To many, success requires at least one or more degrees. However, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates all bucked the trend, achieving tremendous prosperity without the stamp of approval from an accredited institution. So did Bryan Gibb. The scrappy creative translated his youthful experiences into Bolt Coffee Company, a roastery with five locations in Providence, Rhode Island.
And Gibb makes more than coffee. When Bolt’s pastry supplier went out of business, he founded Knead Donuts. Today, the donut business has its own production facility as well as three retail locations around Providence.
Today, Gibb looks like the picture of success. And yet, like anyone starting his or her own business, he spent a lifetime blocking punches, weathering storms, and cobbling together resources.
The History Of Bryan Gibb
Kenny Gould: Where are you from?
Bryan Gibb: I was born in Providence. I grew up in Rhode Island.
KG: And how’d you get into coffee?
BG: Growing up, I had a big extended family. There were always people in and out of the house. As a result, there was this underlying theme of generous hospitality. Kind of an open door policy. When I was eighteen and on this journey of figuring out what I wanted to do, I thought about this. I wasn’t interested in coffee necessarily, but I was interested in the environment coffee promoted. You know, people catching up with each other. You come to the house and there’s a pot of coffee brewing and you just sit down and be with each other.
How Gibb Entered The Coffee Industry
KG: How’d that translate to an actual job in coffee?
BG: I didn’t go to college. My older brother had this friend, Todd Mackey, who was eight or nine years older than me. I knew he worked at a local coffee roastery. I was like, “You want to sit down and I can pick your brain about coffee?” I asked him a couple questions and he was like, “I think we’re looking to hire someone at the roastery. You should check it out.”
KG: So you applied.
BG: I started bagging and fulfilling wholesale orders. I did some training and education and then there was this initiative they had that was like catering. Todd and I spearheaded this little catering coffee cart. It had a little espresso machine and rustic barnwood mobile bar. We did a couple weddings and marketed it. But for whatever reason, the business was focusing their attention elsewhere. So this thing got disbanded and put in the corner.
KG: Something tells me it didn’t stay there.
BG: We were young and energetic and we were like, “If you’re not going to use this, what if we buy it from you?” We scraped together a couple dollars to purchase the setup and hustled on nights and weekends.
Bolt Coffee Company: The Early Years
KG: How’d you get from a catering cart to Bolt?
BG: The details are murky but I think my work with the cart began to be perceived as a conflict of interest by the roastery. I got fired. All of the sudden, it became a full-time gig. I was recently engaged, about to be married, and I was meaningfully unemployed. I said, “You know what? I’ll make a go of it.” I gave myself a year to hussle and see what I could do.
KG: Was it successful?
BG: Not at all. We had no capital. Toward the end of that year, there was one particular moment where I was like, “I can’t keep doing this. I’m burning out. We’re making no money and I’m super broke. We need to find a permanent location for this thing, because it’s too tiring to carry around.” We looked at a few different spaces and they were all daunting. None of them felt right. We were about to close up and shut down the operation when we found a new hotel that was coming into the city. The developers reached out on Instagram and said, “We love what you’re doing with your brand. We should talk.”
BG: Right. Meanwhile, it was me taking pictures and being depressed and totally broke. But we put up a good show and kind of BS’d our way into that project. We had no money so we kind of took all the existing equipment off the cart and put it into the new spot. We were open seven days per week from 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM. I worked that shift every day for the first six months. At that time, my wife was pregnant with our first kid. I was like, “Shit, I can’t do this at this pace for long.” So we hired our first employee. Now we had a two-person operation.
KG: Where did the name “Bolt” come from?
BG: We went through a couple iterations on the name. We wanted it to be short and memorable. The idea around “Bolt” isn’t the bolt of energy, or the lightning bolt, but the nut and the bolt. Two things binding together. The idea was that coffee brings people together.
The Growth Of Bolt And The Start of Knead Donuts
KG: What was your timeline like?
BG: The business started January 2012. The hotel location opened January 2014. At that time, we were getting pastries from a particular vendor in town. But they went out of business so we said, “Oh shit, we need pastries.” No one was really wholesaling pastries so I said, “What does it take to open a donut shop?” We scraped together a couple people and found a really good operator.
We started Knead Donuts in 2014 and opened our first location in 2016. That business now has a huge production baking facility and three retail outlets. That started just because we needed pastries for the coffee shop.
KG: And how did the coffee business grow?
BG: We cruised a bit, barely scraping by. And just in talking with different people at the counter and being an approachable person, we got connected with the director of the art museum in town. They were looking to activate their lobby in a similar way to the hotel. We began that process with them, but working with an institution is a totally different timeline. We opened that project in June or July of 2016.
In 2018, we started roasting our own coffee. We got a little spot in my neighborhood that had become vacant. Got a little SBA loan for a roaster and dumped that in there. We started roasting for ourselves and a couple other wholesale accounts. Then, in 2019, we started a little pop-up kiosk in an office-type development in downtown Providence. In 2020, we opened our first flagship, a stand-alone location downtown. That opened March 8th of this year, and then we had to close on March 15th.
The Community At Bolt Coffee Company
KG: What do you love about what you do?
BG: I’ve always loved coffee, not because of the coffee particularly but because of the situations surrounding coffee. It’s such a social beverage. There’s a huge community. You get the same people every day.
My whole driver with coffee is not necessarily the science or the nerdy part. My team does really well with that, but my thing is bringing people together. That’s what started it all. That has driven everything I’ve done professionally. Now, in the time of coronavirus, bringing people together is a tricky situation. So we’ve been adjusting and extending hospitality in other ways.
KG: Can you say more about that? How have you kept that spirit alive at a time when people are socially isolated?
BG: As a team, we’ve been digging into what about a coffee shop is valuable. Thankfully, our roastery has remained open. We’ve been able to source, roast, and distribute directly to people’s houses. And that’s a totally transactional experience, so we started handwriting little notes and thank you cards in all of the deliveries. Just adding an element of humanity to it. We’ve been doing that and I hope it’s been received in the intended way.
We’ve also been more active on social media and been a little more vulnerable. Being in the hospitality industry, we’ve been so affected. And it’s not just us — it’s our industry friends and customers. We’re all grappling with the idea that we all want to support each other and be together and have experiences that we can’t really have. We’re all trying to scratch out a new normalcy while wearing a mask and staying safe, and that’s weird.
KG: How did you deal with opening a new location a week before quarantine?
BG: We shut down for a while, but we opened retail last week at our Washington Street location. The amount of people that have come out is encouraging. A lot of people are excited to get an espresso-based drink that they haven’t had in six or eight weeks. Businesswise, it’s a totally new landscape. Navigating that is difficult for sure.
Advice On Starting A New Coffee Brand
KG: What has been the key to starting a coffee brand from scratch?
BG: I like to say that I’m not the best person for all the jobs. So I try to surround myself with people who are better at stuff than me. For instance, our coffee roaster, who also manages the quality control — his real driver is the technical aspect of things. I let him go and take things where he will.
For myself, I didn’t come from any formal business background and wasn’t super interested in the particularities of coffee roasting, but I’ve grown to really enjoy how stuff works. Though I’ve always played to my strengths as an ideas person — I have a million ideas all the time. Most of them never work out. But some of them do. It’s been cool to have an idea and see it come to life.
KG: Is that the role you still play with the business? Or has that evolved?
BG: At a certain point, most of my time is taken up by the things that were initially the most boring stuff. Numbers, spreadsheets, sustainability. Cost of goods management. Labor costs. All this stuff that’s really soulless. But you need that, because the numbers begin to inform what’s sustainable.
It’s cool to get something off the ground and do it for a week or a year, but it’s also really powerful to be able to do it six or seven or eight years later. That’s where getting into some of the more systems oriented stuff is really fulfilling. Granted, I’m not the best person for that job either and I’ll probably stop doing that once we’re able to afford an actual businessperson.
KG: And then you can get back to ideas.
BG: I love thinking of stuff and asking crazy questions. I think a lot of it comes from the idea that when I was younger, I felt empowered to do things. I didn’t come from a lot of money, but I came from love and support. For whatever reason, whether it’s the conversations I’ve had or how I was born or what town I was born into, it’s just worked out. I really love brainstorming with people about different stuff, coming up with different ideas and giving people the support that I had that maybe they didn’t have.
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