This Tuesday, Brian Helfrich, Owner and CEO of Summit Coffee Company, contacted the Editors in Chief to announce that Summit Outpost has renewed their contract with Davidson College to remain on campus for another five years. Helfrich says the Outpost intends to “bring back the late night food business” by remaining open Fridays and Saturdays from 11 pm to 2 am. The College will also increase the amount of Dining Dollars students can use at the Outpost from 25% to 33% beginning fall 2018. Read the full interview transcript for details about student engagement, employment, an independent study course, and the future of Summit Outpost.
Olivia Daniels: So I guess our first question is… what’s the decision?
Brian Helfrich: We are going to stay! Basically, our lease with the college for operating the Outpost expires this summer, and we are reaching another agreement for another five years.
OD: Are there going to be any changes with that new agreement?
BH: The biggest change is that we are bringing back the late night food business… From Friday and Saturday nights 11 pm to 2 am, we will be selling food again as we did the first three years the Outpost was open.
OD: And what kind of food will that be?
BH: That’s a good question. We are still trying to figure it out. I think we got away from the late night model because it was a pretty complicated one to run, so we will try to create something that is both appealing to students but also sustainable to our current business. One thing we’ve talked about is making big trays of deep dish pizza and selling it by the slice or things like that. We still have to figure that out.
OD: And will students still be able to use a portion of Dining Dollars at Summit?
BH: Yes, the college is in fact increasing the amount of Dining Dollars students will be able to use at Summit as part of the deal. Right now it’s at 25%, and it’s going up to 33%.
Laura Dunnagan: Do you all anticipate hiring students to staff the late night shift?
BH: I do anticipate students primarily working those late night hours. I think we even might have a paid position that is sort of a student manager of the space that works for our general manager as a leadership position for a junior or senior to help oversee the business in the evening and late night.
LD: Do you know how many students y’all have hired right now?
BH: We have about ten students actively working for us, and we have some students that are abroad.
OD: So if anything you’ll be expanding the number of students who work there?
BH: We’ll probably be shifting I would say. We have a lot of students graduating. I think we would like to hire some more full time employees to help us on the bulk of the day, but I could see it becoming more student driven late at night. Not even just the 11 pm to 2 am shift, but also the post-class hours. One of our big goals in the new term will be to improve the culture and the vibe at the Outpost and honestly the business at the Outpost after 5 pm on the weekdays and on the weekends. So I could see that being a student effort.
OD: Do you anticipate changes in the prices for items currently on the menu?
BH: I don’t know. We’re putting everything on the table. This semester, very transparently, is the first semester in the nine that we’ve been open that we’ve made money. We’ve lost money for the first eight semesters we were open at the Outpost, and now this model is finally the first profitable one we’ve had.
LD: Do you attribute that to the menu changes?
BH: We have a much smaller menu, but we’ve sold as much food as we did any of the last several semesters when our menu was much bigger. We’re selling more food than we did this fall semester when we had a bigger menu. From a business standpoint, we’re bringing in the same amount of money with a menu that requires far fewer ingredients and less staff to operate it. I don’t know if our business model will look exactly like it does right now, but it’ll look pretty similar from a food standpoint, until the late night.
OD: And do you anticipate there being any changes to the space itself with the later hours?
BH: Yeah. So one of the things were going to do is redo the entire floor of the space which is long overdue, and that probably won’t happen until Christmas break. I think throughout the year we’ve been trying to figure out what the future of the Outpost is, but we were hesitant to really invest in a space that we didn’t own. Whether that’s with the bathrooms or the stage area or with any infrastructure, we would end up losing to the college if we decided to leave. But now that we’re renewing, we have another five years to help amortize all the costs associated with improving the space. Trying to figure out culturally how to make the Outpost work more viably after 5 pm, that might involve some changes to the space or lighting or to different pieces of furniture.
OD: Will you continue to serve alcohol?
BH: Yes. That’s something we would like to grow. I think that’s one of the main reasons we were brought to campus and as we’ve talked to President Quillen and Richard Terry of Auxiliary Services during the lease negotiation, we sort of reminded ourselves that that’s one of the main reasons we were brought on five years ago. I think due to a bunch of different circumstances, we haven’t done that as well as we’d liked, but we have some little things- like Trivia Wednesday is a popular successful night- so trying to grow that part of our business is definitely a priority for us.
OD: Would you imagine becoming more like a bar?
BH: Potentially! Another exciting thing is that Andrew Kelleher, who is our Summit Chief Operating Manager and graduated from Davidson in 2014, and I are leading an independent study next semester with Fred Smith from the Econ Department that’s going to be focused on the Outpost as a business. So we’re going to work with four students for full course credit that are going to be involved with all aspects of how the Outpost is run, in terms of what we sell, how we sell it, and culturally what the Outpost looks like. We’re not going to completely change anything but we want to work with students on trying to figure out what students want on campus. That’s one of the challenges. I feel like with every new class of Seniors or every two classes we have a new energy for what they want the Outpost to be. The first year, which was before anybody on campus now even went to Davidson, it was a big popular late night destination, we sold a ton of beer, and with the current physical space and beer lineup we have now, that has changed over the years to be students perhaps wanting something different than they did five years ago. So trying to figure that out and get our finger on the pulse of what that is will be something that’s important to us.
OD: And how do you plan to engage with students about that?
BH: Through our student employees but also the independent study. Part of the success of the students that take the class will be to find effective ways for us to connect and engage with the student body, whether that’s through forums, feedback sessions, meeting with SGA, online surveys, social media, whatever that may be.
LD: Not relevant to the Outpost, but I’m curious- were you guys successful with the Variety Unknown coffee?
BH: Yes! We sold that out before we even roasted it. That’s another thing with the Outpost- five years ago when we came on campus, it was the first extension of Summit beyond our Main Street store. Now, we have four cafes and a roasting business, so Summit is very different now than it was five years ago. You mentioned Variety Unknown- we’re getting known as a regional and national coffee roaster, and a lot of our attention is going that direction, so what we’re looking to get out of the Outpost now is different than five years ago. One of the reasons we want to be here is to provide a cool café and hangout environment on campus that can provide students with some good food, awesome coffee, and a space where everyone feels welcome to hang out.
OD: Thank you for this interview! Is there anything you want to add to the statement?
BH: The model of the Outpost has become that right now we’re selling more drinks, meaning coffee and smoothies basically, than food, and our sales are in line with previous semesters by paring down the menu, so I think we’ve gotten the Outpost to a sustainable and successful place, and we’re now ready to build on that momentum. We feel like it’s taken us four years, but we have a better idea of how to run the Outpost as a business, so that should allow us creative flexibility and entrepreneurship on how to grow and engage with students and how to create offerings, both in terms of events and what we’re selling, that hit on more of what students want on campus.