Turning a Passion for the Islands (and Coffee) into a Business

by Liz Magill on June 27, 2011

Drive-thru java shops are usually seen in big cities where coffee house giants such as Starbucks open them up to speed up service for their coffeeholic, commuting customers. However, small, entrepreneur-owned coffee shops like Island Bean Company are successfully competing with the big boys.

Dorie and Paul Schwendeman of Pittsburgh, Penn. are owners of the Island Bean Company coffee-fueling station, which they built from scratch on the lot of an old gas station on the side of a busy, six-lane highway and finally opened in 2006.

Dorie and Paul chose the name of their shop based upon the love of the islands. And their love for the islands didn’t stop with the name either. Commuters can’t miss the the large faux palm tree or bright orange and green island colors on their 10 x 25-foot tropical-looking building. But don’t let the small building size fool you; Island Bean Company has served roughly 485,000 cups of coffee in five years and won the “Best Drive-Thru Java” award  in the local magazine within eight months of opening.

But the road to coffee-land wasn’t all sugar and spice for the Schwendeman’s. It took two years of planning and researching — and pleading with banks for financing — before finally opening up the drive-thru lanes on McKnight Rd. “We faced many obstacles and challenges just to get open. Finding the right location, securing financing from the bank, jumping through hoops with the local zoning and planning commissions, and an enormous amount of construction delays and problems to build a very small building — start to finish it took almost two years to open,” say the duo.

And the challenges didn’t end with the doors opening either. “Being a small business owner means wearing a lot of hats. You are the marketing, accounting, human resources, customer service, product development, inventory, maintenance, etc. There is no one else to do all these jobs — plus we worked in the store everyday — open til close. It takes some time (and a lot of mistakes) to build a business. Eventually, we found ways to get things done. We served our customers well and could finally hire some help at the store.” Though they still wear all the hats, “we get more sleep now and can have a bit of a life outside of the business,” they say.

When asked what what they like most about building and managing a small business, the Schwendemans say, “The best thing is having something to be proud of, something that you built and put your own stamp on. The very best thing is when your hard work is acknowledged by your customers. It’s wonderful to hear from our customers that they love our products, our staff, and our whole concept!”

Through the years, they have been able to expand, and they now offer catering services and on online store in addition to the drive-thru business.

Dorie and Paul hope to someday open up their own hotel on a faraway, tropical island, and if their determination — and success of the Island Bean Company — is any indication of that happening, they will.