Just two years ago, Deb Shinnlinger was on track to open a coffee shop—a longtime dream of hers—in an entirely different town than the one she finds her thriving business in today.
She counts herself extremely lucky, instead, to have found her ideal location at what was once Roy’s Auto Service in downtown Lebanon, New Hampshire—so lucky, in fact, that it became part of the name: Lucky’s Coffee Garage.
Deb and her staff just celebrated their one-year anniversary, and as the new year begins, she confesses to having lots of “tricks up her sleeve” as she thinks about making Lucky’s even better.
In early 2017, Deb was just about to sign on the dotted line for a space in nearby Canaan, where town officials planned a co-op involving local farmers and Deb’s coffee cafe. For that, she had prepared a full business plan and had done extensive market research but, she says, “Something didn’t feel quite right about it.”
Some farmers had pulled out of the plan and the financing wasn’t gelling. At that point, Deb contacted Business Advisor Scott Stephens, who works with NH SBDC clients in Grafton and Belknap Counties. “He was my second opinion, my second pair of eyes on the project,” Deb says. “And he ended up confirming what I was thinking—that the Canaan plan could have become a nightmare for me.”
It was disappointing, she says, but that disappointment turned into celebration when she spied what she now believes is the ideal location for her coffee shop, two doors down from Lebanon’s famed opera house and walking distance from the town’s library, post office, and fire station.
Shortly after the Canaan project fell through, Deb learned that the long-standing auto garage in downtown Lebanon would be closing and the building had been purchased. She contacted the new building owner almost immediately after seeing the “for lease” sign and then began working with Scott to “re-tool” the business plan she had done for the Canaan project. With that new location in mind, Scott agreed to help again. Deb said he approached it as, “Well, let’s take this plan a step further and see what we have.”
The Lebanon location was three times the size of Canaan’s, which meant a whole new floor plan and blueprints. Deb would have to plan for much higher construction costs. She and Scott worked out a “worst case scenario” for her “financials and says she felt prepared for anything.
But in her year in business, she says, “We’ve never come close to that worst case. In fact, our challenges have only been around how quickly we needed to scale—up!”
By March of 2017, she had a lease agreement with the building owners and, by December, she was ready to serve her first customers.
Deb wasn’t new to the coffee business. She had owned a coffee shop in Oregon 20 years ago and, after relocating to New Hampshire, noticed there wasn’t a specialty coffee shop in the area. “It was on my back-burner, a little flame in the back of my mind for the 15 years after we moved here.”
Deb would be self-funding the business and says she was being very careful. “I was cautious about over-spending and under-budgeting, and Scott was able to walk through it all realistically.”
Some time after finding the building, Deb created a survey and published it through social media platforms. She got more than 1,000 positive responses that told her the location was a good one, and that the Upper Valley wanted and needed a coffee shop of this type.
“When I came to Scott with a business plan in hand from Canaan, we were able to skip a whole bunch steps,” Deb said. “I feel like he was able to scale right up to where I was, and what I needed at the time. He gave me great pointers on how to move forward.”
“We met face-to-face several times, we had tons of emails back and forth, and a lot of documents bouncing between us,” Deb explains. “When I had the lease in hand, I drove directly to Scott’s office so we could look at it together.”
Scott looked for any red flags in the documents, Deb said, and he looked into the building owner’s background. Ultimately, he confirmed that everything appeared in order.
While the space was being remodeled, Deb put out a call on Facebook for people to bring in any old license plates they could donate. She wanted one from each state to use in the coffee shop’s decor. People were paying attention.
“At one point, I’d find 6 or 7 of them leaned up against my door in the morning,” she said. “People told me about getting their car fixed at this location for years. The community connection to Lucky’s has been really amazing.”
With a December opening, Deb had planned for a slow period, as is usually the case with retailers in winter. “I thought I’d have the slower months to ease into it, but that was unrealistic,” Deb says. “I had such a following on social media, and it’s just a very visible space. Everyone told everyone else, and we had a line out the door for the entire first day!”
It was clear that Lucky’s Garage Coffee might become “a different beast” than she was thinking it would be. “Very quickly I had to hire a few people and scale up everything,” she says.
Today, she has 9 full-time employees including a pastry chef and a front of house manager. The house manager works with all the coffee roasters who supply the shop, plus he keeps the morning rush of customers moving efficiently.
The location brings in commuters from nearby Dartmouth-Hitchock Medical Center. It brings in professionals from the banks and offices around the town green. It brings in a lunchtime crowd.
“We have our regulars. We know their orders before they come in the door. We wake up together,” Deb explains.
Lucky’s carries coffees from multiple local roasters, which means the coffee and espresso offerings change often. The full-time baker makes “whatever her little heart desires” and the patrons love the variety, Deb says. The menu includes breakfast sandwiches, local bagels, and soup and sandwiches for lunch.
She calls Business Advisor Scott “a great cheerleader for Lucky’s from the beginning. He was really paying attention to my progress. He followed us on Facebook before we were open. He was just as excited for opening day as we were; he was so excited to watch it all come to fruition.”
“It’s been a whirlwind tour, but all of my expectations have been surpassed,” Deb said. “I’m just humbled by the whole thing, humbled and energized at the same time.”
Here at the turn of the year, Deb says it’s time to get together with Scott again, to check her progress and make some new plans. Lucky’s Coffee Garage is keeping her a little too busy, though. “We haven’t had time for that sit-down,” she says.
She does, however, get to see Scott regularly. He’s often meeting with his other NH SBDC clients, right there over a cup of Lucky’s coffee.