Supplying coffee breaks in San Diego

By Sally M. Snell

Coffee Ambassador, founded in 1969 by Bill and Veronica Curtis in their Pacific Beach, Calif., home, now provides more than 250,000 cups of coffee a day to offices in San Diego County. CEO Sean Curtis, Bill and Veronica's son, describes the company in its early days as "a bootstrap out-of-the-garage startup."

Bill "had gotten ahold of some surplus coffee machines, and he went out and started selling them business-to-business," explains Sean, 57. "Then the businesses started calling him back, saying, 'Hey, we've got the coffee machine, but we could use coffee.' " Sunday evenings were spent loading the family station wagon with coffee for delivery rounds the next morning, Sean recalls. He and his sister, Barbara, helped out as children by packaging stirrers.

The family soon expanded their offerings to include break-room refreshment items as well as coffee. "By 1975 we really started taking off," Sean says. Eventually, Coffee Ambassador opened locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In the 1990s, Coffee Ambassador formed a distribution relationship with Starbucks. Sean calls the rise of the now-ubiquitous brand "one of the best things that happened to our industry and our business, because it educated the consumer's palate to the potential for a better cup of coffee."

Sean joined the business full-time in 1980. His sister, Barbara Curtis Smalley, 52, the company president, joined in 1987, two years after Bill passed away. That was a critical time in Coffee Ambassador's history, the siblings say. "We figured out what we wanted to do and we finally grew up, and we made the decision to divest ourselves of those other offices and focus on becoming the best office coffee service in San Diego," says Sean.

In the late '90s, the company introduced Flavia single-serve coffee systems. "We had a colleague in New York that had taken it on, but no one in San Diego really wanted to take a chance on it," says Sean. "But Barb and I looked at it and we evaluated it, and we just thought it was such an interesting opportunity." The move proved to be smart. "Besides Starbucks I'd say it's been our most successful product line extension," Sean says.

Approximately six years ago they were approached by Peet's Coffee & Tea, a roaster from the San Francisco Bay area. "They have a very loyal following," says Barb. "We really like partnering with them because they roast to order for us, so it's really fresh." The siblings say they also like the company's focus on sustainability.

Coffee Ambassador sends new hires to San Francisco to tour Peet's facility. Sean says the company also presents other educational events to the staff. "We try to make it fun," he says.

After a flood in December 2010, Coffee Ambassador moved to a new facility that is higher in elevation. The new layout allowed the family to open a coffee showroom about three years ago. "Customers or prospective customers can come in, taste different coffees, take a look at the different types of brewing equipment and really just educate themselves in kind of a fun way," Sean says.

Barb focuses on operations, and Sean handles marketing. "I'm really good with the details," Barb says. "He likes to do the big-picture marketing, and I like the behind-the-scenes operations."

Barb attributes their success to their team of 25 employees. "They know the customer," she says. "And we're locally owned and operated, so we can make quick decisions right here in San Diego on how best to service our customers."

"Our goal is to create great-tasting moments in offices," says Sean. "It's great when people gather around the coffee machine and ideas are exchanged. It builds morale and camaraderie." 

Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Lawrence, Kan.

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March/April 2015