards program.”

Kyle Anderson, Vice President of Business Development, said there is constant communication and feedback between them and the franchise owners to help improve that customer experience. “We make ourselves accessible to our owners, managers, and franchisees through day-to-day phone calls, emails, and our annual franchise meeting,” he said. “Through them we’re able to always stay connected to our customers and what they want.”

As for Don and Linda, what they want is to be the second largest coffee company in the country, but to do so while maintaining the core values and principles upon which they built the company. “We want our franchise owners to be profitable so they can provide for their families,” Don said. “We want to be a great company that continues to grow and one where people and other businesses in Omaha are proud to say that Scooter’s is an Omaha company.” 

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