Brigid McCarthy ’25 (She/ Her), Staff Writer
As the final weeks of March 2021 gave way to the first weeks of April, as Davidson students felt the dual euphoria and grief of a slowly-opening, vaccinated campus reaching and passing the first anniversary of COVID shutdowns after a hard, strict year, Summit Coffee announced its plans of departure from its on-campus Outpost location.
“You had to be there. The tension and the weirdness on campus was… you could feel it radiating off of everyone… Yeah. Crazy,” described Maddy Wolfenbarger ‘22, then-assistant manager and current manager of Summit Outpost. “The reason people fought for this space is because it’s a student space, fully to its core. It’s owned by students, like Brian [Helfrich, CEO] was a student, Tim [Helfrich, COO] was a student. They own it, but like we work it… it’s really important to keep the space for us.”
A renegotiation led to Summit’s continued stay on campus. As Brian Helfrich ‘07, CEO of Summit Coffee, looks toward the future of the company, he affirms that the company itself stays rooted in Davidson – both the town and the college.
Bottom of the Mountain
Summit’s story begins in the late ’90s, a time when Helfrich said Summit was as far from its peak as the specialty coffee industry was as a whole. The small business began operating out of a decades-old building, serving not only as a coffee shop but also as a community space. It took years for it to “really catch on,” said Helfrich.
“When my brother bought it in 2003, Summit was doing 15% of the business it’s doing now. Main Street in Davidson, you could walk outside at 1 pm and you wouldn’t see a car. There were no cars parked there, no cars driving… that’s what Davidson was,” Helfrich said. “Once we persevered through the recession of 2008 to 2010, then we came out of that with some aspiration to grow, which is when my brother brought me on to help facilitate that growth.”
Helfrich has been CEO for five years and an executive shareholder alongside his brother, Tim, for ten, both witnessing firsthand and guiding the company’s growth and development.
“For years we weren’t sure exactly what [the Summit franchise] was going to look like… We wanted to grow, we wanted to expand the brand,” Helfrich said. “We started roasting and got into that whole side of the business, which is importing coffee, visiting other countries, wholesale distribution to other coffee shops and restaurants… and then have since opened five more cafes to get to seven. And we have four more that are in development right now. So that puts us at 11 and counting. I think our ambition is to be at 50 in the next five years.”
The aforementioned 11 Summit locations are in-state. The potential 50 are going to scale Summit to a national level.
“Starting in 2022, we’ll go out of state. Our first few markets are Atlanta, Charleston, continuing to expand in North Carolina, and then there’s a handful of other out-of-state… markets that we will probably pursue: northern Virginia, New England… there’s some decisions to be made in the next couple of years, which are exciting,” he said. “Our marketing objective in a macro sense is to become a nationally recognized company that is loved locally.”
Beyond Summit’s physical expansion across the United States, Helfrich is excited about the company’s brand development away from just espresso.
“We’re a lifestyle brand. And I’m not even sure what that means. But that’s what I like to say that we are. We really put a lot of emphasis behind our slogan, ‘Find your summit,’ which I think has very little to do with coffee, and has a lot to do with personal development and aspiration,” he said.
Summit started an online advertising campaign where the company partners with athletes to promote the brand and its message on social media. The list so far consists of Courtney Dauwalter, an ultramarathon runner, and Phil Henderson, a mountain climber.
“We’re trying to target specific demographics and groups of people that we think our brand will connect with. And so the outdoors industry and athletes are a logical fit in some ways to the brand Summit Coffee,” he said. “What we want people to do is be inspired, or encouraged, or motivated, to figure out whatever their summit is. And not a literal mountain, although it could be for them. But whether you’re a parent, or a child, or you’re going to work, or you’re doing something in sports… just figure out what you want to achieve, and then have encouragement to do your best to push yourself further, which is sort of fundamental to how we run our business,” he said.
Summit, Outpost, and Davidson
The day that Summit Outpost, affectionately known as ‘nummit’, opened on Davidson College’s campus in 2013, Helfrich’s first daughter was born. He spent Outpost’s opening day in the hospital. It’s a strange comparison to make, between the birth of a child and the opening of a new operating location, but Helfrich explained how “bad timing” led to two developments paralleling each other in both potential and impact.
Outpost “started all of our growth,” Helfrich said. “That was the first extension of growth we’d ever tried outside of this footprint in downtown Davidson. It was the first time we’ve been like, ‘Okay, what else can Summit be?’ And we’ve learned so much. We’ve made so many stupid mistakes. We’ve tried so many things that didn’t work. And so I think it’s been an incubator of sorts for ideas that have helped refine what Summit is good at, what we want to be.”
Still, as Helfrich looks ahead, he affirmed that Summit knows where it came from and who built it.
“We’re rooted here in Davidson,” he said simply. “The two Davidson cafes are the ones we feel like we have the highest level of connectivity to because we live here…. Davidson checks all the boxes for a community that we want to start a business in. I think that it’s progressive, it’s friendly, it’s active, it’s social. And I think these are all important things to being the foundation of our business.”
Helfrich and his executive team plan to prioritize the maintenance, development and branding of existing locations just as much as they plan to focus on next steps. In fact, Summit Coffee hopes to bring a sense of the Southern, small-town coffee shop it originated as to each new location.
“The bigger we get, we continue to pump resources into our current cafes,” Helfrich confirmed. “Our downtown Davidson store, we just did a gigantic renovation this summer. And so that was a reinvestment in that cafe to make it updated from a branding standpoint. And so we’ll continue to make sure that our spaces are relevant and up to date.”
“The expansion has already changed Basecamp a bit because they need a more streamlined process of creating cafes,” said current Basecamp manager and previous Outpost manager Sarah Woods ‘21. “They’ll change a little bit but… these two cafes, Outpost and Basecamp, will always be like the home base.”
Finding the Summit
Ever since the lease renegotiation agreement between Summit Coffee and Davidson College, their bond has been stronger than ever: shifts to student-only staffing at Outpost, new Dining Dollar limits (or lack thereof) and more recently-added late-night dining options have allowed a favorite student space to remain exactly that.
As Summit Coffee, Davidson College, and the Town of Davidson continue to undergo substantial developments, they remain inextricably tied together, their individual growths pushing and pulling each other.
“Last year, you know, there was a stretch of time when we thought we were leaving campus, and there was some uproar, so that was interesting to work through. But now I’m excited to continue to find ways to deepen our relationship with the college and continue to be a good and impactful group of alumni. And yeah, who knows where Summit will be in a few years?” Helfrich asked rhetorically, before asserting “Well, I have some idea.”