Above and Beyond: Interview with Coffee Ambassador’s CEO and President

by Abby White, Vending Market Watch
September 20, 2019
Photos by Arlenys Castillo
UPDATED: July 9, 2020

Sean Curtis, CEO and Barbara Curtis Smalley, President in Coffee Ambassador’s Nespresso Tasting Room

Coffee Ambassador has provided San Diego County with premium office coffee service for 50 years. Like most OCS operators, their methods of offering coffee service have drastically changed, but what hasn’t changed is their steadfast commitment to truly listening to their clients’ needs. Run by powerhouse siblings Sean Curtis and Barbara Curtis Smalley, Coffee Ambassador keeps those clients happy by being both scalable and adaptable, and by providing superior training to their 20 employees.  

Curtis and Smalley’s father had worked in the Los Angeles-based family business, the Wilbur Curtis Company, which manufactured commercial coffee brewing equipment. In 1969, he decided to take a chance and move to San Diego to launch Coffee Ambassador.

“In a way, you could say that we’re third-generation coffee people,” Curtis said. “My father was very entrepreneurial, to leave an established family business in Los Angeles and come to San Diego. To take that risk was something I always appreciated.” 

A love for coffee service
Both Curtis and Smalley clearly have a love for office coffee service, and coffee itself. They have a deep knowledge and appreciation for the brands they work with, including regional roasters like Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Gaviña Gourmet Coffee, and internationally-known brands like Nespresso and Starbucks. Curtis noted that they’re also doing a lot of business with FLAVIA and Lavazza. Curtis and Smalley’s expertise and superior customer service has attracted many San Diego County businesses, including hospitals, banks, law firms, and particularly companies in the thriving biotech industry.

“We cover all of San Diego County,” Curtis said. “The footprint has always been the same, but I think our concentration of business has really changed, especially over the last five years. The area that we’re located in is between Del Mar and La Jolla, and it’s a really big biotech hub, with probably 600 biotech companies within five to six miles of us.

An extra special experience
In order to give prospective clients a special experience, Coffee Ambassador created the Coffee Showroom, a custom tasting room within their 10,000 square-foot headquarters. This allows them to invite prospective clients for a complimentary tasting in a comfortable, relaxed environment.

“We wanted to build a really cool café for our staff, and as Barb and I started working on the project, I realized that we’re in such an ideal area. What if we started bringing people in to do taste testing, just like they’d demo a product at the Apple Store?” Curtis recalled. “It ended up being a great way to get people into our facility in a very low-pressure way — we’re not high-pressure salespeople, we take a consultative approach — so they can try different coffees. We have a lot of variety, different coffees, the ice maker, the water filtration system — virtually our entire line is laid out in this showroom. We’ve got nice lighting and artwork, and we play music. We make it a fun experience.”

The Showroom has been so effective that Curtis and Smalley recently opened another tasting room in partnership with Nespresso.

“We’ve partnered with Nespresso, which is part of Nestle, and took one area of our building to showcase the Nespresso Professional, which was designed specifically for offices,” Curtis said. “We dedicated a space for Nespresso because we think it has so much potential in the long term. They wanted to form a true partnership; they were extremely accommodating, and they were great to work with.”

Microbreweries, millennials and customized service
Both Curtis and Smalley likened the popularity of their tasting rooms to the saturation of microbreweries in San Diego, and across the U.S.

“There’s kind of an interesting parallel taking place, as San Diego now has over 100 microbreweries,” he said. “Millennials are really into it, they’ll go to all the different tasting rooms. We wanted to take it a step further with the coffee experience in the office. We make it more fun — we invite you in to do a tasting, and if you think this might fit in an area of your break room or [office] kitchen, we have all the information you need right at your fingertips. I think having the tasting rooms helps ignite ideas and excitement over what they can do back at their own workplace.”

Curtis noted that millennials are also driving the trend to consume products from local businesses — specifically, local roasters — especially ones who align with their beliefs around environmental sustainability.

“We’re seeing that customers want to get local roasters into their offices, so we’re working with a couple of local roasters to bring their coffee to our customers,” he said. “It’s nice to have variety; I think people like to experiment with different drinks,” Smalley explained. “Local brands are a big trend — there are a lot of microroasters around, just like there are a lot of microbreweries around. It’s important, because we’re also locally owned and operated — we pride ourselves on that — and we hope we can do business with local folks.”

Offerings beyond coffee
Curtis said that while Coffee Ambassador is providing a lot of single-cup and bean-to-cup services to clients, they still do a significant amount of business in traditional, fresh-brewed coffee. Growing segments include water filtration and ice machines, which Curtis attributes to the rising popularity of cold brew and iced coffee.

“Making an ice coffee is pretty straightforward,” he explained. “You make a fresh cup of coffee and then you pour ice over the top, and then you can add creamer or flavored creamer. We’ve expanded our options, and we carry a significant number of creamer flavors. We sell more French Vanilla than we do regular half-and-half.”

In addition to expansive coffee options, water filtration and ice machines, Coffee Ambassador also offers teas, sodas and snacks through pantry service. Smalley said that if a customer requests a particular product, she’ll find a way to provide it to them.

“With pantry items or extra items that they may need, if we don’t carry it, I’ll source it and find a way to get it,” she said. “Even if that means carrying two to three cases in the warehouse for that one customer, then we’ll do that. The new craze is that La Croix water. We had clients request it, so we started carrying it. We don’t carry a lot of pantry items like a micro market would, but if they need something, we’ll give them what they want.”

Training & technology
Curtis and Smalley oversee 20 employees on a daily basis at Coffee Ambassador, and training is very important to the company culture. Coffee Ambassador does general training based on the CX “customer experience” model, and they also hold product-specific trainings with their supplier partners as needed.

“We hear from a lot of our vendor partners that we really focus on training,’” Curtis said. “It’s important. The way I look at it, besides the coffee, our most valuable resource is our human resource. Yeah, we’re in the coffee business, but we’re also in the service business, and that means having happy people out in the field representing the company. Training also helps build confidence — you build excitement, you improve morale, and people feel engaged.”

Training is also important as technological advances continue to generate new equipment for making coffee and running business operations.

Curtis said that he foresees more technological advances affecting the OCS segment, particularly with telemetry and touchscreens.

“Everything is getting more sophisticated — it’s like the computer industry — it’s amazing how things change,” he said. “For us, our key’s got to be keeping close to our customer’s needs. If something pops up in the marketplace that we haven’t seen, we need to address it quickly and see if it’s a right fit for our customers.”

“It’s great that you can do stuff online, especially for marketing purposes or if you need to disseminate information,” he continued. “But at the end of the day, coffee is about the taste, the smell, the tactile experience.”

Both Curtis and Smalley enjoy working with their team, with the many different clients they’ve worked with over the past three decades, and with each other.

“I really like the variety of all the different things I get to do as CEO,” Curtis said. “I’m always putting on different hats, but at the end of the day it all comes back to driving that customer experience. I enjoy the people — our staff and our customers.”


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