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Home-grown success: Whidbey Coffee owner is content to keep it local
His iPad is a constant whirl of activity.
Dan Ollis keeps the device handy for communication on the fly. As president of a buzzing coffee company with 122 employees, he’s often on the go, figuring that his office is as much in the front seat of his black Chevy Tahoe than at any chair behind a desk.
“I’m in the people business,” Ollis said.
“The people are out in the field, at the stores, at the locations, in the communities. That’s where I spend the bulk of my life.”
On a recent morning, Ollis spent time sitting in the sun outside one of his Whidbey Coffee stores in Oak Harbor, wondering where the years have gone.
This month, Whidbey Coffee is celebrating its 25-year anniversary, leaving the 44-year-old man who started the company trying to come to grips with how fast those years whizzed by.
Recalling his early days behind an espresso cart in front of the Payless grocery store in Freeland, Ollis said he never imagined how his business would grow and expand to 13 retail centers in four counties and include the acquisition of a Seattle roasting facility.
“I never would have fathomed it. Never,” Ollis said. “And what an amazing journey.”
“And it’s just getting going.”
Ollis said he doesn’t like the story of Whidbey Coffee Co. to focus on him. Instead, he points to his family, loyal customers and dedicated employees as the reasons behind the company’s success.
“He’s very positive,” said Leah Norton-Gaudreau, manager at Oak Harbor’s store on State Highway 20.
“He motivates us.”
A 1988 graduate of South Whidbey High School who grew up in Bayview, Ollis’ own loyalty to Whidbey Island is as clear as his company’s name; however, he’s also fervent about providing the same sort of customer service experiences at retail centers in Snohomish, Skagit and King counties.
He’s focused on “smart, thought-out growth,” but has no plans to try to become a coffee giant.
“We pride ourselves on trying to be the local company for the different communities that we serve,” Ollis said. “I have no ambitions to be at 15,000 stores. I want to do what’s best by our communities and support the communities that we serve so that they believe in us.
“That recipe works much better for me.”
In 2007, Ollis purchased a Seattle-based company, Victrola Coffee. It was a move that gave him two brands, more expertise, more control over quality and a deeper appreciation for the Seattle coffee industry.
With that purchase came three Seattle coffee houses and a roasting facility, ending Whidbey Coffee’s reliance on contracted roasters.
The move also raised Ollis’ coffee IQ.
The Victrola brand, which scored high in a recent rating by Coffee Review, appeals to the more serious coffee aficionado.
“Before I acquired Victrola, I thought I knew what I thought I knew but I didn’t have a clue,” Ollis said.
Ollis has come far.
In 1989, at age 19, he and his partner, Shawn Ogle, started a business called Double O Enterprises.
They started that summer selling chicken fajitas from a borrowed concession trailer at the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe.
Ollis had already dabbled in work as a barista. In 1990, he and Ogle set up an espresso cart in front of Payless in Freeland and started selling coffee drinks.
The first Whidbey Coffee drive-through business opened in Freeland in November 1991, paving the way for more.
Ultimately, Ollis would continue on solo and wind up opening 12 more outlets.
Along the way, Whidbey Coffee became involved in the communities it served. This year, the coffee company awarded a $5,000 college scholarship to a South Whidbey High School senior and has become the grand sponsor of the Fourth of July fireworks show in Oak Harbor.
Ollis, his wife Kristen and their two children live in Mukilteo where he has an office, but he said his Chevy Tahoe is his main office.
He estimates that he logs between 18,000-26,000 miles on his vehicle annually and takes the ferry to Clinton two-to-three times per week.
Lately, he’s spent more time in Oak Harbor, gearing up for a major expansion of the coffee shop near the corner of Pioneer Way and Midway Boulevard.
If things fall into place, work may begin in August.
It’s all part of gradual, calculated growth.
“This is my hometown area, this region,” Ollis said. “I have no desire to get on a plane and fly to New York and open a store.
“I think we can do what we do right here and do a good job.”
“I think community is where it’s at.”