November 28, 2016
“I grew up drinking coffee my whole life. I would have cookies and coffee as a kid. I’ve just always had that love for coffee,” said Tony Riffel, CEO and cofounder of Octane Coffee Company.
Riffel, a 1991 marketing graduate of the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics and native of Summersville, West Virginia, and his wife Diane established their first Octane Coffee shop in Atlanta in 2003. But it’s their newest location at the new Evansdale Crossing building near the WVU Student Rec Center that has everyone buzzing.
“I wanted to build a business, literally; start from zero to see what we could make out of it. We started our first store on the west side of Atlanta and did everything wrong. We signed the lease before we formulated exactly what we were going to do, put everything on credit cards and dove in headfirst. And on our first day, we sold $83 [worth of products] and we were just ecstatic that somebody came. It was a really transitioning part of town, so we knew we had our work cut out for us.”
Now coffee connoisseurs, the Riffels knew bringing the groundbreaking Atlanta-based coffee company to his alma mater was the next best move. And it certainly didn’t hurt that his business partner, J. Michael Bodnar, managing partner of Fresh Hospitality, is also a B&E grad.
“A few years ago, we joined forces with Fresh Hospitality. For about four years, I have been traveling with Mike back and forth with the idea of someday having something in West Virginia. This project has really evolved into this beautiful building, and that helped bring us here. But for me, it was the opportunity to come back. It’s just something really special to be able to come back to where you went to school and close to where you grew up.”
The Octane Coffee Company serves craft coffee and cocktails, roasts their own coffee beans and sells them wholesale. Riffel said they pride themselves on serving delicious coffee drinks, but also providing an excellent experience to each customer.
“Craft coffee is our thing. Coffee is the core, but all of our locations have a full bar. The Evansdale Crossing location will serve beer and wine on tap. We’ll have 20 taps; four of those will be wine and the rest will be craft and local beers,” he said.
“Our model is high-end craft coffee. We take everything and make it the hard way and then try to make it efficient and quickly. With our manually brewed coffees, our baristas go through a pretty intensive certification, so they don’t work the machine until we have them certified. That is to make sure they are prepared and we are serving a great product,” Riffel said.”
One other main staple of the business—thinking locally.
“It’s really quality; that’s what’s important to us. We want to support the communities where we’re located. So if there’s a local milk option or local products that are amazing, that’s great. We want to support them. It helps emphasize what we believe in and what we do,” he said.
“We try to really build within our communities. All of our stores are a little bit unique and they all have unique customer bases. They need to fit where they are, and that’s something about coffee shops; they become the hub of activity for the neighborhood. We try not to homogenize, so each store will not be the same. They will have the same core — coffee — but there will be some variances,” he said.
With opening in 2003 and expanding into the roasting and wholesale world in 2011, these coffee fanatics were early in the specialty coffee scene.
“We met a lot of great people from around the world along the way. We got involved in the competition side of craft coffee and really just tried to learn as much as we could. It’s just one of those things where you’re constantly learning and constantly evolving,” he said.
Prior to his Octane Coffee venture, Riffel lived in Charlotte after graduation and held a sales position that was mainly based on commission. At that time, he took a part time job in a call center for Alamo Rent A Car and found a knack for customer service, but was still looking for something more.
“I discovered there was something there for me and started moving up quickly in the call center world. A part time job that was basically just to make ends meet turned into where I was running large call centers for different travel companies. Then I worked in hotels outside of Portland, Oregon, and airlines in San Diego, so I had this customer service/call center background,” he said. After doing that for a decade, Riffel realized he was an entrepreneur and wanted to build something.
As for advice to B&E students embarking on their careers, he urges them to follow their passion.
“We got into this with the idea of ‘we want to do what we want to do and then make it successful.’ We spent a large portion of our careers following the salary path, and we just decided it was way more personal and fun to follow your passion and make something out of it,” Riffel said. “We hire passionate people. That’s what we look for. It doesn’t have to be coffee. We find that someone who is really passionate about music, they’re in a band or really into cycling – a lot of those characteristics really carry over and they really start to grasp the coffee side and the craft side of what we do. It makes for a really great fit.”
The Riffels have a few more projects in the works with Octane Coffee, but he said they think about their moves strategically.
“It’s about making smart decisions. We don’t want to grow so fast that we can’t handle it and enjoy it.”