Before the first customers through the door took a sip from their cup of fresh espresso, before the workmen dodged the new commercial shelving not even out of its boxes as they drilled, painted and put in new plumbing, before the sign went up on the location off 168th and Harrison in Omaha, there was a soon-to-be retired veteran sitting in a classroom at Offutt Air Force Base wondering what he was going to do with his life.
That class was Boots to Business, a collaborative effort among SBA and resources such as SCORE and the Nebraska Business Development Center to introduce the basics of entrepreneurship to transitioning service members. And John Sievers, along with his wife, Angela, was about to start something about which he’d later say “I didn’t have a clue.”
B2B grad brings friend to veterans overseas home to Omaha
Green Beans Coffee is a friend to military men and women stationed at far-off bases eager for a taste of home, be that a cup of premium coffee or a fresh-baked pastry, in a comfortable shop just like the places they knew back in the States. And the founders of the Green Beans chain, a couple of expats, could relate to the service members they served in war-torn hot spots. As they claim on their web site, they brewed their lattes with what little water was available, and electricity that could cut off at any moment, all while keeping a lookout for Iraqi insurgents who’d threaten their mobile shops as target practice.
Sievers said he'd stopped by the one at a forward operating base on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border nearly every day, and when deployed to Iraq made a point to drop by each Friday to treat himself.
He admitted that the first time he was facing retirement from the Air Force he wasn’t prepared for a life after a career in uniform; he got a reprieve with a promotion to senior master sergeant, hitting reset on the countdown to the day he’d return to civilian life.
“I thought about the jobs I liked most in the Air Force and made a list of them,” he said. “The best jobs I had were the ones where I was leading small teams, fixing people’s problems and making their day.”
So he checked in with Green Beans Coffee, which had begun efforts to expand from overseas bases and the occasional airport to introduce its brand already familiar to military folks to cities and suburbs across the country.
“I didn’t know about coffee, but I do enjoy cooking,” Sievers said. “And my main purpose and drive, my ‘why’ for this company is what Green Beans does for the nation, and support in the community.” For one, a portion of its profits support families of fallen service members.
Getting help from SBA, resource partners to make it happen
“I figured everything else, I can learn how to do,” he said. “And I said to myself, oh, what the heck, I’ll apply for a license” to serve their products and use the company brand to launch a coffee shop of his own.
But it wasn’t until he was sitting in that Boots to Business classroom in July 2013 that he could say to himself: “You know, I think I can do this.”
He next dug into the Omaha SCORE chapter's pre-business workshop and a Quickbooks class, and as he wrapped up his 26-year Air Force career in meteorology completed the Boots to Business eight-week online business plan course from the University of Syracuse.
Without the entrepreneurship track available during his transition program, "I don’t think this would have happened. I would have gone mainstream and looked for a job."
With an approval in June 2014 through the SBA's Lender Advantage program with First National Bank of Omaha in hand, Sievers was ready to begin work to open the new business. But:
"It’s a lot of paperwork," he said of the approval process. "And for one, you don’t get the loan disbursed all at once. You have to account this amount for this, this amount for that, things like leaseholder improvements and equipment purchases. That shuffled my whole start-up budget."
Creating jobs with unique offerings
He's learned other lessons along the way, overcoming a bad deal with an advertiser that took an intervention from the Green Beans Coffee corporate management to get his money back. But mostly the promotional plan is to "do some guerilla ads, some flyers." They're also already members of the Millard Business Association and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
The location, which will create upwards of 15 new jobs, including a couple for his teenagers, is Green Beans Coffee's first independent stand-alone store licensed to use the company's brand and products; the other 50-some stores are all corporate-owned. And because it's not a franchise, Sievers was free to hunt far and wide for bargains to outfit his shop, like getting equipment at a fraction of the cost from online retailers, "with free shipping," he added.
Sievers discovered through his research the shop's place off a major crossroads in southwest Omaha boasts tens of thousands of drivers heading to and from work each day--and the average income within a mile of the place is among the highest in the city.
"There’s a lot of hype about this," he added. Jumping on Facebook to market the new business, he offered a quick survey for would-be patrons to voice what they wanted to see in their new neighbor's offerings. What he found was that families want a place for kids to play as parents sipped and noshed.
"That's where I got the idea for 'Li'l Beans'," Sievers explained, a tropically-decorated small play area he quickly added, pushing the kitchen back to fit it snugly into the shop's design. "That was the biggest complaint--people felt they couldn't bring their kids into most coffee shops. So this really has the neighborhood buzzing because there are a lot of families around here."
Those families will expect a selection of pastries, inviting soups and salads, tartines, and the house specialty--a chicken sandwich made with sourdough bread shipped from San Francisco topped with appetizing freshly-made aromatic pesto and gourmet cheese. All while they enjoy four different sizes of drinks--and a size just for the tykes.
Along one wall will feature a gallery where local artists can display for sale patriotic and military works, and scenes from the Nebraska community. There'll be just one request Sievers will make, that a part of the art sale go to the military charities Green Beans Coffee support.
But giving back won't stop there.
Green Beans Coffee is proud of their "Cup of Joe" program, "where folks back here enjoying our freedom can buy a military member a cup at a Green Beans wherever they are, and send a letter online to them along with it."
Sievers, who had overseen the work of a little more than 200 people while in uniform, "wanted something completely different and challenging when I retired from the Air Force," he said.
"And boy, I got it. We’re excited to be serving coffee, that’s for sure.