Five years ago, the indoor mall was declared endangered; the demise of Sears at Chapel Hills Mall seemed to fit a national trend. But Sears is being replaced with a planned 300-unit luxury apartment complex, and malls are starting to see a more eclectic and well-heeled customer base.
Zakiya and Russell Moss of Drip Queen Coffee are hoping their move from a 100-square-foot tent at vendor fairs, to choice real estate just outside the ground-floor entrance to Dillard’s, is right on time.
The couple are recently retired from professional and military careers; Zakiya as a nurse practitioner, and Russell from a position with the 10th Force Support Squadron at the Air Force Academy. They’ve launched businesses before, but for Drip Queen they decided not to seek angel investors or small-business loans — they self-financed all the way.
Drip Queen made the leap to leased space at Chapel Hills on Sept. 1, despite some trepidation that mall traffic might be unpredictable even after the luxury apartments open. Drip Queen Coffee had committed customers from its first weeks in business, many of whom are teenagers or young adults. And mall employees represent a unique clientele — Drip Queen delivers to specific departments in the big box stores.
The shop focuses on flavored drips, as well as a blend called Purple Slipper infused with 10mg of CBD oil. The 1,700-square-foot location was a former gallery, with nooks and twisting halls; purples and silvers combined with low light give the coffee shop a boutique feel. Zakiya Moss talked with the Business Journal about diving into business during a pandemic, and standing out from the coffee crowd.
When did you first think of being a barista?
Way back when, I had a little experience working in food chains, so I had a general idea of what it might take. Russell has a bachelor’s in business with organizational management expertise. We’ve always wanted to be small business owners — it’s just a matter of finding the right niche. I’ve never wanted to be a military spouse who didn’t have her own thing going, so I went through the rounds of Pampered Chef, Mary Kay, but when the pandemic was coming — just as my husband was about to retire — it increased the importance of the issue. Thank God he made the seamless shift from military to civilian life before we went into a complete lockdown. Six months before the lockdown, we had been tapped to go to Italy, so we would have been right at the epicenter of the first wave of COVID.
As deployments fell apart and his retirement was going through, we looked at each other and said, ‘We need to do something different.’ My paramedic position made me comfortable with being in a leadership position, and my husband already was an entrepreneur of sorts. The notion was to think of a coffee shop as a safe space to get away from all the troubles of 2020. It seemed like the world was freaking out, with everyone high strung all the time, so we wanted to offer a getaway. That meant from the beginning, we wanted a true coffee shop — not just a traveling tent or truck. Conceiving of this place as a sanctuary was very important. Quite honestly, if wars can be started with words, why can’t peace? We just need to sit down and hear each other, and if you can do it over a cup of Drip Queen CBD Purple Slipper, then I’ve done my job. We are both big mental health advocates here. My paramedic years convinced me that no one is immune from depression and anxiety. We want to connect with every customer, to provide safety.
How much of the business plan depended on differentiators, so that you weren’t simply one more coffee shop?
We knew that coming out of the box, we had to be different. We wanted to launch with truly biodegradable, disposable cups. These have a unique top, like a carton, no plastic lid. Of course, we had no studies to prove this was the most biodegradable style, so we had to test-market everything as we want along. ... You quickly learn what works and what doesn’t.
But even as you planned differentiators, you no doubt knew most coffee chains could be pretty predatory?
We wanted to disrupt the chain a little bit. A small player can’t have huge impacts on the whole industry, but providing an alternative is important. For example, coffee shops most often are known for drabness. We go for a bigger experience. And the products we sell here, they’re all from small businesses. Pinky Up, that’s a women-owned business whose products we sell, and as a woman, I’m excited about the women’s brand and label. We want all our partners to stand for something, even the bigger brands. If it doesn’t align with our brand and our beliefs, I don’t care if it’s popular, I won’t stock it.
With our coffee, we drip a whole cup, we don’t give you an espresso shot. And we’re committed to non-dairy in our menu. We have half &half options, but when we make a mixed specialty drink, we use non-dairy alternatives to milk. Protein products from animals don’t sit on the stomach so well. And if you give someone a taste of something and they don’t know what it is, they might just enjoy it. The decision to offer a CBD-infused special was based on my own experience with using CBD. It proved to be a good differentiator. Most people don’t need to be told about its benefits. The Purple Slipper has been popular from our first day in business.
The 300-unit complex at the Sears location was announced before you moved in. Did you see that as indicative of a changing mall environment?
The younger teenagers and young adults are the ones who are bringing the malls back, and they are the ones who are leaving us reviews. We try to be active in responses to all our social media, though we do draw the line at TikTok dancing. So far, indoor malls seem to be on an upswing again, not dying off. Now, to be sure, there are some Tuesdays or Wednesdays where we might say, ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’ with sales of less than $100, but there are plenty of weekend days to make up for that. Both of us use the analogy from our previous jobs and life experience, that whenever everyone runs out, we run in. I always told my adult children to save for a rainy day, and when COVID hit, I said, ‘Remember that rainy-day fund?
Well, it’s raining!’ We took that rainy-day fund, we took our good credit, and invested everything we had. We dove feet first, and did it all with no loans. No outside investors, no COVID-related federal loans. My mother, bless her heart, has been our only partner. It’s not that we never tried, but with many of the loan programs, you practically have to put up $100,000 to get $100,000. We prepared everything up front, trademarking, branding, being the little engine that could, ready to give the big bear a poke. We incorporated March 1, but we’ve only had a storefront since Labor Day, so it’s all in its infancy.
The return of drip and pour-over has been a refreshing nostalgic shift in coffee.
We are definitely catching something at the right moment. The drip coffee, the art and the environment — we bring people in, and we try to make everyone feel noticed and important. You may come for the wild factor, but you’ll stay because we want you to be a return customer. We’re about one-in-three returning customers right now. We’ve seen new clientele pick up over the last month. But this mall will have to come back a lot, for Dillard’s and for the little stores, for our store to benefit. We’re going to stick with it, but this mall has to prove itself as the local economy comes out of pandemic.
With COVID, it seems you launched late enough to avoid being among the businesses that fell off the cliff in the first half of 2020.
Here’s the thing: We have a company, Moss Company, and we tried our hand at podcasting. When we were thinking about opening Drip Queen, we visited 24 other restaurants in Colorado Springs, and interviewed the owners on our podcast. We were able to get a feel of the market that way. We did a lot of practical recon, not knowing we would be launching our coffee shop so soon. Face it, podcasting is hard. We got to about 28 episodes and the interest began to trail off. But at least it gave us the advantage of listening to entrepreneurs and understanding their struggles. It allowed us to bypass a lot of pitfalls related to opening in a partially-closed market. And these entrepreneurs’ stories are still up on YouTube right now.
Does the Springs offer a good climate for entrepreneurs to talk to each other about starting new businesses?
Yes, provided you’re willing to listen. If you expect to learn, you must be willing to help and willing to listen. Remember that your mistakes are your own, and if you want to create a unique niche, you have to sometimes fail a little in execution. With the products we stock, we tell people we have a little bit of a lot of good products, so if you see something, grab it while it’s here. The awareness that there’s a little bit of scarcity is part of the appeal. Customers love it when I find new things like espresso peanut butter. But when scarcity runs into all these new supply chain issues, you solve it by planning your inventory months in advance — I mean several months. Get your Christmas candy planned in June. We also have a bit more economic cushion through our military pensions. A lot of people can’t have that margin of failure. We’ve come this far with no investors, so imagine if we got a loan — maybe expand this location, maybe look for a different or additional location.
What advice would you give the retail startup trying to make it during COVID?
First, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Diversify. You cannot do everything, but when you partner, plan for a variety of suppliers. Something that’s big for us is professional roasters, obviously. We don’t say specifically where our beans are roasted, but we work with a variety of roasters. That kind of thing applies to any business: Diversify the portfolio of vendors. And second, don’t wait for the ideal right time. Just do it. There is no perfect or optimal condition. We had to change our mix of flavor supply in real-time during our first weeks, for example. The idea with going drip and mixing flavors before offering drinks based on special equipment like milk steamers, is that we want to focus on drinks people could make at home. And we wanted to demystify the language of sizing — small, medium or large. There’s no ‘venti’ here.
Any anticipation of boom times?
We keep things in perspective. If we can reach breakeven in the first year, fine. The saying of ‘build your boat now’ means that we stick to long-term plans and are ready to execute. ... We are planning for special summer items now, so that should tell you we’re in this for the long haul.