A Better Buzz

ECS Coffee Inc.

These days, the cost of a cup of coffee to go – specialty or otherwise – can be quite expensive. With the very popular Keurig and Tassimo machines readily available for the home market, many people have turned to making their own. It’s tough to stay innovative in this saturated market, but as the premier Canadian source for home beverage products, ECS Coffee Inc. has been providing every conceivable machine, gadget and ingredient to the industry since 2008.

From espresso machines, coffee brewers, loose leaf teas and soda machines to whole bean coffees, ECS Coffee Inc. carries it all.

President of ECS Coffee Inc., Neil Madden, explains the ins and outs of getting his business going. After leaving General Mills in 1997, a simple idea of offering vending machines from his garage turned Neil’s ambitious spark into the success it is today. “We started in vending which has nothing to do with what we are doing now, and it eventually turned into office coffee,” he explains. “I approached Keurig in 2000 when they were only into office coffee services – before they even started in retail and selling machines.” At the time, he didn’t have enough capital to get started, but by 2003 he had gotten into the office coffee market; ECS Coffee was incorporated in 2008.

The company focus shifted from being about 95 percent vending to about 95 percent office coffee, as a Keurig distributor, in the short span of two years; the company enjoyed steady growth during this time. “As vending was getting tougher and tougher, and people were making healthier choices, we needed to change our tune and focus more on the coffee service end of things,” Neil shares.

In 2008, with rumours of a looming recession, ECS Coffee decided to try something different. “We were up for trying anything, so we made the decision to allow our customers to pick up product here at our location so they could save money. We figured rather than cancelling coffee services due to cutbacks this would be an alternative. We thought we would try doing a one day sale on a Saturday to see if anybody would show up. It was so unbelievably successful on that one day and we weren’t able to keep up with the number of people. They were not only buying for their offices but for their homes as well. From having experienced that, we decided to open to retail customers in January of 2009.”

The success of this idea then expanded into the current massive retail organization. “A pivotal change had come when we had the realization that we needed to focus on the retail end and we sold our coffee service and our vending.”

Now, the company’s showroom experience gives customers the chance to try products before buying them and gives them access to an unparalleled level of knowledge from the staff. “We listen to our customers and want to bring in what they are looking for. Each customer has very different tastes and we wanted to allow them the opportunity to get a mixture of items while not having to buy a whole box of just one item.” Listening to customers on the sales floor allows ECS to understand what they want and to keep things fresh for them.

It is a balance, Neil says, of staying innovative while working with suppliers to develop products based on customer demand. “Right now Keurig is the most popular, single serve coffee. We were able to see that early on and, as people look for simplicity, it ends up becoming available everywhere, whereas three years ago we were the only one carrying this offering. This has led to increased competition and a shifting market.”

ECS likes to play up the ‘old school’ element of things; the company culture, for example, “harkens back to the day where people actually cared about what they were selling and who they were selling it to. I’ve always been of the mindset of, ‘Let’s sell people the products that they want and only the products they can use.’”

The environmental aspect of this business can be a challenging one, Neil acknowledges. With growth of the single serve coffee comes the growth in the resulting waste. “The single serve containers can’t really be recycled at this point but, from the manufacturer’s standpoint, some would argue that single serve and going out to get the coffee from a store or for a pot might wash each other out.” The company decided that it would set its sights at mitigating the lack of recyclability; it implemented a tree planting program, for instance, which plants approximately a thousand trees per month. “So far we have planted over 60,000 trees as sort of a carbon offset. We encourage our customers to participate in recycling programs and we are working with our suppliers to help create biodegradable capsules.” These capsules should be introduced over the next six months.

Neil is also excited about further developments, with the opening of the company’s fourth store now, and a fifth soon to follow. “Staff turnover is inevitable but, for the most part, our core base staff has been with us for four of five years, and it is so rewarding to see them work from basically sweeping the floors getting themselves into management positions. We have to play a little bit of catch up due to the fact that we have grown very quickly. In fact, we have just signed a contract with a Human Resources consultant to make sure we are up to snuff with everything and we brought in a communications firm as well. So, there is a lot going on.”

All companies are faced with challenges, and they are not always the challenges one would expect. Neil discloses that, “We have noticed that many suppliers and the Canadian and U.S. governments run their businesses like it’s still 1980, before the internet. There are different sets of products available in each country with different labelling and ingredient requirements and different prices. But nowadays, consumers are more tech savvy, getting advertising on the internet and not through traditional channels alone. In addition, the suppliers are still handling their business like they have channel control with some products only being available to certain channels. This is no longer realistic because there is always someone that will sell where they are not supposed to. For retailers to continue to thrive in Canada, and not just in the U.S., both government and suppliers need to change their mindset and start to work towards offering consistency in all markets.”

To this end, ECS Coffee Inc. has developed Private Label brands. “We are actually investing a lot of money in design, product and technology to build our brand. It is something that we are doing differently and to keep unique and personal.”

Neil’s own secret to having a lasting and successful business partnership is sharing the experience with a true partner – his wife. “The support has always been there,” he says. “In the earlier days she would stay home and take care of the kids and then, in 2006, she started getting more involved when work was getting a little more stressful and she was doing a great deal more to help alleviate that. I have always had the support of my wife even during demanding times. She has always been very understanding and we have a fantastic partnership.” She now runs both the company’s Human Resources and Finance Departments. “We are about ten feet away from each other every day so it is so important to have a good and comfortable, personal and professional relationship.”

Although the company has won numerous awards, the best indicator that it is doing its job well is customer feedback. “You used to have to wait for [awards] to hear if you have been doing a good job. Now, through social media, we get constant feedback with more than ninety-nine percent of the comments being positive, which is great and it keeps us on our toes!”

With ECS Coffee’s goal of combining high quality brands with leading edge technology and passionate and knowledgeable customer service, Neil and his team have created an experience the whole family can enjoy even if one doesn’t drink coffee. “I think one of the coolest comments I heard from a customer – ever – was, ‘This is one of my six-year-old’s favourite places to shop.’” Indeed, it seems the unique shopping experience has something to offer for everyone.

May 25, 2020, 5:35 PM EDT