Beyond the bottom line

Kindness and generosity are baked into Thatcher’s recipe for growth and sustainability

Jamie Erdman is a thought leader. She never stops learning, and teaching. Her dream is to scale Thatcher’s, a coffee house and anchor tenant in Vancouver’s Grand Central complex on Columbia House Boulevard, to the size of Dutch Bros. Why? To create a radically ethical organizational development enterprise based on developing kindness, generosity and emotional intelligence in humans, companies and systems. She’s perfectly happy to have it masquerade as a chain of coffee shops.

Local developer George Killian was a regular customer of Erdman’s when she was a manager at Peet’s Coffee and Tea. Impressed with her style and acumen, he tapped her to create a coffee shop for his Grand Central development that would anchor the outdoor mall and prove to be a draw to other tenants as well as customers. He was the owner and silent partner, deferring all decisions and day-to-day operations to her. In 2016, Erdman became the sole owner by way of a small business loan. She said, “Nothing changed. And everything changed.”

“We began infusing generosity and kindness into everything we do,” Erdman said. She became far more invested, literally and figuratively, in articulating those values and living them out in every decision, from decor to purposeful team building to a more structured donation program.

“We began getting more intentional about who we are,” she said. The shop increased its quality of offerings by switching roasters, developing whole food smoothies and focusing more on increasing quality food options and baking, which had been a draw since the beginning.

Erdman and baker Sarah Sullivan were married with a baby when Thatcher’s became a reality. Sullivan baked on site, then moved baking operations next door to the Lapellah kitchen in a unique and fruitful partnership. After several years together at Thatcher’s, Erdman and Sullivan divorced, Sullivan left the business, another baker came on. The Lapellah kitchen became unavailable, the bakery case – which regulars relied on – became sparser, and eventually, Sullivan returned to her rightful place at the west end of the counter, filling the case again with the gluten free goodies and unique pastries the shop has become renowned for.

The shop has encountered other hardships. In spring 2018, Thatcher’s was broken into and vandalized. It was a deeply personal attack, and Erdman knew immediately it was a former romantic partner, a contractor who knew the value of the items he destroyed – both financial and personal. He used an axe to take huge chunks out of each custom countertop, and made 31 cracks in the community table, which had been Erdman’s dream to install after becoming an owner. He ruined the floor and decimated the espresso machine. He caused more than $65,000 in damages.

But the result was an outpouring of community encouragement, in-kind donations and loans, financial support and hands-on work to pull the shop back together. Thatcher’s was only closed for one day. One year later, on the anniversary of the break in, that day’s sales were donated to the YWCA Clark County’s SafeChoice Domestic Violence Program, but the saga has not come to an end. To fully repair the damages, the shop will have to close for two weeks.

“To be on the receiving end of hospitality and generosity was incredibly uncomfortable, humbling and encouraging. It gave me a gift in that I was able to experience the sense of community, support and generosity that I talk about and honestly sometimes wondered if we really were creating those things since they’re often intangible. I wondered if I was being woo-woo and trying to make the coffee shop something more than it is,” Erdman wrote in an email. “That traumatic event allowed me to experience all that I talk about creating for our customers firsthand. In that way, it was affirming. It showed me that what we are working to create truly is more than just caffeinating people and providing space for them to work on their laptops.”

Later that year, the shop suffered another break-in, with minimal damage but substantial theft. Last week, Erdman’s insurance dropped the shop due to “excessive claims.”

This kind of bottom-line rug-pulling is the opposite of Erdman’s vision for her business. She is focused on culture, and believes that profitability, while important, is not the best reason to make decisions for the business. Thatcher’s closed its long-running Vancouver Community Library branch while the branch was profitable. One of the main reasons was that the employees at the branch were on solo everyday and did not benefit from the same culture and team building that existed at the Grand Central shop.

“People were struggling when they were alone,” she said. A lock-down at the library was the tipping point, and Erdman closed the branch.

Erdman’s focus on culture extends well beyond her employees. When her staff realized they were not offering the same quality customer service to the Deaf community, she held a workshop on deaf culture for her staff in conjunction with the Washington School for the Deaf. When a friend and fellow coffee shop owner instituted a policy that 90% of the music played in her shop must be from non-white artists, Erdman followed suit at 75%. Her staff is actively trans-inclusive, not assuming gender, and providing unlabeled restrooms, among other subtle shifts.

“Our greatest strength is that we have a positive, collaborative work environment,” she said. Erdman’s employees are encouraged to constantly develop – themselves, their work, the business. One employee left but returned when Erdman asked her to create her ideal job and then come do it. She ended up systematizing Thatcher’s policies and procedures and clarifying jobs roles, institutionalizing Thatcher’s culture and even creating a 12-week workshop in emotional intelligence. Te’ana Conley now works in human resources at a large local organization, but Erdman dreams of scaling Thatcher’s in a way that will draw these types of employees back into the fold, and possibly draw Sullivan into ownership.

“I’d love to do more training and development and invest more in emotional intelligence,” she said.

Erdman is a member of EO Accelerator, which focuses on getting business owners past the $1 million mark in revenues.

“Only one-quarter to one-third of small businesses make it to the 10-year mark and it’s been said that only 9% hit $1 million in revenue and only 20% of those companies are owned by women,” she wrote. “I love to challenge myself and the status quo; that’s the sole reason I’d love to pass $1 million in revenue. However, revenue is a false indicator of success and with only 40% of small businesses being profitable. Profitability is where we should place our collective focus! Profitability creates sustainability. I am proud that we are profitable and know that it puts me in a good position to grow the company in a lower risk way.”

Jamie Erdman
Owner, Thatcher’s Coffee

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