ARTICLE BY SARAH ALLEN
PHOTOS BY ALYCE HENSON
PHOTOS BY ALYCE HENSON
I met Andy Freivogel a few months ago when he emailed to tell me about his new company, Science.
OK, yeah, I’m in love with the name. Simple, provocative, and just awesome, right? But Andy’s story proved even more fascinating ”he had chased his coffee dream and made it into a reality. Andy left a position at Intelligentsia to found Science, a platform to provide technology strategy and support to independent retailers. I found the story of both Andy and Science to be so interesting, in fact, that I wanted to share it here on Barista Magazine’s blog with all of you. So here, friends, is Andy.
Sarah: Where you were born and raised? How did you get into coffee?
Andy: I was born in Danville, Ill., and we moved to the Chicago area when I was very young. I grew up in the southwest suburbs, but we moved to Florida when I was 16. I finished high school in Florida, and attended University of Florida in Gainesville, where I majored in becoming largely unemployable (BA in English, certificate in African Studies, and a good number of hours burned playing with a band that met with minor regional success). I moved to Japan because I heard I could get a job teaching English there, and I stayed for about a year and a half. It wasn’t for me: I was too tall and bumped my head in every doorway of every building in the greater Osaka/Kyoto area. I returned to Gainesville and tried to make a run of it with a few bands, but money meant for practice spaces and a touring van went to pitchers of beer and spending my days watching “Cape Fear” at a second-run movie theater. Once I realized that I was kind of spinning my wheels in Florida, I decided to come back to Chicago. I slept on the sofabed in my parent’s apartment (they’d migrated back north by then), and got a job teaching English part time as well as a job at the city’s first Barnes & Noble, where I met the most amazing person in the world (my now wife).
Within a few months, Barnes & Noble was opening cafes in many of their stores, and I applied for the manager position in the Evanston cafe and got it. I worked with some great people there, and learned about espresso and coffee. Everything was airpots back then, and lattes and cappuccinos were defined by the amount of foam on the top. Then a very large coffee company based in the Pacific NW took over providing coffee, and I wasn’t into it. They told us that if the roast date was past six months, we should consider not using it. Six months! I went and found a job with Brewster’s Coffee as an assistant manager, working for someone who remains one of my favorite people. They were a legit second-wave coffee company. They were buying from brokers but roasting in Deerfield. However, one of our jobs was to flavor coffee. I’d walk up the steps of our apartment building and my wife would know the second I walked in the door: “Were you serving hazelnut today?” or “Oh yeah, it’s Monday ”Irish creme day, huh?”
Sarah: What jobs have you had in coffee?
Andy: Honestly, I’ve been a store manager, for the most part, but I’m not sure I’d call any of us who were making espresso and coffee drinks in the early 90’s “baristas.” I didn’t know what a real barista was, I don’t think, until I worked at Intelligentsia. In addition to what I’ve mentioned above, I ended up opening a few stores for Brewster’s, but then followed my wife into technology. I started as kind of an errand-boy, doing some network cabling, or cleaning up around the office. I learned to do field work on Macs, and then over time moved into account management, and then spearheading a division which provided high-speed internet and television service to big buildings, including, ironically, the Monadnock Building, where Intelligentsia opened their second store. After 15 years working for technology and retail companies, I yearned to work someplace really special, someplace with a unique culture and opportunity to grow. I found that with Intelligentsia as the Director of IT.
So, the best coffee job I ever had was being the guy at Intelligentsia who could afford to know the least about coffee! I went to a public cupping at La Colombe the other day, and it was a blind cupping. I never really participated in any of that when I was at Intelligentsia because I was busy dealing with computers and email and cables and software. Anyhow, at this public cupping last week, we went around and cupped these coffees and I got a sense about the last of the five we cupped. I had a hunch it was a Gesha of some sort, and lo and behold, it was their Panama Esmeralda. I came away thinking, “Hey, I actually did learn about coffee!” It probably doesn’t hurt that I got to work with people like Geoff Watts and Chris Kornman and Jay Cunningham everyday for about five years. They are coffee scientists. You stand in a room with them, you get smarter.
Sarah: What inspired you to head out on your own and start your own business?
Andy: I had practical concerns about where I was at this particular stage of my life. Despite the fact that my uniform is typically metal t-shirts and sneakers, and I have a goofy sense of humor, my wife and I have teenagers, and my temples sport a distinguished silver. I got to the point where I had to ask myself, “Do you want to be an employee all your life?” I’m rolling the dice and taking my shot because I have the energy, the vision, and desire to help people and businesses, and create jobs.
Also, it’s impossible to be surrounded by visionary entrepreneurs ”people like Doug Zell, Emily Mange, and a few who’ve moved on to start their own companies like G&B and Handsome, and then of course my wife, Laurie Freivogel from Kiku Handmade, who has built a very successful business as an artist and a maker ”and not get that itch. For example, I didn’t pick up a bass guitar and start singing and writing songs because I loved doing those things: I did it because I saw HR do a standing backflip onstage at a Bad Brains concert. Sometimes the inspiration is so much greater than your own talent or vocation, you just want to jump up and go and duplicate that success somehow.
I LOVE doing tech support. It’s very transactional: someone calls you with a problem, you listen to them, you connect them with the resources that will solve the problem and get them back to doing what they showed up to do that day, whether it’s roasting, brewing coffee, selling shoes, or cutting hair. Boom. Transaction over. Everyone happy. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way, but it often can, and nothing feels better to me than seeing a customer conquer an issue and move forward in sharing his or her talent with the world.
That desire to help, knowing what I know, and being able to do what I can do, drives a lot of my decision making. It’s the same motivation that drove me to become a babalawo (priest in the Afro-Cuban religion Ifa) in 2006. There’s no money in being a priest, however, so I’ve known for some time that my natural comfort and curiosity about technology is what would make me successful. I’m not a coder, and I’m not even an admin, as much as someone who has had great opportunities to manage in a number of capacities and learn where technology is useful and where it’s just an expensive distraction.
Sarah: When did you officially launch Science? Did you have clients when you launched?
Andy: I launched Science the day I left Intelligentsia as a fulltime employee, just a few months ago! Not a moment sooner, either. It was really important to me to make sure I left on the best possible terms, and therefore I didn’t want to spend too much energy on building momentum for Science until I knew I’d done my best at Intelligentsia. I told James McLaughlin, Intelligentsia’s president, that I was leaving my dream job to start my dream career, and I absolutely meant it. I knew what services I would provide, and how I would provide them, and who I wanted to be my customers.
However, I didn’t have anyone signed on. The week after Thanksgiving (historically, probably a terrible time to start a new business) I hit the pavement, and I fill out much of my day walking into businesses and asking them questions, just starting the conversation. I have about a dozen customers, through referrals and previous relationships. They are not all specialty coffee or quick service restaurants, either. My favorites, though, I have to admit, are specialty-coffee retailers. They may be in the hospitality business, and I may be in technology, but we have this amazing thing in common: a desire to be around great coffees all day.
Sarah: Tell us about your company: what does it do, who does it serve, what kinds of people/businesses are your clients, what do you provide for them, etc.
Andy: Science is myself and a shadowy network of freelancers and consultants. Just kidding: They are not shadowy. What we do is provide technology strategy and support to independent retailers, and we do so on a highly-available basis with a sensitivity to what is lost when a business can’t ring sales for an hour or provide wifi to their guests. Is your point-of-sale system giving you trouble? We will talk you through it, and we’re more sensitive to your needs than your vendor. Internet service not working? You could wait 30 minutes on hold to speak with an offshore cable company representative reading scripts over a noisy phone line, or you could open a ticket with Science. We will diagnose whether it’s an internet issue, a wifi issue, a computer issue, or maybe something else altogether. If that doesn’t work, we come onsite. Are your point-of-vendor and credit card processing companies pointing fingers? We are the objective third party who understands the bigger technology picture. We are never about assigning blame, we are about troubleshooting, diagnosing, and solving problems.
Opening a new store or renovating an existing one? We can provide you with a strategy that takes into consideration your business model (and we really understand the rhythms and economics of specialty coffee) as well as what solutions meet those needs. So much of what a store needs is already available, and with so many services expanding to the cloud ”not just point of sale, but guest wifi, analytics, music, surveillance, accounting ”Science can determine which of those pieces fit your business. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, in many cases: businesses just need a reliable partner who can select the right wheel and bolt it onto your vehicle.
Sarah: What does Science do for the coffee industry that isn’t being done/offered by any other company?
Andy: We provide many of our services on a monthly, recurring, flat-fee basis. Larger consulting and integration firms are all about the billable hours and project work. Science is about providing an effective solution within the reach of a small business.
We have tech support offerings that start at $50 per month, which allows us to serve a diverse customer base that includes hot dog stands and taquerias and four-chair barber shops. Sometimes it feels like the tech industry has really overlooked these small businesses which make up a big part of the American dream. Do you know how many taquerias there are in Chicago alone? Almost 3,800, by some estimates. Imagine the cost of underserving that market! What if they all had point-of-sale, customer analytics, and inventory tied together someplace in the cloud where the owner could see it and make decisions?
People talk about big data without having a clue as to what it actually is. I prefer to talk about tiny data, micro data. Give us $50 a month, and we’ll tell you how to crank an extra $10 out of every dead hour in the mid-afternoon, and how to change your daily customer total from 210 to 230. As we do that across an amazing and dynamic market like specialty coffee, think of the overall gains for small business owners and other entrepreneurs.
I’m certain there is a better technology partner out there for big box retailers (actually, strike that: BREACHES), but I believe Science will show a measurable impact for specialty coffee retailers in general.
Sarah: What do you hope Science grows into?
Andy: Science is going to grow into a national brand that provides technology support and consulting with a customer-centric approach that is already unprecedented. I think there will be a day that someone says “Uh oh, internet isn’t working, or the cash drawer won’t open, but I get to talk to someone at Science!”
From when I first worked in retail at Barnes & Noble, I’ve had a customer service ethic that I believe is unparalleled. It’s not just about “please” and “thank you”: customer service is about trying to make each transaction a building block for the world you want for your children, for your neighbors. It’s an opportunity to say to your customer, “You are having a problem and I won’t rest until I’ve done everything I can to resolve it.”