More coffee with a conscience – Bridgehead opens 10th location

Signage and store design nicely blend warm colours with very contemporary elements. The stores fit equally well into old stone heritage buildings or brand new condo buildings (as here).
Signage and store design nicely blend warm colours with very contemporary elements. The stores fit equally well into old stone heritage buildings or brand new condo buildings (as here).

My favourite coffeeshop brand Bridgehead has just opened a shiny, fragrant new 10th location a short walk from my house. And boy am I excited!

And they’ve done it in bold style – located right across the street from a Starbucks, and just 500 metres West of another Bridgehead in the Westboro area of Ottawa. And I managed to both 1) get a pre-opening tour from store manager Mia and chain co-owner Tracey Clarke, and 2) score the first cup of coffee sold to the public on Friday morning. 

Okay so we’ve established that I’m kind of a fan-boy for Bridgehead. But as a brand strategy guy, I also think there’s a lot brand managers can learn from their success.

Top ten brand lessons to learn from Bridgehead:

Coffeeshop manager Mia Eriksson and Bridgehead chain owner Tracey Clarke
Coffeeshop manager Mia Eriksson and Bridgehead chain owner and local brand hero Tracey Clarke.
  1. Great product consistently delivered – yes the coffee is fairly traded, organic, and shade grown, but Bridgehead puts great care into the quality, variety, and freshness of the product. The rest of my top ten list would matter not a bit if the beverages, treats, and lunch items weren’t top notch. But they are.

2. Great cause with personal passion – Tracey Clarke got into the coffee business after visiting Central America in the 80’s and realizing that the local people were producing incredible coffee, but they couldn’t get any of it because of a) export monopolies, b) prohibitive prices, and c) shamefully low prices for their beans.

So she and a partner bought the original Bridgehead brand from a well-meaning charity that was way over its head trying to run even one  retail store. Then they turned it around, and within a few short years built Bridgehead into the quality coffee brand in Ottawa.

3. Local ownership – I’m an Ottawa boy; they are an Ottawa-based chain, so the dollars you spend here go right back into the Ottawa economy… as opposed to Seattle for example. All good. We need more like this!

4. Committed to walkable urban neighbourhoods – despite the obvious pull from suburban areas, the chain has continued to place new stores in traditional main-street areas throughout Ottawa. And as one of the founders of the Wellington West BIA, I can tell you they have been very supportive and active in street-level retail initatives and issues.

5. Really nice people – the founders are level-headed, approachable folks, and their approach has attracted strong staff in the stores. Employees tend to be older, better educated, and “hipper” than in the other shops around town.

Here's me at the new Bridgehead withthe first cup of coffee served to an outsider and the all-important first Internet ticket.
Here’s me with that first cup of coffee – and the receipt to prove it.

6. Great spaces – real attention to the usability of space. Nice blend of lounging, working, and conversation spaces, Bridgehead has been refining the blend with each new store they build, creating a noticeably more “human” place than the average Starbucks or Second Cup.

7. Family friendly – because of the demographics of many of their host neighbourhoods (and the fact that most of  the management have young children), they’ve proven much more open to non-coffee drinkers in the stroller set, plus toddlers and school-aged children. Creates a lot of noise at times, but on the weekends, my kids love to visit.

8. Business-friendly – after some wrestling over the prevalence of laptop “campers” in some early stores, Bridgehead has struck a nice balance between providing “third spaces” for professionals like me to plug in, meet with a colleague or client, and enjoy free WiFi, but with a one-hour limit.

9. Strong retail branding – their online and social-networking presence could use some definite work, but in terms of creating a brand experience outside and inside their stores, they are hard to beat. This is due to the active involvement of the founders in every aspect of store design, so it will inevitably become increasingly challenging to sustain as they grow further without more formal “policy” work. But the fundamentals are very strong.

10. NO ADVERTISING(!) – this may sound strange on a “branding” blog, but remember this site is about brand strategy, not advertising, so I don’t make my money from media buys or column inches purchased. Bridgehead has managed to accomplish all of the above without spending a penny on traditional advertising. Again, this may have to change as they grow, but by reaching out through social-justice oriented circles, supporting like-minded causes, lots of “in-kind” community contributions, and to reiterate, being incredibly smart about their product and retail fundamentals,  they have succeeded by DIFFERING not by TELLING people they were different.

7 thoughts on “More coffee with a conscience – Bridgehead opens 10th location”

  1. I was here first thing Saturday morning for some good Syneso espresso! Very happy that they’ve opened the Golden location.

    My understanding is that because Clover is owned by Starbucks, Starbucks won’t be doing maintenance on any Clover machines that aren’t Starbucks-owned, which could create trouble down the road for Bridgehead.

    I certainly think that their choice not to do traditional advertising is important, but they should also be applauded for taking post-industrial ways of marketing, such as their presence at local events.

    Finally, my one hope for BH is that they recognize the potential for hitting a critical mass. I imagine that the new store won’t take away a tonne of business from the Richmond and Wellington stores, and I understand their desire to operate in an urban area, but there is also a dearth of quality coffee shops in old suburban Ottawa that Bridgehead has thusfar not spoken to. (Wow, that was a run on sentence if I ever saw one).

    For transparency’s sake, I play ultimate with a BH manager and their operations/utilities manager, and was *very briefly* employed by BH (ie. I have had training on some of their policies and brand strategies).

  2. Oh, right. We’re looking for full disclosure / transparency / potential conflicts of interest / etc.?

    Okay, for my part, I’m long-time friends with Mia Eriksson, and once spent a whole afternoon with Tracey at City Hall heckling city council over parking meters.

    Oh, and they gave me a test espresso this morning. Is that “Influence Peddling”?

    1. Your comment about Clover reminded me of another thing that Bridgehead does well– they appreciate their clients in a variety of ways without ever making them feel overwhelmed. It’s sort of filed under “no-advertising” strategy
      as well as “really nice people”, but the one word I would use to describe their brand is “genuine”.

  3. Great post – I would add one thing item – Bridgehead clearly gives store managers authority to respond to local customer needs w/out muddying the overall brand; it’s a fine balance but they strike it well.

    An appeal, Dennis — now that Westboro has two locations and Wellington Village has one, would you think about you using your “special access” to bend an ear or two re setting up a Hintonburg location?

    I think the demographics are there; in fact,in our book club there are people from Sherwood Drive that walk down Fairmont to use Wellington street shops and services – that suggests the catchment area for Wellington in H’burg might be bigger (and more affluent) than it looks.

    Have to think that BH is now considered a flagship store, too, and would create its own street traffic, to the benefit of the whole strip.

  4. Re. Manager empowerment: smart people + respect = smart decisions / strong brands. Good lesson.

    Re. Hintonburg: of course I have no *real* influence beyond my general golly-gee-whiz enthusiasm (hyuck hyuck), but I’d vote for that as well. Heck then I’d have FOUR within a short walk of home!

    1. Rumor has it ( that they are planning for an eventual store in H-burg.

      I’m always glad to see them succeed and expand, and I like that they are urban friendly in a city whose suburbs know no bounds. I merely wish that they would help encourage urbanity in parts of old suburbia in the same way that they’ve succeeded in the city core.

  5. Hi Dennis –

    Disclosure: I am friends with one Bridgehead staffer (HQ, rather than front line) and have some friends in common with Tracey. In addition, I am enough of a Bridgehead fangirl that I am recognized and howdy’d by Mia and a few other staffers. And I have a coffee card. And I was at the new location this morning. 🙂

    I agree that Bridgehead should be doing more with Social Media. I think they should at least be setting up a “listening station” for social media mentions of Bridgehead and competing brands (locally, in any case). I think if they listen for a while, it may become clear that there are ways they can get involved in the conversation, including reaching out with special offers for loyal customers. They have the opportunity to create an (even more) rapid fan base. Think Apple!

    Also, FYI, Mark Evans had a good post this morning on customer service and Twitter. I agree with his premise that any consumer brand should look at some examples of customer service done right via Twitter. He points to a couple of examples.

    Great post. Loving the new blog.

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