Designing a Space for The Community with Olivia Soseman
In this episode, we talked to Olivia Soseman, the Director of Communications with Iron + Grain Coffee. We talked about how her company went from designing buildings and spaces, to building a local coffee chain. They have three locations, in Davenport, IA, Silvis, IL and East Moline, IL.
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In this conversation, we covered:
The History of Iron + Grain
Let's start from the beginning. I know Iron + Grain has a very interesting starting story but tell me when and how Iron + Grain started.
So Iron + Grain was started in 2019. We kicked it off right before Christmas, December 5th in East Moline, Illinois.
Our owner is actually an architect and he found the super cool building actually, an old car manufacturing facility from 1800 and he saw the vision. Completely redid it, moved his architecture firm here, and decided why not put a coffee shop in it.
It makes our architecture firm a little bit more inviting, and it's also fun to see new, people meet them. Since then we've opened two more locations Davenport, Iowa and Silvis, Illinois.
Jumping from an architecture firm to a local coffee shop sounds like a big jump. How did that happen? How did it go?
It has been a big jump! Thankfully, Andrew had hired a few people that a passion for coffee and they helped get it started and kept it running. Of course, it's been passed on now but we've all actually taken a liking to it and learning more about what it takes and who would have known years later this is where we are!
So the first location was inside the architecture firm?
So our architecture firm is actually inside the coffee shop they share the same storefront basically.
It makes it very inviting for the architecture firm. Typically when you think of an architecture firm, you think of a high-rise building and people are in cubicles. That is just not how Andrew roles! He is big on getting out into the community.
Why a second location? What do you want to achieve with the second location and how long after the first location did the second location happen?
So like I said, Andrew who owns the architecture firm, he's got the entrepreneurial bone in him. He has a lot of great mentors in his life that encouraged him. Andrew and his wife, Margery decided to open a Mexican restaurant here called Jennie's Boxcar and they opened Iron + Grain right at around the same time.
Andrew is pretty big on local and all that. Our location where we are currently is nice. It’s where I am right now, and East Moline is great, it's where the architecture firm is, but the “we should do another one” came pretty quickly afterwards.
I believe we started that one about a year later. Andrew placed that one inside an old bank building. So it's complete with a really cool vault that we use as a conference room.
Where we’re positioned is between a bunch of colleges so it's called the Hilltop Area. We're able to see a whole new group of people which is so cool to see between our original location and that one.
We all know March of 2020, the pandemic started. There were a lot of changes for everyone across the globe. So tell me about that at that moment. What was the immediate impact? How did you guys react to it?
We opened in December 2019, so really 3 months later we were facing the pandemic. Thankfully, where we are, our communities rallied around small businesses. We definitely had to make a lot of changes. We had to shut our inside down for a good three months. So thankfully, we utilized our drive-thru though. There was a ton of local push.
And then to have to open a second one not too long after! Definitely still scary though, to be a small, very brand new small business and then open in the pandemic. You don't know what's going to happen but in total, we were able to push through and it all worked out well.
Why do you think your community was ready to rally around local businesses?
I think for the Quad Cities, where we’re located, at least, it’s the small businesses and the local entrepreneurs that are supporting your kids' t-ball teams. Those are the ones that are needing their time and their money and their efforts to succeed so I think the pandemic definitely highlighted that.
I think it reminded people about that. Chains aren't going to do that for you. They're not backing sponsorship. When asked we will do most things to make things work, as do many small businesses. So I think when we give back to the community, the community gives back to us.
I was looking at the Iron + Grain Makers Festival that you guys were running before the coffee shop, and the unique situation you have at the Rust Belt with many local businesses in the same building. Can you explain that a little bit more for our listeners?
So the Rust Belt was an abandoned building from an early 1800s car manufacturing facility before Andrew’s architecture firm, Streamline Architects, came about. It sat vacant for ten years.
We have a local entrepreneur, Andrew’s mentor, Larry Anderson who had hired Andrew to just take a look at it. He was pinning on tearing the building down—I wish you all could see it, such a fun building. But it was a long stretch, skinny building and it's really just fair bones and cobwebs and just abandoned things—everything you could think of.
Larry wanted to tear it down and then break "I've got an idea let me a little time." And, a few years at the Rust Belt was born.
And in such a cool space! Where we're at was originally an industrial part of town and it's situated on the Mississippi river, so we're near tons and tons of activities. Seeing this community have a whole new life basically is kind of cool.
Within our space, though we have Streamline Architects and Andrew's other business Streamline Artisans, a handmade furniture company. He also has Iron + Grain, as well as Jennie's Boxcar, Revival Mane (a hair salon), JW Photography, The Rust Belt, which is a concert venue that can hold tons and tons of people. And then, we also have a brewery here, so it's like a whole community here.
Each of them are local artisans, which is really important to Andrew, and Larry too, the owner of the Rust Belt, which forms the Iron + Grain Makers Festival. Andrew is really inspired by other makers and creative people, which is how that came about.
The Iron + Grain Makers Festival is a two-day festival that we host yearly. It's now called Fall Fest. It's hosted in September, October-ish. We bring in about 100 to 125 people that are all really talented in their craft. It's not your average craft show, it's people who are woodworkers, metal fabricators, jewelry, handmade craft, local musicians. There's always a concert that night. There are local breweries there, Jennie's Boxcar.
Each of them has a craft, and they come to share it. And the community just kind of rallies around it. It's nice to see.
We host it in our parking lot, or inside the Rust Belt if it rains.
When you go to a new neighbourhood, what do you do to try to establish that sense of community in the new neighbourhood? You've done it now in 3 different locations.
I'll just start off with our Davenport location. It was second. That one, Andrew again found a repurposed building. It was an old bank building, so it's very unique inside. You'll find a very big vault room that was actually the banks' real vault. In there we have a local mural that a local artist painted for us. You'll find tons of college students packed in there around finals time.
We have extensions of our craft fair there. That one came with a really big parking lot that we use to host monthly makers markets. Usually, we do them in the evenings, that's when we can attract the college kids.
And through our menu too. Each drink that we have on our menu and food item is carefully crafted and made with the highest quality of items that we can source. Our menu is the same at each of the three locations.
And also circling back to the architecture. As our name is Iron + Grain, you'll find iron and wooden finishes, as well as metal, to really keep that atmosphere.
For our Silvis location, it's funny, when you think you've done it once and you duplicate it again it's a whole new breed. Iron + Grain Silvis was definitely a new one for us.
That one is a double drive-thru location, and also we have patio seating. It's different. It's still amazing because the community involvement is there.
Each location attracts different customers, but you'll find the same... It still feels like Iron + Grain. You'll leave with the same feeling.
Iron + Grain Silvis was a brand new building, but within it, Andrew and his team of architects really made sure that the quality wasn't lost.
You mentioned some of your locations have big drive-thrus, and some are more catered toward the college crowd. What do you think is the difference between the coffee culture in different locations? Do you think that there is a difference in the coffee culture and how people are actually interacting with Iron + Grain?
I'll be completely honest. I like coffee. I was not from the coffee world. Obviously, my background is in marketing and advertising, and that's what I know like the back of my hand.
I kind of happened into my role at Iron + Grain, just from already working for Andrew. But, it's interesting to see how connected the coffee world is, and the different ranges of people.
I had mentioned previously that each location attracts its own specific group of people.
Our original location definitely attracts more business meetings, just with not looking to stay, type of meetings. Not a lot of college students, not a lot of high schoolers, just quick business-type people.
But our Davenport location attracts college students. In the summer, when they're gone, we definitely miss them. They order way different things than you would find at our East Moline or our Silvis locations.
At our Silvis location, we were kind of unsure what we'd get. It's kind of sandwiched between a couple of other businesses. But we're also in a local neighbourhood which is kind of nice. That one's been a bit of an older generation that wants to just come, sit, hang out on our patio, and drink just plain drip coffee.
The hospital is right there, so we get plugged with them and other businesses. But, the majority of our business is the older generation.
It's fun to see the different types, and patterns that each location creates.
Do those different types of patterns change the way that you provide your service at all? Do you adjust the way that the service is provided at each location?
The biggest part of my job here is just making sure that our brand stays consistent, and our baristas stay consistent. Each of our baristas gets the same training, and we make sure that everyone is on the same page.
I think our customer's personalities, and how they interact with our baristas are a little bit different. Like I said, our Silvis location has an older generation, that has a lot more time. They want to get to know you. They want to know everything, obviously. Whereas our East Moline location, you'll find that the quicker the service the better, for the most part. Sometimes people will be in the drive-thru, and kinda want to hang out. But our Davenport location, it's just kind of cool to see all the different ways they interact and how they all connect.
A lot of our baristas have started out as just guests of the coffee shop. So, they're about the same age as our guests. It's really cool to see.
Hiring & Staffing
So you said a lot of your baristas come from being Iron + Grain guests. How were you able to get those guests to look at Iron + Grain as a place that they want to come and work at?
I would say it's the atmosphere that we've built. Like I said, Andrew came from the architecture firm that he built. One thing he really preaches is entrepreneurship, and putting people in charge. Our baristas are proud of where they work because they're given that initiative.
They all have regulars, so when they switch locations--as we build locations, someone will move on and say "I can't leave, so-and-so, the regular, is there!"
But no, we didn't really face too much of a staffing shortage. For the most part, we're able to retain a good amount of our employees. Some will always leave to find their forever jobs, and we're always sad.
I think for us, the biggest key has been making them in charge of their destiny here and reminding them that they're the face of the company. So when something goes awry, or wrong, keep your cool and calm--treat this business as your own, because you never know how things might go someday.
Advice For Entrepreneurs
If you were going to offer one piece of advice to someone that wants to start their own business, what would that be?
I'm sure this gets said a lot, but do your research. I'm sure that sounds silly but I have been with Iron + Grain since the beginning. I'm not the owner, but I've been with it since the business plan stage.
I can't believe how much we've learned just in the last three years. Even between each location, how much we've learned. I would have had no idea how much work it entails to keep things running, keep people happy, make sure they're engaged, and bring customers in.
It's not just owning a business. It's all fun and games sometimes. Sometimes it's making hard decisions. So I would say, do your research, and also have a passion for it.
Iron + Grain wouldn't be where it is today without the passion and love that each employee, barista, and manager, at the upper level, Andrew and Marguerite, put into it.
That passion gets you through the valleys. As a lot of people say, in owning a business there's a lot of high highs, and a lot of low lows. That passion gets you through and reminds you why you started.
Amin Yazdani is the CEO and Co-Founder of Craver, a fast-growing mobile platform for Restaurants, helping them gain and retains their loyal customer base.