Bluestone Lane Founder and CEO, Nick Stone, on managing growth at speed, and why service and simplicity are key to creating a magical coffee experience.
One thing Australian cafés are renowned for, is their friendly banter and ability to strike up a conversation with anyone. “How’s it going? What are you up to today? How’s your morning been? What’s your dog’s name? Welcome.”
It was a consistent lack of human connection in the coffee arena, however, that Bluestone Lane Founder and CEO Nick Stone first noticed when he moved to the United States in 2010.
“It was very much focused on fulfilment and product. The market was certainly lacking service-led premium coffee and cafés. There is no shortage of coffee options. It’s saturated but not with specialty coffee and a high display of service, and that’s what we’re really proud to showcase,” Nick says.
The other thing few American coffee shops offer, Nick adds, is healthy made- to-order food. Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, representing 65 per cent of the market, don’t offer it, and neither do many of the market’s specialty coffee shops, says Nick. It’s because of this gap that has allowed the Australian-inspired roaster and café brand has succeeded with 65 venues to date.
“We offer something that’s unique, and we’re very, very strict around our brand standards and governance. The runway is huge because you’re dealing with a massive 330 million population,” Nick says.
Bluestone Lane has plenty of new shop openings scheduled for the remainder of 2022, including its first in Orange County, a third in Houston, and plans to expand into Southern California.
“Starbucks has 15,000 stores in the US, so it gives you an indication of how big Bluestone Lane can be. We’re now the largest hospitality export out of Australia. We serve 75,000 people a week. That’s a lot of locals, and a lot of people that are getting their first taste of Australian culinary and hospitality.”
Bluestone Lane has built its business by being customer centric. It’s with this foundation that the boutique-model company is on track to exceed US$100 million in sales next year, with a minimum 25 stores opening in 2023, and a chance to exceed 100 stores by end of next year.
“Ultimately, Bluestone is a human connection company. That is the role of cafés,” Nick says. “Ninety per cent of transactions in our cafés are for two or more people. It’s not about product at all. It’s about facilitating connection, and the world needs more of it.”
Nick says the world is in a deficit from human-to-human contact thanks to the oversaturation of digital connectivity. The disintermediation of human connection existed pre-COVID and has accelerated through COVID-19. One of the biggest challenges societies are facing, Nick adds, is this “isolation pandemic”.
“What’s the first piece of advice anyone provides to someone who’s feeling down? Go speak to someone. Reach out to someone. So for us, we really see the broader meaning in being a human connection company that makes people – our locals – feel special,” he says.
“Bluestone has never been about being a coffee brand. Bluestone is a lifestyle brand because it’s not just about getting coffee, it’s the whole ritual of getting coffee, facilitating connection, and making customers feel that they’re in a safe place, that they are important, and part of a community.”
Bluestone’s internal review system receives about 500 customers responses per week, in addition to about 125 responses on review platforms via Google and Yelp. In a survey Bluestone Lane conducted, it found the reason customers kept coming back, wasn’t because of the coffee, food, or space. The overwhelmingly response, was “because of the way it makes me feel”.
“Getting coffee isn’t about the fulfilment. It’s about escape if anything,” Nick says.
“We’re not looking to be the most inventive or innovative. It’s actually about simplifying and focusing on what makes a magical experience.”
In the Australian market, there was once a deliberate movement to ensure same-owned venues operated differently and under different names to appear independent. In the US however, Nick says customers find great comfort in same-branded outlets as long as certain elements are bespoke.
“Bluestone has navigated that really successfully. Having that familiarity for the US market is essential. [Customers] love it. We focus on having boutique, bespoke spaces that feel like a Bluestone Lane, but no two Bluestone Lanes look the same. We build according to structural elements that we inherit. We have a store in a library, a church, near a beach, and a store in a railway station. We have 20 stores in buildings that are bigger than one million square feet or 100,000 square meters,” Nick says.
“Our locals want to know that the portions, fulfilment speed, and flavour profile [of their coffee] is going to be consistent no matter if it’s a Bluestone in San Francisco, Houston, Washington DC or New York City. But they want to experience it in a unique venue.”
Nick says having a clear vision of the company proposition is key. It’s about having a purpose, identifying brand standards, service expectations, designing boundaries and guidelines, and having a team that will be accountable to the process.
“They are the culture carriers. You need a lot of clarity around who you are and who you’re not, and that takes an enormous amount of discipline. You can’t be everything to everyone. You need to play to your strengths and define what makes you successful,” Nick says.
“In a high-cost inflationary environment, you have to focus on where you’ve been successful and where your true value proposition can be at its best. In our business, we talk about having radical simplification, and reducing complexity to enable us to scale.”
The hardest part about scaling in the US, Nick says, is having a proposition that can remain relevant across markets that behave very differently. For example, New York behaves nothing like Houston, and neither does San Francisco to Washington DC.
“That’s where it’s so critical to have a team that buys into the value proposition, leads with feeling and care, and translates that to the customer,” Nick says.
It’s for this reason Nick says he’d hire someone with congruent values, over skills, any day of the week.
“Every day technology gets better. The most important thing is the service element and being productive in your service. It’s not just about being able to make one coffee but five to 10 different types of coffees in a very short period of time and still maintain your composure and recognise everyone that walks in,” he says.
One café that does that consistently in Melbourne, Nick says, is Patricia Coffee Brewers. “No food, tiny venue, always busy, and they make you feel special even though they’re making around 100 coffees an hour,” he says.
It’s this level of connection that Nick and the Bluestone Lane team are determined to retain as they accelerate growth. This includes opportunities to up-tier airport food and beverage amenities with Bluestone Lane’s coffee and food program, starting with its first shop in Newark Liberty International Airport in September.
“Our entry into airports is due to our national brand recognition and our core customer, the millennial. They’re the business traveller and they want variety instead of just going to Starbucks,” Nick says.
Complementing Bluestone Lane’s introduction to airports is a new partnership with hotel giant Hilton and its Tempo-brand hotel properties. Bluestone Lane will co-create a food and beverage program and open its first branded venue in Nashville as part of the hotel’s expansion. Nick anticipates Bluestone Lane venues in Tempo hotels will grow into the hundreds, and that’s just in the US, with international expansion a real possibility.
“This is an incredible acknowledgement for the Australian coffee culture and café scene,” he says.
For this reason and many more, Bluestone Lane is seeking Australian employees to join the company through the Exchange Visitor ( J-1) non- immigrant visa category.
“We’re looking for people who want to be part of building something. This is not just working for a store. This is working for a brand, buying into an indelible part of our culture, and growing the focus on premium, service- led experiences, and bringing that Australian lifestyle to the US masses,” Nick says.
“Our growth potential is only limited by the talent we bring into the business.”
For more information, and to apply for the J-1 visa application to work with Bluestone Lane, visit www.bluestonelane.com/j1-visa
This article appears in the August 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.