Investing in Personal Connections

by Peter Viele
March 2020

Michael Powell didn't even drink coffee a few years ago. Yet now he and his brother, Ben, are the proprietors of three bustling coffee shops with 35 employees.

As young professional surfers traveling the world, the Powell brothers discovered what had been happening in cafes around the world for ages -- people connecting over simple cups of coffee. Taking inspiration from coffee shops where they found community while abroad, they decided to recreate the experience at home.

"I believe that with the way things are going digitally, human interaction is something that will be relevant if you do it right and people will value, and even crave, places where they feel connected," Michael says. "We want to provide that connection point."

The brothers, both graduates of the University of North Carolina Wilmington's Cameron School of Business, extensively researched the methodology of harvesting, curating, roasting and brewing coffee beans, then opened the first Drift Coffee and Kitchen in their native Ocean Isle Beach in 2014.

They didn't know what they were getting into but had the foresight not to take out loans to fund the space, materials or employees. It was a minimal investment using their personal savings. They got creative and bootstrapped where they could, even building the tables -- everything was DIY.

"It was all back-of-the-napkin math," Michael says. "We've made mistakes and we've had to figure those out. No one gave us a million dollars to open more stores, we had to grow within what we already had. Authentically providing a place for connection helped us do that. Midway through the first summer, we decided to bring food in and what made a mark was our avocado toast that wasn't available around here at the time. We brought that back from our time in Australia."

The location of their second shop, in Autumn Hall in Wilmington, was driven by demographics.

"We needed to come to a year-round market, which is much easier than a seasonal one," Michael says.

Their third location in just five years is in Mayfaire. It's a prime spot, with correspondingly higher costs. The brothers believe the following for Drift is healthy enough to make it sustainable.

"We would have to be 30 percent slower here than Autumn Hall to get into trouble," Michael says. "This is a big step for us as the rent is much higher, but that's why everything we do is focused on trying to add value to our guests to make sure they have a great experience so they return. We've also had to be really mindful of food cost."

The Powells only pay themselves a marginal amount to take care of their personal needs in order to reinvest back into Drift and to not incur any debt. Leasing their locations has provided a fiscally nimble position as well.

The brothers see more opportunity ahead.

"This is still a fragile business but the drive to want to share this experience with more people and locations is there," Ben says.


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