Our Story

Greg Ubert was not happy. The recent Harvard graduate had everything the world expected him to want. A high profile first job in Chicago. A handsome salary. A bright future in computer software. A big city at his feet. Yet just when it seemed he should be on top of the world, he had come to the stinging realization that he just could not fall in love with computer software. What’s more, many of his colleagues were similarly uninspired.

Was this his future?

That’s why, at the tender age of 23, Greg Ubert had his first aha moment and made a decision that would change his life. He decided to find a career that inspired and energized him. Then he acted on it.

He began by defining what he really wanted from his work and life and brainstormed his three essential must-haves. They contrasted sharply with his life at the software giant. Greg wanted:

  • An engaging work life,
  • A fun environment and
  • A culture of giving

No small tasks. But as a young man with an economics degree from Harvard, Greg had, of course, a number of options. However, he began thinking about the successful auto detailing service he’d run during his summer vacations. He’d enjoyed working with people he liked and helping make his customers’ lives just a little bit easier. And it soon became clear that starting his own business was the way to go.

Taking the leap

Greg’s conventionally promising career in Chicago lasted another year and a half. During that time, he considered many opportunities. But, in the end, specialty coffee was his answer. He decided his mission would be to blend and roast a better cup of coffee. Greg, a true entrepreneur, believed in his concept. “I think it has viability,” Greg said at the time. “I think people will taste the difference.”

So Greg quit his day job, much to the consternation of friends and family. Dire words of failure were tossed his way. Strait jackets were suggested. But Greg had made up his mind. He would move home and live with his parents in Columbus, Ohio while he got his fledgling business off the ground.

The early years

Greg immersed himself in the world of coffee. He talked to different importers and learned about true specialty coffee—the premium bean of the harvest. He began trying coffees from different countries. Categorizing the taste. Reading everything he could get his hands on. Contacting everyone he knew who could help. He learned to roast, tapping into the expertise of a friend of a friend in California, who gave Greg a basic recipe and explained how different coffees blend to create distinctive flavors.

He named his new business “Crimson Cup,” both for the ripe red berry of the coffee tree and in honor of Harvard’s official color, crimson. Then, with a modest investment from his parents and a couple of friends, Greg rented a small 1200 sq. ft. office and bought a small blue coffee roaster. He began experimenting. Colombian beans with African. Mexican beans with Sumatran. And when he finally had a few blends he felt good about, he started selling to Columbus businesses and coffeehouses.

His first clients had a passion for coffee. They didn’t just want to order coffee for their employees and cafes, they wanted an upgraded coffee experience. And when Greg won business away from a popular local coffee roaster (considered unbeatable until that time), he knew he had a good product. What he didn’t know was that it was about to become even better.

Armando and the aha moment

In March of 1992, Greg had his second aha moment. He was calling on a coffee house in the student union of a large university. When he walked in, the line of customers was about 20 deep. Greg guessed there was no hope of meeting the manager for at least an hour. Then, to his amazement, the line diminished in a matter of just a few minutes.

He introduced himself to the manager and, naturally, asked how he’d done it. The manager, whose name was Armando, invited Greg to take a seat and proceeded to explain.

Armando had 12 years of experience opening coffee houses for a west coast company. Over the next few meetings, he taught Greg all he knew about marketing coffee drinks, laying out an efficient coffee bar and training baristas. He also explained which kind of coffee equipment to use, how to engage the customer, and many other invaluable insights about operating a coffee bar.

Eventually, Greg mentioned the original reason for his visit: to sell coffee. Armando tasted Greg’s coffee and said it was good. However, he very directly told Greg that it could be better. What’s more, he could help.

Armando was what coffee insiders call a “cupper.” Cuppers are to the coffee business what master chefs are to fine dining. They have a refined coffee palette and understand how to blend and combine ingredients in amazing ways. He and Greg, along with Crimson Cup driver Chris Lamb, set about creating a blend that would change the way coffee lovers thought about their favorite brew. It had to meet certain criteria, among them, make a great espresso, make a wonderful caffe latte and caffe mocha, and make a fantastic drip coffee.

Together, the three men became one super cupper. While they each had pretty good palettes, Armando had the taste for espresso, Greg had the taste for lattes and mochas and Chris had the taste for drip coffee. Over the course of nine months, they created hundreds of blends in pursuit of that perfect cup.

The result was Armando’s Blend, still Crimson Cup’s #1 product.

The road to Atlanta

Armando’s Blend was another step in the Crimson Cup mission to provide awesome coffee. And the business was doing well, in part because Greg believed in investing in his customers. He believed (and still does) that investing in customers leads to stronger, longer relationships. After all, he reasons, if your customer goes out of business, you no longer have a customer. This business model was a perfect fit with his three must-haves. By spending time helping customers improve their efficiencies and bottom line, Greg was investing in the future of both their companies, which created an engaging work life, a fun environment and the ability to carve out time and resources to give back to the community.

This was how Greg thought it should work. What he didn’t know was how unique it was. Then, in 1997, he went to a convention in Atlanta. The Crimson Cup booth was set up in the vendor’s space, as were many other coffee roasters. During a lull in the day, Greg decided to do a little market research. At the first competitor’s booth, he introduced himself.

Greg: “What do you do?”
Business Owner: “We have great coffee and great service.”

“Hmm,” he thought. That’s interesting. On to the next booth.

Greg: What do you do?
Business Owner: “We have great coffee and great service.”

That was even more interesting. So Greg proceeded to visit each of the coffee booths. Each time, he got the same answer:

“We have great coffee and great service.”

By this time, Greg was shaking his head. Each of his competitors thought they had a unique selling proposition. But at the end of the day, they all provided the same thing: coffee and some level of traditional customer service. What was unique in that?

That’s when Greg had his third aha moment. By working directly with his customers to help improve their businesses, he really was providing superior service. What’s more, his business philosophy of helping his clients so that they could succeed was unique among his competitors.

The freedom to walk away

Back in Columbus, Greg began working on service platform he called, Seven Steps to Success. He hired Armando full time to train coffee houses in set up and efficiencies. Then he made his Seven Steps program public, with a truly unique proposition:

Crimson Cup would teach independent coffeehouses how to be successful in the specialty coffee business. And Crimson Cup’s great coffee products were part of just one of the Seven Steps to Success.

The program was robust and did indeed include seven steps necessary for success. It also met Greg’s goal to help small businesses succeed. It teaches everything from how to profit from the proper ratio of drip-to-espresso sales, to how to choose a location and what kind of numbers to expect in your first year. This all sounds very logical. But here’s where Crimson Cup is truly different:

There is no charge for these services. No contract. No franchise fees. In fact, the company does not even require that customers purchase Crimson Cup products. Of course, the company expects that they will, given the amazing taste of the products, and so far, they haven’t been disappointed. But the differentiating point between Crimson Cup and others is that Crimson Cup, by design, has to stay sharp. If the company doesn’t satisfy the customer and continue to improve both products and service, the customer is free to walk away. Absolutely nothing prevents the customer from leaving the Crimson Cup system behind.

Seven Steps for Success

A few years later, Greg took the next logical step and wrote a book, Seven Steps for Success: A Common-Sense Guide to Succeed in Specialty Coffee. Reading it is still the first recommendation Crimson Cup gives to people who are thinking about starting a coffee house. It’s now in its second printing, and is used as a template for coffee house owners to maximize their coffee house businesses and avoid costly mistakes.

Crimson Cup has also become a supplier of the equipment and paper goods suggested by the Seven Steps to Coffee Startup Success program. Again, however, these things are not required and the customer is always free to make other choices.

To focus even more clearly on the customers’ needs, Crimson Cup has opened its first company coffee house, located in the northern Columbus suburb of Clintonville. The shop acts as a testing ground for new products as well as a laboratory for new marketing ideas and ways of serving the customers.

The future

Today, Crimson Cup is so successful, Greg is often asked why he doesn’t package the business as a franchise. After all, he’s told, “you’d make a lot more money and make it faster.” Maybe. In fact, probably. But that is not the point. The point is to help independent businesses survive and to continue to bring to life the three must haves Greg targeted in those early Chicago years:

  • An engaging work life,
  • A fun environment and
  • A culture of giving

And truly, everyone who works at Crimson Cup is energized by their customers’ successes. They believe they can improve the world and others with their philosophy of L.Y.F.E. (Leave you Feeling Energized) and L.O.V.E. (Leave Others Very Energized). It’s just the Crimson way…

This is an amazing thing; an amazing feeling. And it’s a whole lot more interesting than computer software. At least it is for Greg.