Darren Spicer fell in love with drive-thru coffee while he worked in high school and college—the interactions and people drew him in.
But a barista position wasn't waiting for him when he graduated. Instead, it was a job in medical device sales, and a successful one at that. But the allure of the quick-service coffee segment remained firmly in the back of Spicer's head, and he had to explore it. So while keeping his full-time job, he helped manage a Dutch Bros location in California. He was part of a 12-month program to become a franchisee, but several months into it, the coffee chain decided to longer franchise in favor of company-owned operations.
The dream didn't die there, however. Spicer, fully committing to his coffee drive-thru ideals, left his medical device sales career and took an 80 percent pay cut to start what would eventually become Clutch Coffee Bar, along with two other co-founders. It took about a year and a half to get everything organized, but the first shop opened in March 2018, in Mooresville, North Carolina, a town about 35 minutes north of Charlotte.
Spicer grew up on the West Coast, but his medical sales career made him aware of just how ripe Southeastern markets are for drive-thru coffee expansion.
"So in the Northwest, at least where I grew up, drive-thru coffee is literally on every other corner," Spicer says. "It's just crazy and that hasn't hit yet on the East Coast. It's happening. But it just hasn't gotten to that spot. So we saw an opportunity of like, ‘OK, we know we can give Starbucks and Dunkin’ a really good run for their money.’ The analogy I use is when you got your first smartphone you didn't know you needed it until you got it.”
After being open for five years, Clutch Coffee sits at seven locations in the Carolinas and hopes to reach the 30-unit mark within the next 18 months. Amid a saturating category, Spicer says the brand tries to stand out by putting a supreme focus on customer service. The phrase that he implores to employees is, "We exist to serve positive energy." That's true in the music it plays while guests wait for their orders and the conversations workers have with customers.
Similar to Chick-fil-A, Clutch Coffee uses runners to take orders in place of a drive-thru speaker box. It's different in the sense that they don't wait for the cars to come to them. The outside employees work down the line to take orders sooner. Spicer says it's not uncommon for runners to be 10 cars back during peak morning times. The co-founder adds that the model serves as a good distinction between Clutch Coffee and big-time competitors Starbucks and Dunkin'.
"That's the other part of the limitation I think is that most [quick-service chains], the speaker box generally is like three to five cars back," Spicer says. "And so that can be limiting to a certain degree. And so we really like the fact that we can work down the line and greet you sooner to let you know that you are a priority and that we can get working on your order."
The menu is important for differentiation as well. Clutch Coffee works with an award-winning roaster out of Seattle, and in addition to java, the brand offers milkshakes, iced teas, refreshers and fruit juices, Italian sodas, energy drinks, and more.
"Hopefully there's something for everybody," Spicer says. "It's a very wide range of offerings."
Clutch Coffee began 2023 with five shops, and it is aiming for 10 stores by the end of the year. It will then go from 10 to 20 in 2024. Spicer expresses confidence in this growth plan because of the chain's relationship with a preferred developer partner that is buying dirt and delivering turnkey drive-thru-only buildings that are just under 1,000 square feet. The company has finalized its entire 2024 pipeline and is currently working through 2025, putting the brand further ahead in its development timeline than ever.
The main focuses are the Carolinas and Georgia and then fortressing those markets with at least five shops. For now, Clutch Coffee will remain company-owned. With that said, the chain has received a lot of franchising inquiries, and it's had in-depth conversations with certain parties interested in investing and growing the brand.
"I think what we're very mindful of is, if and when we ever entertain that, we have to do that 1,000 percent, right?" Spicer says. "Because there's a lot of components and there's a lot of responsibility that comes with that. So for right now, the focus is on opening company-owned stores. Franchising is not an absolute 'no' in the future, it's just currently not part of the strategy that we're undertaking at the exact moment."
The co-founder views the current development strategy as a more repeatable and affordable process than Clutch Coffee's first two stores, which were renovations of The Human Bean. The two are about 500 square feet and earn $1.6 million per year, but storage is a challenge. With the new buildings, there's enough space so that stores can hold enough supplies for once-per-week deliveries instead of multiple times. The prototypes also aren't too wide so that employees don't have to walk far from station to station. One location in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is an endcap with a walk-in lobby, but that is the exception. The majority of future stores will focus on the drive-thru-only, walk-up window model with a patio for people to congregate.
Above all else, people will be the true unlock for Clutch Coffee, Spicer says.
"The biggest thing we really try to teach our employees is not to be any one thing that the brand wants them to be," Spicer says. "It’s to be themselves and to have genuine interactions with people because I really do think that the relationships you have with customers are the foundation for growing that business. So that's one thing that we just focus immensely on is, what does that experience look like for a customer? And really that experience is from the moment you step foot on a location."