Watermelons, Chuck Taylors, And How Caribou Coffee Encourages A Culture Of Innovation

At Caribou Coffee, a company known for its arms-wide-open culture, CEO Mike Tattersfield lives by the mantra "listening, developing, recognizing" when it comes to employees. Unconventional tools to that end? Watermelons and Chuck Taylors.

To understand how a company known for its arms-wide-open culture manages to sustain it, look no further than the corner office at Caribou Coffee. 

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There you’ll find Mike Tattersfield--at a desk that doubles as a foosball table--surrounded by action shots of his employees’ feet, clad in customized Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers (more on that later). “It’s a conversation starter,” admits Tattersfield with a hearty laugh, but the photos represent his larger vision for the company: “Listening, developing, recognizing,” and a cornerstone for its innovation process.

As the second largest company-owned coffeehouse operator in the U.S., Tattersfield says the philosophy’s infused at ground level, that is, starting in Caribou’s 585 locations in 21 states and 9 international locations. The atmosphere is casual and has the kind of community vibe more often found at independent shops, he explains. Tattersfield touts the vision as encouraging a strong bond with the customer. Don’t be surprised, he says, if you drive up to the window and the barista asks you to sing the next verse of a song on the radio to get a cup on the house. 

“We try to have measurable connection at the store level,” says Tattersfield. That means cafe staff is charged with coming up with games and having fun. “It breaks down barriers and creates a great story line,” he maintains, all while fostering the neighborly feeling that makes customers want to keep coming back. 

At the corporate level, Tattersfield mined his own career to come up with a way to recognize and reward talent. Growing up in Mexico City with an entrepreneurial father led Tattersfield to his first job. In a venture supplying potatoes to Frito Lay, 13-year old Tattersfield was tasked with unloading sacks of potatoes that weighed almost as much as he did. Besides being an opportunity to build muscle, Tattersfield learned a lesson he’s used throughout his career. “It reminds me to appreciate every role in the organization,” he says.

It’s one thing to appreciate, says Tattersfield, it’s another to take the time to say thank you and call out contributions company-wide. To do this he adapted a formal awards initiative from former employer YUM! Brands where he spent 13 years in operations, finance, branding and franchise leadership. 

Instead of handing over a plaque or gift certificate at an awards banquet (although he’s been known to hold court at the latter wearing a superhero cape), Tattersfield played to Caribou’s quirks and designated that a watermelon would serve as the trophy (known in company parlance as a "Melonhead."). “It’s pretty intuitive,” he explains, “You get it for using your melon, be it for hitting a personal goal or one for the company.” On the practical side, “You can buy watermelons anywhere,” maintains Tattersfield, which helps when awarding outstanding achievement in other parts of the world. “Although when you give someone in the Middle East a melon, you get some pretty interesting reactions,” he says, “But they get the spirit of the award."

Unfortunately, watermelons don’t have the display potential of an engraved lucite sculpture, so Tattersfield also offers winners an opportunity to create their own customized Chucks, which he then inscribes with a personal note of thanks. “All I ask is that they send me a photo of themselves wearing the sneakers in action, wherever and doing whatever that might be,” he says.

For a company solidly in the number two spot behind Starbucks, the incentive has been worth its weight in melons, er, building brand awareness and creating new products. 

Amy Felkner, senior category manager of beverage and beans, was nominated for leading Caribou’s largest beverage launch into sparkling teas and juices, while Caribou’s director of brand communications Sarah Townes got a melon for taking the company’s annual Amy’s Blend campaign to a national level. 

As part of the company’s 17-year program to celebrate Amy Erickson, one of Caribou’s original roastmasters, and raise awareness and funds for breast-cancer charities, Townes created Amy’s Garden. More than 12,500 square feet were planted with 80,000 Amy’s Hope Tulips at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and Brookside Gardens in Washington, D.C. 

Locally, a Sioux City, Iowa store manager Beth Woldt, was rewarded for creating a quilt based using old Amy’s Blend t-shirts, ribbon and coffee fabrics and a self-made piece to present to Amy’s family.

Tattersfield says these concepts are exactly what will help the company gain market share, which currently stands at about 1% internationally. Caribou just opened it’s 100th overseas location in Istanbul last month. Stateside, with 585 coffeehouses against Starbucks' 10,000 plus and Dunkin’ Donuts 7,000, Tattersfield insists he’s more focused on creating growth in existing platforms and markets. “Carbonated juice and teas, for instance, are hard for our competitors to do because of existing contractual agreements with Coke and Pepsi,” he says. Now that Peet's is being taken private by a German conglomerate that focuses more on product than outlets, Caribou could potentially pull from their share of coffee shops, too.

But expansion shouldn’t ever affect the homey feel customers identify with Caribou. “What I love about coffee is that it’s a ritual. People are really exacting and passionate about it. We do batch roasting. It’s not a production line. We have artisans back there.”

And they are probably lining up their achievements to get their own Melonheads someday.

[Image: Flickr user D. Sharon Pruitt]

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  • RobertDavidSTEELEVivas

    Don't stop here!  Go Open Source Everything!  This story is in the Open Source Everything Highlights posted each day at 2200 Eastern, entered as a link in both Open Culture and Open Innovation.  All of the opens including access, data, hardware, software, standards and more need to be integrated and moved forward together.  This company sounds like it might be able to embrace that larger concept.  Stack of Highlights (all free) at http://tinyurl.com/OSE-ALL.  Twitter hash #openall.