"It's Just Coffee": Scooter's Coffee's largest franchisee shoots for 100
Name: Tracy Bouwens
Company: Freedom Enterprises
Units: 59 Scooter’s Coffee
Family: Husband Shawn, 3 children, 6 grandchildren
Years in franchising: 18
Years in current position: 8
After nearly 20 years of Scooter’s Coffee franchising and becoming the brand’s largest franchisee, Tracy Bouwens is not done growing. She has 59 locations up and operating and says she’d like to add at least 20 more by the end of 2026 and eventually hit the 100-unit mark.
“Growth is healthy,” says Bouwens. Her company, Freedom Enterprises, added 16 locations in 2022, an expansion she says resulted from lessons learned during Covid. “It was incredibly challenging, but out of it we learned to be even more adaptable. We were prepared to move when we needed.”
A few years ago, adding 16 units in a single year would have been “painful,” she says. Today, however, the challenges that come with growth no longer surprise her because, she says, “We are learning and growing and continuing to develop.”
When we last spoke with Bouwens in Q4 2020, she and her husband, Shawn, were partners in both business and life, but he is now retired from franchising.
“He is the greatest,” she says of the man who first retired after a career as an offensive lineman with the Detroit Lions. “He’s always been willing to do whatever I needed him to do.” She especially enjoys “having someone at home to make me dinner!”
Bouwens, a youthful grandmother of six, is working to develop people to take over some of her roles. “I’m always strategizing that way,” she says—in part because it gives her great joy to see her people develop. That’s in addition to her other source of happiness: seeing the positive impact her Scooter’s locations can have on the communities they serve.
First job: Washing dishes at 14 in a small-town restaurant.
Formative influences/events: I grew up with an adventurous father who was also an entrepreneur. Watching and learning from him, I knew that no matter what profession I entered, I wanted to own my own business. As I researched the specialty coffee business before opening my first Scooter’s, I ran all of my research data by my dad. His opinion and assessment were invaluable to me as my husband and I were learning to navigate through what a successful business would look like.
Key accomplishments: Married for more than 30 years. Successfully raised three amazing children. Becoming the largest Scooter’s Coffee franchisee with 59 locations. Serving on the board of YouCanFreeUs, an international human rights organization fighting modern slavery around the world through advocacy, rescue, and rehabilitation
Biggest current challenge: As most in the restaurant or QSR industry would probably say, staffing. But our key focus is to change our mindset from what leadership looked like pre-Covid and find the way to lead our teams through this new era, not to just survive but to set up our leaders to thrive! Our primary job is to be problem solvers. Rather than focusing on issues, we focus on solutions to those issues. I can’t control everything, so our goal is to focus on what we can control and move forward in that way.
Next big goal: To open or acquire a minimum of 20 new locations by the end of 2026. Ultimately, I think it would be awesome to achieve the 100-location mile marker!
First turning point in your career: When we first became a Scooter’s Coffee franchisee, we owned a single location in Omaha. Our first turning point was in 2005, when we purchased the Kansas City market and became area representatives for the Scooter’s Coffee brand.
Best business decision: Becoming a franchisee was an excellent path for us to become business owners while having the structure, systems, and processes that come with being a part of a franchise system.
Hardest lesson learned: Cash flow! As we began to grow rapidly in the past 10 years, learning to accommodate existing store operations along with allowing for the cash reserves needed to add new stores was a huge lesson I needed to learn. I am so thankful to have been able to develop processes for managing cash within our company that allows us to continue advancing, while still being a financially responsible company.
Work week: Mostly Monday through Friday. I rise early (after all, we are in the coffee business), but I end my day by 5 or 6 p.m.
Exercise/workout: I love my Peloton bike. Recreationally we love to play pickleball and take long walks at our cabin on Table Rock Lake.
Best advice you ever got: It’s just coffee. So often it can be easy to get overly worked up about small issues as they arise. If we remember that, at the end of the day, we get to put a smile on people’s faces as we serve them their morning coffee the rest of the stuff will work itself out and we can tackle one issue at a time.
What’s your passion in business? My passion continues to be the people part of our business. I am so blessed to have an amazing group of individuals who work for us. Whether they are with us for a short time or for more than a decade, I absolutely love seeing their skill sets develop as they grow with our company. Seeing how those developing skills affect them in their personal lives is an added bonus.
How do you balance life and work? Finding work/life balance was very hard for me in the early years. I have discovered that I am far better and accomplish more when I keep that balance in check in my life. The way I am able to do that is to be very organized with my time and efficient in how we get things done. I have a notebook by my side throughout each day to write down thoughts as I go. Then when my day ends, I don’t find my mind racing with loose thoughts flowing in every direction. The notebook will be there tomorrow.
Guilty pleasure: I truly love trying various wines, particularly a good Sauvignon blanc from France or New Zealand.
Favorite book: I really enjoy reading historical fiction books because they bring history alive in fun ways, and we have so much we can learn from history. I also enjoy reading leadership books so I can continue to grow in my leadership skills. My book shelves are overflowing with both types of books. However, every day I take time to read from the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. I find it very helpful to meditate on and absorb the wisdom found in that book.
Favorite movie: “The Notebook.” I am a sap for a good romantic movie.
What do most people not know about you? I have a single tattoo on the top of my right foot that serves as a daily reminder that I need to accomplish my goal of writing my first book.
Pet peeve: Poor communication skills or lack of communication.
What did you want to be when you grew up? A surgeon.
Last vacation: Turks and Caicos in October 2022. We try to be intentional about vacationing three or four times a year. The rest and relaxation allow me to slow down and really get back to creative business strategy.
Person I’d most like to have lunch with: Mother Teresa. She spent more than 50 years of her life comforting the poor, the dying, and the unwanted. Her servant heart and affinity for philanthropy is incredibly admirable. She left a positive impact on this world, and I believe that is something we should all strive to do during the short time we are here on Earth.
Business philosophy: Operating our business (each individual location) with excellence on every level while constantly assessing the ways that we, as leaders, can grow ourselves individually, which will in turn grow the organization as a whole.
Management method or style: Coaching and empowerment. By myself I can accomplish only a little. With each leader we get to coach and empower we are able to multiply our impact and accomplish far more than ever imagined.
Greatest challenge: For me, the greatest challenge is knowing the right timing to add new positions to our growing organization and still maintain a reasonable labor budget. I’m not afraid of working hard or carrying a heavy load, so sometimes I can wait too long before adding that next position. As we grow and I strive to maintain work/life balance, I find myself working ahead on those critical positions more strategically.
How do others describe you? A good friend recently described me as “the Christian version of Beth Dutton” from the “Yellowstone” series. (I hope that is a compliment, ha-ha!) I think those who know me the best would say that I am kind and generous and I care deeply about people. At the same time, I don’t wait for others to solve my problems or grow my business. I own the responsibility and will move mountains to achieve my goals.
One thing I’m looking to do better: I have always admired the former CEO of Costco, Jim Sinegal. His philosophy was to always be a company that is on a first-name-basis with everyone. When he visited Costco locations around the country, he wanted to say hello and engage his employees because he truly liked them. As we continue to grow as a company and our employee counts increase, I want to continue to challenge myself to really know the managers in each of our stores and their teams as much as possible. There is so much value in having a company that truly cares about each of the individuals working for them.
How I give my team room to innovate and experiment: I try very hard to be quick to listen and slow to speak, allowing my team to share their ideas and to contemplate those ideas. As leaders, we need to give credit where credit is due. The best ideas will likely come from leaders on my team who are doing the heavy lifting day in and day out. I’m simply here to be a sounding board for those ideas.
How close are you to operations? I am very close to my top leaders in operations. Following John Maxwell’s leadership training, I spend 80% of my time with the top 20% of my leaders. While I am not involved any more in the daily operations of each individual location, I am very tuned in to our upper management team. Because I am so passionate about seeing individuals grow in their skill sets, I make it a weekly priority to spend time with them to listen, strategize, and coach them. I do not like to micromanage people. However, I thoroughly enjoy seeing them each have individual success in their roles. I want to be their biggest cheerleader, and when they make a mistake my job is to pick them up and help them move forward as they learn from those mistakes.
What are the most important things you rely on from your franchisor? Continuing innovation in product and technology. Implementing overall marketing strategies and trends that are up to date and relevant for our industry. Protecting the quality of the brand on a national level.
What I need from vendors: Dependability, consistency, communication, and competitive pricing.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How? With the rising cost of living, our customers are making choices on where to spend their money. Our focus is to continue to provide an amazing experience for each of our customers and to focus on customer appreciation events throughout our locations. In addition, I believe it is more important than ever to give back to the communities we are privileged to serve. There are times, such as these, when it is more important to focus our energies on how we can have a positive impact on those around us. The rest will take care of itself.
How is social media affecting your business? There are pros and cons to social media. It is a fantastic avenue for marketing and reaching our target markets, yet it also can be a sounding board for a less-than-stellar customer experience. I believe that if we use social media correctly it provides us with the opportunity to watch for ways we can improve our operations every day and effectively communicate with our customer base.
How do you hire and fire? We spend a lot of time and energy (and dollars) on recruiting and screening for team members for our growing company. We are looking for people with great personalities as well as stellar character and integrity. We can train for the rest of the skills we need. Our goal is to hire, train, and develop well so that we fire infrequently!
How do you train and retain? We have been working for years to develop and refine our training process, particularly for our leadership team. We are not perfect and will continue to refine those processes as we grow. We truly believe that if we equip and empower our team and create a positive culture and environment for people to work in, our retention rates will continue to exceed industry standards.
How do you deal with problem employees? Part of having a culture of training and developing our employees is providing effective avenues for constructive feedback. Our goal is to be consistent throughout all of our locations in providing that feedback and simultaneously providing a clear growth and career path for all interested employees.
Fastest way into my doghouse: Lying, lack of integrity, trustworthiness. I just don’t have time for that, so I move on quickly when I see those characteristics come out of an individual or business.
How did Covid-19 affect your business? Covid-19 provided some of the greatest challenges of my business career, but I feel it also trained and equipped us, as leaders, to be prepared to move quickly in an ever-changing environment. It most certainly refined our problem-solving skills.
How have you responded? Initially, we had to adapt and change quickly, sometimes by the hour. I always want to be a company that can move quickly and adapt when circumstances require it. On this side of the pandemic, we are finding ourselves adjusting once again. We are in the business of coffee, but really it is the business of relationships with people. During Covid, we were not able to gather as often as we were used to doing. We now find ourselves having to be intentional about getting into the habit of face-to-face connections again. I believe we are wired to be in relationships with people, and I am absolutely loving reconnecting in person. It is such an important part of our company culture.
What changes do you think will be permanent? I think the staffing challenges that have arisen since the beginning of Covid are here for a while, at minimum. I do believe that our world is evolving and changing at a faster pace than ever before in history, and therefore we must be willing and able to adapt as well. If we are going to survive as business leaders, we have to be willing to constantly self-reflect and adapt our leadership skills to that changing environment. If we are trying to lead like we were leading before Covid, we will miss the mark in this new era we are all experiencing.
Annual revenue: $44 million.
2023 goals: 6 new locations, double-digit comps over 2022 in existing locations, and exceed industry standards in all KPIs.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth? Growth can truly be measured by the personal and professional growth achieved by each of the leaders in our company. At the end of the day, I want us to be a company that focuses on developing and training the individuals on our team. If they are individually successful and achieve new heights, we will be successful as a group!
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? I want to have successfully built a team of individuals who are able to work together cohesively to bring more success to our business than I was ever capable of doing myself. I believe we are more than well on our way to that goal. We have some really strong, key individuals that make up the foundation of our company. In 10 years, I see myself slowing down just a bit personally, but not as a company! I don’t think I am capable of slipping off into the sunset, aka retirement. I enjoy staying busy and working, and I’m confident that my team will help pull the wagon so my husband and I can spend more time traveling the world together. Our travel bucket list is long!
Do you have brands in different segments? Why/why not? Currently, no. I have weighed the pros and cons of diversifying into other brands. I know the coffee business inside and out. I know what it can and will do in a strong economy and a struggling economy. I know what it takes to succeed, and for that reason I have chosen at this time to put my energy into growing our Scooter’s Coffee business and dominating in the markets where we operate.
Are you experiencing economic growth in your market? In the past 2 to 3 years we have had really strong growth. While we are feeling the impact of the current economy, we are still seeing daily, weekly, and monthly positive growth in our company.
How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business? It honestly doesn’t affect how we do business in our current locations. Our focus remains consistent, which is to provide an amazing experience for our customers consistently in each location. As far as new business development, an economic downturn can sometimes be the opportunity for us to capitalize on growth when others are slowing down or even pushing pause. I believe in our brand and the model of Scooter’s Coffee, so we intend to continue to press forward on all fronts.
How do you forecast for your business? With Covid producing some unique times in our world, and now with the economy slowing down, I forecast our sales for 2023 very conservatively. I feel confident that we will meet or exceed the forecasts I have in place, which provides confidence in our goals for the next year or two. Anything above my forecasts will just allow for bonus opportunities.
What are the best sources for capital expansion? For us, it is through partnership with our local bank, which we have had a long-term relationship with.
Experience with private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? Why/why not? We have a really strong partnership with our local bank. Mutual trust allows us to work together on future growth plans, and we intend to continue in this relationship for the foreseeable future.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)? We have a pretty competitive compensation and benefits package for our employees that includes salary, tips, bonuses, health care, dental/vision, short-term disability, life insurance, situational insurance, tuition reimbursement, and free coffee. However, we are constantly assessing and reviewing that package to remain competitive in our industry, and we anticipate additional benefits will be rolled out in 2023. On top of that, offering growth and development opportunities is a big part of what we offer our employees who demonstrate strength, leadership, and a willingness to learn.
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