A coffee shop. There seems to be one on every corner, unless you are looking for the perfect one.
Coffee drinkers know too well that finding the right combination of good coffee, an inviting atmosphere and community can be difficult. Once you find your perfect spot, you stay loyal to it for as long as it is possible. Such was the case for Michael Litt, who used to stop in for his morning coffee and dose of community involvement at Coco’s on Market Street. This act of customer loyalty eventually led to the creation of a successful local chain bearing the name Nervous Dog Coffee Bar.
In 2002, Coco’s Coffee Bar was better known for its beautiful back bar and the warm, friendly manner of its owner, Patty Renner. The place felt lush, intimate and nostalgic. The ambience and sense of inclusion and acceptance kept Coco’s regular customers loyal until the shop closed.
It was not a successful business venture for the Renners or the gentleman who owned it for a year before Litt bought it. While he was one of the many loyal customers, Litt admits he was more enamored of the wooden bar than the coffee.
“I lived a block and a half away from Coco’s, and I would stop by there on my way to work. The thing that I liked was the back bar. It’s art deco, it’s from Wanamakers, the oldest bar in Akron,” he says. “I just thought it was beautiful. I used to tell them, ‘If you guys want to get rid of the back bar, let me know. I’d love to put it in my basement.’ Of course, it wouldn’t fit in my house, but I just loved it.
“They said, ‘Buy the whole place, we’re struggling.’ They didn’t have coffee one day, their phones were turned off on another, and I was wanting to be an entrepreneur. I wasn’t thrilled with my job, so I gave them my number.”
Creating an enterprise for the cost of a small car
In 2006, Michael went overseas to Ireland and England to work on his MBA. He visited every coffee bar and pub he could find to get a feel for what it would be like to exist in that atmosphere.
“That’s what I like. It’s people stopping on the way home from work to get to know each other before they go home. It’s expected. They do it every day. They get to know the other customers and the bartenders. It’s just a thing, a community within a community, and I love that feeling.”
Even though Michael’s life was complicated and full, he still entertained the idea of being a shop owner. After the Renners sold Coco’s, he tried to get into contact with the new owner, to no avail.
“I left four messages for him. ‘I’m interested. I’m curious.’ Whatever. I got nothing back.”
Upon returning to Akron, he went back to Coco’s to leave his number one last time. When he got there, the place was closed permanently. There was a sign on the door thanking friends and family for their support, along with a phone number. This time, when Michael reached out, the owner responded.
“For the price of a small car, I bought the whole coffee shop. Then I had to take over the lease, which was a greater liability. I spent the whole weekend running numbers, trying to figure out how I could make money, and the ‘what ifs,’ and modeling spreadsheets, and doing all this stuff. I realized there was absolutely no way to make money doing it, and I did it anyways, and here I am. To this day, I’m still learning a lot about coffee. It’s really great for an ADHD guy to own a small business, because I have to wear 30 hats. I’m either wearing a tool belt and fixing a light fixture, or negotiating with an attorney on a lease.”
The easiest part of the whole endeavor seemed to be naming his shop. “I named it Nervous Dog, because it felt sort of like an Irish Pub. I Combined two passions (dogs and coffee) and got a great name. I thought it would make for a really great English pub sign, hanging on iron brackets, swinging in the front of the store.”
He adds: “In Ireland and England, a lot of the pub names are silly, and they often included animals. I remember there was a record label called Nervous Dog records, and it made me laugh.”
He continued to work his day job for six months before taking on becoming a small business owner full time. Litt sought to find out how people within a 50-mile radius of his shop felt about their coffee shop experiences, and if and how The Nervous Dog was different.
“It’s always been a little edgy, sassy, youthful. It’s high quality, warm, comfortable. It’s community, but they came back and said that it all comes back to one thing: We’re friendly.”
“When the baristas say ‘Good morning, how are you today?’ They don’t say that from a script. They want to know the answer. I want people who want to know how they (the customers) are doing. That is really hard to hire for. Really, really hard. We looked for someone who was self-directed and confident, friendly and interactive. We can always teach you how to froth milk.”
A personalized commitment, expansion
This commitment to hire personable and conscientious people to maintain the friendly neighborhood bar experience has made Nervous Dog Coffee Bar successful. There are four current locations. Litt opened the store in Stow when it was part of his drive line between his home, Nervous Dog on West Market Street and Kent State, where he was working on his MBA. He then opened one each in Beachwood and Montrose.
“I’ve always believed that I would expand towards Beachwood. I grew up in University Heights. I know University Heights. If you’ve noticed, all four Nervous Dog coffee shops were coffee shops before. I’m not going to go get this big, white box and be a general contractor for eight months or so.
“When you open your first shop you get to name your radius, and then you open your next spot on the tangent of that radius. Some people have heard of you, and you get a bunch of new people that haven’t.”
He looked at Hudson as the next logical place for expansion. The intent was always to work towars Beachwood, but when he heard that Caribou and Peet’s Coffee at La Place Shopping Center was closing their store, he felt he had to make his move. He opened that store in January of 2017.
“It’s only 35 minutes away, I was familiar with the area, and it was too good to pass up. I wanted to be there. It’s a great location, and I had a really good sense of what the revenue potential was. It’s exhausting to be opening up a new shop, especially while running two other shops. Everything is different, especially when you are dealing with different city and county regulations.”
The idea was to open in Beachwood and then stretch back toward Akron. This is how the store in Fairlawn came to be. He got a tip that there was a vacancy coming up in the Montrose shopping district. Then he began negotiations to take over the place, but ended up holding a soft opening sooner than he had envisioned, a few days before Christmas.
“Every time we open a new store, we have increased our ability to meet our guiding principles, and we are able to bring back what we have learned to our other locations. It increases our ability to collect more feedback from our customers, and thus we have learned to innovate. Everything evolved organically, and it’s more flexible that way.”
The expansions have not hurt the well-curated shops’ ability to provide the quintessential cup of tea or coffee, nor has it stifled innovation. Nitrogen-induced coffee (NitroCoffee) will be a staple in all four stores; they stock at least 35 different Torani syrups, as well as other flavors and custom drinks that rotate with the seasons and their customers’ palates.
It’s easy to find a good cup of coffee in Akron now thanks in part to entrepreneurs who not only take stock of what the community has to offer them as small business owners, but what they can offer their community in return. It isn’t easy being small and running four coffee shops in such economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods, but with the attitude that customers should be treated with dignity and respect, and that employees should be valued as highly as customers, Michael Litt has found a way to make selling cups of coffee a success for himself, his neighbors, and his company.
For info, visit www.nervousdog.com.