Tradition Meets Technology: Using WooCommerce to Carry On the Family Business at Henry’s House of Coffee

By Ali Terkelsen on June 8, 2016 — 18 mins read

I’ll come right out and say it: coffee is life. It really is that important to (most of) the Prospress team. And at the same time, WooCommerce Subscriptions is pretty important to coffee.

But the relationship is actually even more symbiotic. Coffee is the magic that drives the Subscriptions code[base], and code is the magic that drives many coffee subscriptions. So at a micro level, this magic is mutually reinforcing.

This interview with Hrag from Henry’s House of Coffee demonstrates how the modern wizardry of WooCommerce is supporting the heritage, history, and family tradition in his coffee roasting company. With such a strong family background to the business, his experiences as an entrepreneur are perhaps slightly different from some of the startups we feature, but we discovered that the core motivations and his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs are pretty much the same.

We spoke just as Hrag was finishing up the last batch of roasting for the day, and right before he logged in to the WooCommerce store to prepare the orders.

Henry and Hrag (father and son) check the coffee roaster

Ali: Do you roast every day?
Hrag: We try to. Yeah, we don’t necessarily have to, but I think that my father’s philosophy is to make sure that everything is fresh. When you order through our website or through the phone, we’ll put the roasted-on date and it tends to be, usually, [the same day the order is received]. It makes sure that the coffee’s fresh and when the customer receives it; [then] it can stay fresher. Obviously, the purpose of all of that is so that it tastes good.

Ali: Sounds great! How do you source your beans?
Hrag: I would say 75% of where we get the coffee is from Central and South America and Africa. That’s [the case for] 90%-95% of coffee roasters. We do have some unique coffees from Thailand, from Jamaica, [where] we’ve had longstanding relationships with not only the brokers but in some cases the farmers or the mill. My dad’s been in the industry for so long that he just knows a lot of people, so it allows us to source coffee from all over the world.

Ali: That’s brilliant. I read on the website about the importance of the heritage of your business. How long has your dad been in the business?
Hrag: My dad purchased the business in 1983 in San Francisco, but he’s been involved in coffee per se since he was a child because my grandfather owned a bakery in Lebanon. In Lebanese culture, everything is surrounded by coffee. You have coffee in the morning, afternoon, lunch, dinner, it doesn’t matter. As part of the bakery, you would serve coffee, but you can imagine in 1945 there isn’t a local Costco or supermarket to go get coffee beans, you actually had to roast the coffee yourself.

As the business grew, my grandfather pulled my dad out of school a little bit earlier. Sometimes he wouldn’t go to school so that he could help with the family business. That was the custom back then.

My father’s job, part of one his jobs, I guess, was to learn how to roast the coffee so my grandfather could focus on the baking.

So you know, my dad’s been involved in it for a long time. He really didn’t truly get into the business until he moved to the United States and purchased the business in 1983. He’s been roasting since ’83, so 33 years now. The coffee roasting is in our blood.

Ali: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. It’s totally in your blood. I [sometimes] joke, when I haven’t had a coffee, [that] I have too much blood in my caffeine system.
Hrag: I like that, Ali. That’s good. I should use that.
Ali: Yeah, you really do have caffeine in your blood.
Hrag: Yeah, literally.

barrel of coffee beans

Ali: What does that mean for you, working in the business, the same industry as your grandfather and [in] the business that your father has built up?
Hrag: My perspective on that is that it’s not just about the coffee. It goes beyond the coffee. I’m trying to honour my dad, I’m trying to honour my grandfather, in everything that I do. There’s this additional drive, pressure, whatever you want to call it, to make sure that whatever I’m doing, whether it’s a new venture with online sales, whether it’s opening up a new store, whether it’s just talking with a customer, to make sure that they understand that when they’re doing business with us it’s more than coffee. It’s more about the family and the tradition with all the kids running around.

It’s a lot of work to not only own your business, but to have a family and take care of your children, provide for your family and all that, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a blessing.

Ali: Are [the children] interested in what you do at work?
Hrag: I think they’re more interested when they come inside and my dad gives them hot chocolate. It’s a good excuse for them to drink and eat sweets. I’m very sensitive to that, because I obviously grew up in the business and, as was tradition, my father would bring me in on the weekends to help him. I didn’t like it at all as a kid. I didn’t want to work. I wanted to play, I wanted to watch cartoons.

Having had that experience, with my own children, I don’t necessarily push them. I just like to introduce them to what it is that dad does, what grandpa does, let them make a decision on their own. At the same time, I guess, in the back of my mind I hope that maybe one of them – and I have a 33% chance – that one of them will really enjoy this business and take on that tradition of coffee roasting, but it’s not something that I push on them per se.

fresh coffee roasting, coffee beans spilling out of the roaster

Ali: It totally makes sense. It sounds like the expectation that they would take over could be off-putting for them, I guess.
Hrag: Yeah, Ali. It’s a new world. My father had the same method. His thought was, I want my children to get an education and I want them to have a really good life, and he valued education. It’s interesting, because the education that I did receive, and the life experiences that I did [have], helped me in this business right now.

With my own children, I want them to get an education. I’d love for them to go experience the corporate world or whatever it is that they want.

[So] I do recognize that it’s 2016 and people want to make decisions based on their own experiences and make decisions based on things that they enjoy, which is extremely important. I will support them as much as I can either way, whatever they decide.

Ali: That sounds like a very healthy way to approach it. I was interested in your perspective, because [it’s a problem for a lot of family-owned and run businesses], if there is such a long heritage, what happens with the next generation?
Hrag: It’s hard. The world of small business is a really difficult place right now. We’re interviewing about WooCommerce and Subscriptions because that is the future. The whole business of conducting products and services online is the future. It’s becoming more and more difficult to have a brick and mortar store.

The concept of having a brick and mortar store is getting more and more expensive, especially in a city like San Francisco. We have to make decisions financially, sometimes. With [it being] 2016 and the way that eCommerce has exploded, it’s something to take advantage of. It’s something to take notice [of] and make sure that you’re covering all your bases so that, in my case, this tradition of coffee continues and doesn’t just stop because we fail to take advantage of something that was coming up on the horizon.

burlap coffee bags

Ali: Exactly, one of my questions was particularly with respect to how eCommerce has allowed you to grow your business. I can also see what you’re saying. It might allow you to continue your business after brick and mortar, if brick and mortar became too expensive. It could actually contribute to the sustainability of your business.
Hrag: Exactly, yeah, we’re lucky that we have a product that we can ship, a product that can stay fresh in a bag for a couple months. It allows us to try that new business, that new channel.

[And] you hit the nail right on the head. As an owner of a business you’re always thinking about what’s next, what’s the vision, what’s the future. The brick and mortar is great right now, it continues to provide me financially and take care of me and my family, but I also notice that there’s going to come a time where you can only grow so much. The opportunity of eCommerce is massive. It’s a big ocean. I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t at least attempt to try to grow in that channel, and that’s what I’m doing with WooCommerce.

Ali: That’s awesome. Is it growing, the proportion of your business that you do online?
Hrag: Yeah, every year we’re growing. We just launched our new website back in June of 2015 using WordPress and WooCommerce. Up until then, our online sales were anaemic at best.

When I joined the business three years ago, one of my goals was obviously to revamp that channel. With the help of WordPress, and WooCommerce especially, the ability to create a website that is mobile-friendly, that only takes three clicks to check out, the option of storing account information, is a necessity. I wouldn’t even say it’s “great”: it’s a necessity nowadays, and it has allowed us to grow our business tremendously.

In 2015, we grew our online sales by 35% year over year, which is great. It’s something to be very proud of, but it’s also something that I need to continue to focus on and continue to grow, and I have some loftier goals this year, of course. With the WooCommerce Subscriptions option being one of them, I’m hoping that we can continue to see the large percentage growth year over year and hopefully that can be a channel that could also provide financially for not only me, but [also for] my future children.

Henry enjoying an espresso made with their own coffee

Ali: Exactly. That’s brilliant. Were you offering a subscription model before you took up WooCommerce?
Hrag: Not online. The website that we had was, not poorly designed, it wasn’t meant for eCommerce. The subscriptions that we did have were all done via the phone. The customer would call in and say, hey, I love Henry’s blend, can you just send it to me once a month? We’d have our own systems to track, and you can imagine working with my father, him being an old school guy, he had paper and pencil and that’s how he was tracking subscriptions. Me – coming from the corporate world – that would drive me crazy.

So, you know, we did it, it worked, we don’t have any issues, but it wasn’t scalable. It was difficult to manage. But with the new WooCommerce subscriptions platform, it’s so easy to use, it’s so easy to create, the customer can update their product, it’s scalable so that my employees don’t need to look up a piece of paper and figure out what coffees they’re sending. It just makes our lives a lot easier.

Ali: That’s really great to hear. Obviously, your customers have responded really well to this option that you’re offering, giving them the option for subscribing to your beans?
Hrag: Yeah, we had one specific type of subscription before the new version came out. It was called “Henry’s Choice” where we would send the customer a different type of coffee every month, like a coffee-of-the-month club, so to speak. Subscriptions wasn’t as robust to handle what I wanted to do, which was the other option, and the other was, a customer really likes the French Roast and they want just French Roast sent every month for the next six months or whatever that is.

That option didn’t work really well with the way that our website was set up. However, [when] version 2.0 came out, we just launched those [extra] subscription products. I haven’t marketed that or advertised it yet… but even without any advertising we’ve had customers sign up just by seeing it on our website, which tells me that they need it, they want it, and if I push it and I advertise it I’ll probably get a better result.

Henry and Hrag together

Ali: Yeah, exactly. They need it, they want it, and they’re looking for it. They’re finding it themselves.
Hrag: Absolutely. So, kudos to me for designing it well, if I’m going to pat myself on the back for that one, but also kudos to WooCommerce for always striving to make enhancements. [It] is what allows customers like me to not only use them but to tell my friends, family, and other business partners to use WooCommerce as well. They’re invested and so are we, and that’s a great partner to have.

Ali: Definitely. How did you choose WooCommerce from amongst the other platforms in that case?
Hrag: If I’m being quite honest, my web designer/developer, his name is Mike Sterner, he’s the guy that said, look, there’s a bunch of stuff, Magento or … all these other guys. He saw WordPress as the leader and he saw the advantage, [as they were] growing in popularity and coming up with all these plugins. I put my faith in him and never looked back. I’m glad we went with them.

Ali: That’s really great. It’s really, really good to hear. Do you put the products on the website yourself?
Hrag: Yeah, I’m fairly technical. I don’t know how to do any coding, but my developer’s been really good in showing me the basics and then I just take it from there and go with it. I was the one that uploaded the subscription products and the pictures and all that good stuff.

Ali: You’ve been able to figure out how to put those products in yourself, which is really why we do what we do, so that people like yourself, entrepreneurs, can take advantage of that technology and get your product out there.
Hrag: Absolutely. If I could hug those developers, I would, because they save us so much time and money. Putting in a subscription product with all the coding, all the thought behind this scenario versus that scenario, takes so much effort. To pay a developer, as a small business, [it’s] a lot of money to come up with a design and the back-end programming. What Subscriptions allows you to do is literally just click drop-down buttons and radio buttons. It’s like magic, the magic happens on the back.

It’s great to be able to use that because you get your product up and running so much faster, you know that it’s going to work, there’s not a lot of issues. It allows you to play with this eCommerce industry a lot faster and a lot easier and be a competitor with the big boys.

A bag of Henry's Armenian Coffee

Ali: There are a lot of coffee subscriptions in the world, particularly, I guess, in San Francisco. Where are your customers based and how do you compete with these big boys?
Hrag: Yeah, that’s a really good question. San Francisco, Portland, the Mecca of coffee, and here’s what I say.

At the end of the day, you have to have something unique that differentiates you from the rest. What I always focus on is: I’m a third generation coffee roaster in San Francisco. Nobody has that. You can have the same coffee from the same farm. You can have different roast profiles. You can have a cute story about how the coffee roasting business was started. You can do your latte arts, whatever the traditional or the trendy things are.

But I think we have something that is palatable, I think we have something that is timeless, and I have something that’s honourable in the sense that it’s a tradition, it’s a family-run tradition of roasting coffee. I always try to focus on that in everything that I do, as I mentioned. You’re not just sipping a cup of coffee, you’re entering a new family, so to speak. That’s my northern star. You have to have a good product, you have to have a good service like a WooCommerce to do the eCommerce and the purchasing.

But, I think the customer wants something more, something different, a unique story, and our unique story is that it’s a family-run business with three generations of coffee roasting. I truly think that that sets us apart. When a customer hears it, it sounds really unique and they tend to give us a try and the coffee speaks for itself.

Henry operating the coffee roasting machine

Ali: That’s great, you have the point of difference to attract the customers, and then once they try it then the coffee does the rest.
Hrag: Yeah, I think one thing that a lot of folks don’t do is a lot of what I call “retention tactics.” It takes a lot of time and money for that customer to buy your product, but if you don’t follow up, if you don’t send an email, a note, a phone call, whatever it may be, you just spent a lot of time for that one customer to buy and then they might not buy again.

Maybe your coffee’s great and they love it and they will, but you have to go beyond that, [which is] something that my father taught me when I first started here. You’ve got to reach out and ask them for advice, ask them for opinions, make another recommendation, and that shows that you’re different than the rest.

Ali: Really, [it’s about] getting that customer engagement with your product and with your business.
Hrag: Yeah, it’s like anything else, Ali. If you had a child and you wanted to send them out to a babysitter, you’re not just going to look at a resume and then send your child somewhere. You want to reach out, you want to call other contacts, you want to maybe test them out. Maybe, you put a video camera up, right? You do all the things that you do because you are so in love with your child that you want the best.

I treat it the same way. I’m so proud of what we do here. I’m so honoured that I get to carry on the tradition of my father and my grandfather that I want to reach out and I want to truly ask, “How was your experience? Did you enjoy the coffee? Was there something else I could recommend? Did you have any issues with the website?”

Just let them know that I’m not just here to sell you something. I’m here to be your coffee consultant and I want to make sure that you enjoy it for the rest of your life.

Ali: That’s really great; that personal experience. We really love hearing stories like this, and this is the kind of story that we like to feature, people doing well while doing good, having that real ethic about their business. [And you even] talked about having your North Star in what drives you. It’s really inspiring for us.
Hrag: Thanks, Ali. I think what you guys are doing is really great, too. Again, I think it shows that WooCommerce is not just in the business of selling you a service. They’re in the business of making sure our life [is] easier for eCommerce, I feel like that’s their business. Let’s make your life selling stuff online super-easy, whether that’s constantly having updates, [or] having a bunch of partners with plugins.

coffee beans cooling after roasting

Ali: Yeah, exactly. That’s where we’re at! I just have one final question and that is, do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs?
Hrag: Here’s what I would say. I came from the corporate world. I did corporate finance for ten years and then decided to join the family business. My word of advice for an entrepreneur is, if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, if you’re not 100% invested in the care and feeding of your product or service, then don’t do it.

Because, it’s a sacrifice, it’s a grind. You have highs and lows and it’s a struggle, but if you love it and you’re passionate about it, it doesn’t matter and you punch through the wall and you continue. If you’re having doubts, if you’re not truly invested, it’s okay. It’s okay to not do it and continue to do what it is that you’ve been doing, because it’s a sacrifice to be an entrepreneur, it truly is.

[And] if you’re not going to put every single ounce of blood, sweat, and tears into it, it’s okay sometimes to say, you know what, I don’t want to do it, and go back to whatever it was that you were doing. It’s not a bad thing, sometimes.

Conclusion

Well, advice doesn’t get much more straight up than that. If you aren’t prepared for the sacrifice, for the grind; if you aren’t truly invested, it’s ok to go back to (or stick with) whatever you were doing before. It was so inspiring to talk with Hrag about how the magic of technology and WooCommerce is helping him build a sustainable business, regardless of what happens in the brick and mortar space. I’m excited to see how these new processes will contribute to the continuation of their old family heritage, helping Hrag and his children to honour the legacy of their forebears. It’s a beautiful blend, one which Henry’s Coffee is roasting to perfection.

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