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Success Story: Phoenix Coffee

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Greek mythology tells a tale of the Phoenix, a bird that continues to find new life despite a fiery end. Cleveland's own Phoenix Coffee is experiencing firsthand that story of continued revival. A recent split at the top has dramatically altered the company organization, leaving CEO and self-proclaimed "Super Barista" Sarah Wilson-Jones to re-create the brand on her own.

The strategy is to "strengthen our brand through a renewed focus and execution of our core values and culture," explains Wilson-Jones. "Our values are what give Phoenix its heart -- and its life."

This intensity and passion didn't start overnight. Wilson-Jones started her career as a barista more than 20 years ago. A coffee romance ensued, and she married Phoenix founder Carl Jones. Together they took the brand to where it is today. But Wilson-Jones is not satisfied, and the split has renewed her passion for getting back to basics. That led to championing the passion of the barista. "Making a drink for someone is very personal, and it is a way for us to connect with our guests," explains Wilson-Jones.

The barista is not just another order-taking employee, says Wilson-Jones. "We want to create a career path for our baristas," she adds. With a combination of tips and hourly rate, Phoenix baristas average between $12 and $14 per hour. They also get health and dental benefits, a retirement plan and paid vacation. In return for these wages and benefits, the employees are expected to have both technical skill and a genuine excitement for guest service. "We want to be known for having the best baristas in Cleveland, if not the region," says Wilson-Jones.  

To facilitate improved cultural changes in the organization, Wilson-Jones launched "Phoenix Speak," a program that focuses on enhanced communication skills between customer and employee.

I witnessed Phoenix Speak first hand — baristas on a first name basis with many of their guests, and knowing their customers' drink of choice before they even order it. My barista poured a perfect latte in real china, adding a classical rosetta pattern in the milk and crema to create a visually stunning drink. Almost too pretty to sip, the coffee's beauty is surpassed only by its taste.

Another key to the chain's two decades of success is the comfort level of its cafes. All furniture and fixtures are upcycled, much of it coming from thrift stores. "We prefer the character and sense of place that comes from re-purposed materials and furniture," explains Wilson-Jones.

The recent decision to relocate Phoenix Coffee in Coventry a few doors down gives Wilson-Jones the ability to tighten up the design and feel. Not losing sight of their up-cycle philosophy and vibe, the former bookstore location is where she hopes to implement a crisper version of the current Coventry location. "Look for this spot to be a more polished version of the classic Phoenix aesthetic."

Beyond the physical part of their design, the Phoenix ideal is to create a vibe where customers can plug in while "being comfortable enough for human interaction," she notes.

As the CEO and super barista single-handedly leads her company into uncharted waters, she is comforted by a staff member's quote: "We are the Phoenix. We are creatures of radical change."

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