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Founders’ Friday: Michael Ripps, Jittery Joe’s

I had the opportunity to talk to Michael Ripps, the owner of Jittery Joe’s! Read on to learn more about Athens’s favorite coffee business.

RC: Tell me a little bit about your company.

MR: Jittery Joe’s Coffee was founded in Athens in 1994. The original Jittery Joe’s was on Washington St. right next to the 40 Watt Club. It was a 24 hour 7 day establishment ahead of its time. The coffee was roasted in-house. For several years there were different changes in ownership until the first store closed and a second one opened in Five Points. I invested in the company around 2006 with the idea to franchise the concept outside of Athens. The original roaster, Charlie Mustard, was still with the company as well. Jittery Joe’s had always been involved with cycling, so we sponsored a cycling team that gave us some good publicity. Since then we have grown the concept. Now we sell our coffee all over the country through our website, fifteen cafes in the southeast, as well as wholesale to companies like Fresh Market, Whole Foods, and Earth Fare. We are growing the brand beyond Athens but are still very much an Athens company. 

RC: What was your inspiration? 

MR: I had a technology background when I moved to Athens. My wife had gone to school at UGA, and our love for Athens made us pick this lifestyle. I started going to the Jittery Joe’s in Five Points, and I really liked the product. I met one of the owners and learned about an opportunity to invest in the company. I found that Jittery Joe’s was a scalable company in a fast-growing market. You had Starbucks and then everyone else, so there was a void of this concept in the southeast. I believed there were opportunities outside of Athens especially because of the cycling team and the “third wave” phenomena with people interested in the origins of their coffee and how it is prepared. I love challenges, and this was something new and unique. I pivoted from technology to coffee.

RC: What has been the biggest challenge so far?

MR: Moving into new markets and taking the company from a local brand to a regional or national brand is challenging with a commodity business. In Athens we are the local company; we are your “neighbor.” When you try to take that concept and relationship outside of Athens it becomes challenging because every city we try to move into has their own form of Jittery Joe’s. The company had to learn more about itself and how to best position itself in order to be competitive in those markets. We have never had problems losing customers; gaining new customers has been the challenge.

RC: What has been the best part of the process?

MR: I have a lot of access to coffee at any time of day. It really is a fun business in terms of sourcing the coffee, roasting the beans, and the connection people feel with our brand. It is exciting to be part of something that people form a relationship with; they want their coffee every day.  Figuring how to promote a fun brand like Jittery Joe’s as a retailer and wholesaler is challenging and exciting especially coming from a banking and internet background.

RC: Where does the name Jittery Joe’s come from?

MR: The original founder was watching a Simpsons parody of Thelma and Louise, a famous movie from the early 90s. In the episode there was a Jittery Joe’s coffee shop, and he realized that would be a great name for a coffee shop, so he trademarked the name.

RC: What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from your experience?

MR: We tried to grow the brand on the retail side during the economic downturn and were too optimistic.  Our internal systems and infrastructure were not where they needed to be to support that growth, so we had to reposition ourselves. We focused more on running a great wholesale company and opening more stores to support the growth. We learned our lesson trying to grow the brand in a rough economy.  

RC: What past experience do you think has helped with founding your own company?

MR: Before I became an owner of Jittery Joe’s, I had two very different jobs. One was with Wachovia as a corporate banker. It was a very risk-averse company at that time. I learned a lot about corporate structure and efficiently running and funding large stable companies. When I joined Lycos it was a startup internet company and a completely opposite environment. The business model was constantly changing, so I had to change my mind set on how to operate with risk.  Learning in that environment has helped immensely with Jittery Joe’s because there have been times when we have needed to change directions.

RC: Where do you hope to see your company a year from now?

MR: We hope to continue to grow and have several new initiatives in the pipeline as we try to differentiate ourselves from competition. We are looking for a flagship location in Atlanta which will help with our other lines of business. We are also revamping our website so that it will reflect more of an ecommerce platform to increase our revenue from online sales. Integrating technology and social media is also part of the plan to spread our brand beyond the southeast. Our wholesale business has been growing rapidly especially as we open more stores and more people learn about us as a desirable, popular brand.

RC: What advice would you give others wanting to start their own company?

MR: Do not be afraid of risk. There is always going to be somebody doubting what you plan to do. Be willing to take risk. If you have the opportunity whether in school, through an internship, or through a job, try to become an expert at something. Even if you are not an entrepreneur, the companies that succeed will need strong financial people and marketers. If you have the ambition to be associated with these companies and can bring your expertise as early as possible, you become very valuable.

RC: Has Athens played a part in the success of your company?

MR: It was driven very much by wanting to live in a great place and finding the opportunity here in Athens.

RC: What are you most proud of about your company?

MR: I’m proud that we haven’t strayed away from who we are: an Athens company with a grass roots following. We try to be true to ourselves in everything we do. Our marketing reflects this, and additionally we have the same people roasting our coffee since very early in our history. People seem to connect to the brand, and we don’t want to lose that no matter how big we get. I am also proud of the fact that we have been able to grow the company outside of Athens while still letting people know we are an Athens company. We say we are “exporting Athens” when we sell people our coffee. My wife and I were in Arizona when a cyclist came by wearing a Jittery cycling kit.  I was proud to see the Jittery Joe’s brand when we were far from Athens.

RC: What is the difference between starting a technology company vs. a restaurant business?

MR: Tech businesses are many times built around a new technology or idea; the founder is trying to build a business around this idea. It is something that can potentially scale quickly, which can make basic decisions such as capitalization more difficult. A traditional business like ours can still grow fast, but it is probably more methodical. With technology companies, I think it is harder to gauge what the opportunities are since it may be a new concept or something that has the potential to significantly change a business or industry. With a coffee company, there are data and analytics which can help provide a more traditional roadmap relative to geographic markets, valuation, and funding. It is also probably easier to value and capitalize a traditional food and beverage company. However, both are businesses that need to be run well and have the right people to run them.

RC: Is there anything else you would like to tell readers about your startup?

MR: We are going to be collaborating with David Barbie from the UGA music program to produce a coffee line that will feature a new band each quarter. It is a way to talk about Athens’ past music history and promote its future, which is very bright. The first band we are going to work with are the Futurebirds. They are from Athens and doing very well. We will also be releasing our Jittery Joe’s version of K-Cups in the late fall.

RC: How often do you drink Jittery Joe’s coffee?

MR: I have two cups in the morning and one in the afternoon typically. It’s not always Jittery Joe’s especially when I travel. I try to sample different types of coffees and cafes when I travel. I love trying competitor’s coffee, but I do miss Jittery Joe’s when I haven’t had it in a while.

Rhea Chatterjee
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