Bob Fish

Company: Biggby Coffee
Year started: 1995
Industry: Food Service/Retail
Offices: East Lansing, MI
Activity: Coffee franchise business with over 170 stores open or under contract in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Texas, South Carolina, and Florida.
Annual Revenue: $62 million
Employees: 2,400
Attended: Michigan State University
Degree: B.A., Hospitality Business, 1989
Company website: Biggby.com

“My work career and my academic career merged.”

Bob Fish was born and raised in Europe, where his parents worked on various assignments for Ford Motor Co. The family lived in Michigan in between assignments. At 17, Bob returned to the U.S. to start college at Michigan State University, which he selected because it was in the family’s home state. He intended to study engineering, but instead earned a degree in hospitality business. It took Bob eight years to finish his degree while he put himself through college, working at an area restaurant. He started as a fry cook, was manager by the time he graduated, and an owner within three years. His work career and academic career converged to set Bob on a path to launching his own restaurant venture.

After two years, Bob sold his restaurant and hit the road with no itinerary but lots of ideas for his next entrepreneurial endeavor. In Brownsville, Texas, Bob decides he really wants to own a specialty coffee shop, a novel concept for 1994 and one that connected him to a love of coffee he developed growing up in Europe. This decision led to his next stop, Seattle, where over a four-month period he met people running cafes, learning from them how to succeed. He returned to Michigan and set about developing a business plan by reading how-to books.

Bob opened his first coffee shop in 1995 in East Lansing after tapping all of his personal savings and credit line and finally securing a personal loan—on his tenth attempt. At first the business didn’t go well. But Bob’s vision for Biggby as a fun and unintimidating place to drink coffee ultimately set the company up to succeed and grow. This vision drives the company’s culture and is captured in its mantra of “’B’ happy, have fun, make friends, love people and drink great coffee.” The drinks have fun names that make people smile. Bob’s guerilla-style marketing didn’t hurt either—at closing Bob would deposit used cups with Biggby logos into competitors’ trashcans. After 18 months, the store reached $1 million in revenue and was on its way to building a strong brand.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

In dealing with his lack of immediate success, Bob credits his MSU degree in hospitality business and his work experience in making the right decisions that ultimately created a growing business. Soon Biggby was a chain of restaurants, and Bob was looking to franchise. As he did in Seattle, Bob set out to learn from others who have succeeded—he says he’s never afraid to ask for help. He reached out to Mary Ellen Sheets of Two Men and a Truck, a successful Michigan-grown franchising business started by Mary Ellen and her high school-aged sons.

Bob’s successful franchising strategy has enabled Biggby to spread to 170 stores open or under contract in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Texas, South Carolina, and Florida. Headquarters and the majority of stores are in Michigan, where Biggby’s continued to grow through a difficult economic period. Bob credits his success to determination and focus, positive attitude, a proven business model, ability to effectively communicate with franchises, and a strong brand. He continues to promote the Biggby brand—not so much from the trashcans of competitors, but virtually through social media.