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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 4 years ago

Island roast

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Bennett's Fresh Roast spent $3 million to open a coffee and doughnut shop on Sanibel Island. That's a lot of beans.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Bob Grissinger and Frank Albano plan to sell a lot of doughnuts and coffee on Sanibel Island.

They and a group of investors spent $3 million on a plan to turn a 50-seat coffee shop on the barrier island in Lee County into a must-visit destination for tourists and residents.

“I've always felt our business model fit into a resort community,” says Grissinger, a former radio disc jockey who opened the first Bennett's Fresh Roast in Fort Myers in 2008. He says people always have fond memories of a favorite sweets shop on vacation.

The Fort Myers store, which has five fewer seats than the new shop on Sanibel, posts annual sales close to $1 million, Grissinger says. The Sanibel shop could generate $1.3 million to $1.4 million in the first year and could reach $2 million in sales annually, he says.

Already, the Fort Myers store has developed a cult-like following since it opened in February 2008, drawing people from as far as Sanibel. Now Bennett's roasts nearly 800 pounds of coffee per month and fries 15,000 doughnuts a month in Fort Myers.

Grissinger, who was known as disc jockey C. David Bennett before he left radio in 2006, capitalized on his local-celebrity status when he opened the Fort Myers coffee shop despite the recession. While customers were cutting back on expenses, they still had money for coffee and doughnuts. “It's one of life's little guilty pleasures,” Grissinger says. “The shop was in profit in five months.”

Interestingly, a Starbucks shop opened nearby at the same time, but Grissinger says he wasn't worried because research showed that coffee shops near Starbucks actually do better. “People generally like to support local businesses,” he says, noting that the Starbucks has since closed. “You don't see the CEO of Starbucks sitting in the store.”

Besides roasting his own coffee beans, Grissinger publicized his unusual doughnut flavors such as maple bacon. He hired public relations professional Melinda Isley to generate publicity, including giving the customer who bought the millionth doughnut free coffee and doughnuts for life in 2012. He spends “several thousand” dollars a year promoting the business with Google and other online media to target smartphone-toting visitors, too.

As the shop's reputation grew, people started coming from as far away as Sanibel, a 20-mile drive. “I had people say to me: I want a Bennett's on Sanibel,” says Grissinger.

Sanibel has no shortage of coffee purveyors, including the Sanibel Bean, the Sanibel Deli & Coffee Factory and the Coffee Bar at Bailey's. But Grissinger shrugs off the competition. “There's plenty of room,” he says. “We roast our own coffee. It makes us a little different.”

Preparing food from scratch and roasting your own coffee beans also provides healthier profit margins. Grissinger says the retail prices for coffee, doughnuts and lunch items such as sandwiches won't be marked up at the Sanibel shop just because of its location. “It's the honest way to do it,” he says.

Bennett's doesn't deliver or cater events, in part because he doesn't have to. “I don't take my business outside my store,” Grissinger says.

Still, building the Sanibel shop cost three times what Grissinger and his partners spent on the Fort Myers shop. They acquired a parcel of land and an obsolescent building on the island's main street, Periwinkle Way, for $1.1 million in May 2012. It's a prime piece of real estate next door to a popular restaurant called the Lazy Flamingo near the foot of the bridge that leads onto the island.

In addition, the building had to be gutted and refurbished with new equipment. Because it was zoned for office, the city of Sanibel required Bennett's to make adjustments for parking for 40 cars and water drainage. “We had a lot of landscaping to do,” says Grissinger. “Close to six figures.”

Sanibel has a reputation for being a difficult place to obtain permits for construction and development, but Grissinger says the city was supportive. “I don't think it took any longer than our store did in Fort Myers,” he says.

Of the 16 people he plans to have on staff at the island shop, he's already hired six island residents. “We held a three-day job fair,” Grissinger says, acknowledging that he has to pay higher wages than in Fort Myers because of the commute and the island's $6 bridge toll.

Grissinger isn't worried about the seasonal nature of tourism business on Sanibel. He expects business to dip 30% at most during the slower parts of the year, the same as it does in Fort Myers. Summer holidays have been busy in recent years, with U.S. and European visitors increasingly making their way to Sanibel.

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