The first thing customers noticed was the new espresso machines. The next was the taste.
Under new ownership, Crane Coffee approached its recent 21st anniversary with a yearlong makeover of nearly every aspect of its business in an effort to make sure “Omaha's original coffeehouse” can grow amid heavy competition from larger chains Scooter's and Starbucks.
The company started by returning to its original coffee-making process.
“We have been deeply rooted in, from the very beginning, the art of coffee,” said General Manager Rachel Ayala-Johnson, 30, who started with the company as a barista and is now overseeing improvements in coffee-making, staff training, marketing, customer service, drive-through operations, store decor and other aspects of the business.
So far, company leaders say the efforts are paying off, with positive sales growth each quarter this year compared with last year despite challenges that included exceptionally hot summer weather and construction near some store locations. October sales are especially strong, and the company is considering its eighth location, Ayala-Johnson said.
The priority, she added, is maintaining the focus on hand-crafted coffee drinks. For example, Crane got rid of its automatic espresso machines and retrained everyone — from baristas to the company owner — on how to make the perfect shot of espresso from scratch on manual machines with locally roasted beans that are finely ground in-house and firmly tamped.
Ayala-Johnson said that after one of the store's founders died in 2006 and the company was sold in 2008, there was little consistency in drink-making among the locations. The next owners responded to competition by taking the company in a different direction, opening a short-lived cafe concept downtown that Ayala-Johnson said didn't resonate with Crane's core customers.
Now, under its third set of owners, Keith and Linda Graeve, she said, “We've had our focus on improving our basics: drink making, customer service and really uniting the stores. There was not a lot of company camaraderie. We are trying to build relationships among the stores and provide a more unified experience for customers.”
Keith Graeve is a retired accountant who cruises around Omaha in a tiny Fiat wrapped in the yellow and purple Crane logo and a license plate that reads: S PRSS O. He had some experience operating a coffee franchise location in the Kansas City area when he heard Crane might be for sale. Graeve said he intends to stick by the Crane name and concept.
“It's a great tradition, just to know that we were first,” he said.
Crane was founded in 1991 by Steve and Paulette Hammerstrom, who had seen Starbucks' success in Seattle and wanted to bring craft coffee drinks to Omaha. They opened a cart downtown in the Brandeis Building and later started 13th Street Coffee Co., before bringing in the “Crane” name to today's Cass Street location, a nod to the state's sandhill crane migration. Neither original location is still part of the company.
Graeve said the original owners told him that while there was little competition at first for their product, their biggest challenge was educating people about gourmet coffee.
Now, he said, “There's a lot of coffee sold in Omaha,” with other chains outpacing Crane in adding locations. Scooter's, also locally owned, opened in 1998 and now has 40 Omaha-area locations and dozens more elsewhere. Starbucks brought its first stand-alone stores to the market in 2002 and now has approximately 30 locations in the metro area.
Graeve believes Crane also has potential to grow because of its locations and because of the improvements to service and marketing.
“We just feel if we do all the right things, and serve them fast and friendly, we'll get our share of the market,” he said. Graeve said he doesn't know yet how fast the company will grow, but the next store or stores will likely be neighborhood-based locations in the Omaha or Lincoln areas.
The brand's local focus is a selling point for customers like Jennifer Stutte, an educator having a cinnamon-flavored coffee and a blueberry scone at the 60th and Center Streets location Tuesday morning.
“It's local, is the main reason” she frequents Crane, she said.
Susan Schnase, chief development officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands, was at Crane for a business meeting and said she likes the atmosphere.
“It has a really welcoming kind of vibe to it,” Schnase said.
For nursing student Lyda Lohmeier, who goes to Crane to study and sip a skinny latte with whipped cream, the coffee flavor is the draw. When she comes home, her children say, “You smell like coffee,” and Lohmeier says, “Well, where do you think I've been?”
On top of the classic espresso drinks, Crane has added new drinks like cold-brew coffee, more smoothie options and the frozen blended Cafreddo.
“When we were first around, we didn't really have competition,” Ayala-Johnson said. “We've really had to step up our game as far as the quality of our products and the level of our customer experience we're providing.”
A new focus on making drinks in a consistent way from store to store “really helped bring us back to our core values” and draw back customers, said area manager Nancy Kaminski, who helped train staff in drink-making and speaks poetically about properly steamed milk's “creamy, velvety texture.”
Graeve said he doesn't know why sales had fallen off — whether from competition or the recession — but he says the business now is headed in the right direction.
It is employees with years of longevity who are leading the turnaround. Kaminski started with Crane in 2000 as a barista, the year before Ayala-Johnson also took a barista job while studying English and creative writing at Creighton University. Ayala-Johnson returned to Crane in 2009, after working several years with Starbucks in Tennessee.
All store-level managers now have responsibility for individual store sales, and they are being provided sales histories as well as incentives for meeting goals, Ayala-Johnson said.
She oversees Crane's 70 employees and is frequently in the stores, visiting with staff and keeping in touch with customers. That's what's most satisfying about the business, she said — putting together the perfect drink, handing it to a customer and helping to provide a good start to the day.
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