Iowa native Phyllis Jordan moved to New Orleans in the 1970s and was immediately struck by the city’s swagger. Wanting to bring a fresh coffee experience to NOLA, she tapped into her entrepreneurial instincts and opened the first PJ’s Coffee & Tea Company in 1978.
The coffeehouse became known for its Southern hospitality, local roasting, and New Orleans charm. Internally, the brand boasts its understanding of “the soul of coffee,” a founding principle established by Jordan and her dedication to bringing others together through the increasingly popular drink.
Ballard Brands acquired the brand in 2008, acting as a vehicle for growth as the chain spread across 15 states and two international markets.
In 2023, PJ’s Coffee was featured on QSR’s top 50 contenders list, with U.S. systemwide sales of $56 million in 2022 and AUVs of $1.03 million for the 25 percent of drive-thru locations. Visits were up by 91.6 percent in November compared to 2019, marking a strong period of growth coming out of the pandemic.
“Consumers are trending more towards quick-service restaurants [because of economic conditions], and coffee shops absolutely fall into that bucket,” says David Mesa Jr, Ballard Brands chief development officer and head of franchising. “We’re feeling those impacts as consumers trend away from full-service locations that are out of their price point.”
Leveraging a drive-thru model and integrating an upgraded tech stack (including a new online ordering app) has helped better serve higher foot traffic and order volume. Mesa says the brand has leaned heavily on new technology in the past 24 months to streamline operations.
“[We’re focusing on] how the new tech stack integrates with our current tools,” Mesa says. “Early on, I felt like we got excited about different pieces of standalone technology, but then we realized the integration was not as beneficial as we thought. So, we have been regrouping and reimagining our layered tech stack.”
Moreover, throughout PJ’s 45-year history, Mesa says menu evolutions have been key to appealing to both national and international audiences.
“We feel as if we’re the soul of coffee, and we’ve continued this trend over the years, but we’ve had to put a modern twist on it and expand our beverage menu accordingly,” Mesa says.
New additions include frozen and blended options, seasonal flavor rotations, cold brews, and energy-boosting infusions. While the brand has been keeping an eye on revolving beverage trends, it is keen on staying connected to its roots as it opens locations further and further away from its home base.
“Even as we continue to expand, we realize our appeal is our connection to New Orleans,” Mesa says. “With as much competition as there is in the coffee space, our unique difference is that we truly bottled up the spirit of New Orleans and bring it across the globe.”
Mesa points to one menu item in particular drawing guests to the brand: freshly prepared beignets, a staple in the NOLA breakfast scene. It’s one way PJ’s is retaining its original identity as it continues to evolve, even during a transition to what Mesa describes as a period of hyper-growth.
PJ’s Coffee welcomed its 175th location in Pensacola, Florida, in August, marking a 100 percent growth rate as it doubled from 87 locations in under six years.
“We’re bullish in our growth, but we’re monitoring the balance of the structure that we have as a franchisor,” Mesa says. “We don’t want to grow too fast at the expense of the success of our franchisees.”
The brand is expanding its presence in Texas, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Georgia. While Mesa feels PJ’s is attractive across the U.S. from an appeal standpoint, he says strategic growth makes more sense across the Southeast.
“We’ve worked with our supply chain and distribution partners on a strategy that would allow us to be successful in delivering our goods and services to our franchisees, so we took the natural progression across the Southeastern quadrant,” Mesa says.
In 2023 alone, the brand has opened 27 units and anticipates over 40 openings throughout 2024. Through its turn-key franchise program, current trends project the chain to reach 375 units by 2027, with over 100 licenses currently in development.