Brigid McCarthy ’25 (She / She), Editor-in-Chief
As the final weeks of March 2021 gave way to the first weeks of April, as Davidson students felt the double euphoria and grief of a slow-opening vaccinated campus reaching and passing the first anniversary of COVID shutdowns after a tough and strict year, Summit Coffee announced its plans to start from its Outpost location on campus.
“You had to be there. The tension and weirdness on campus was… you could feel it radiating out from everyone… Yeah. Crazy,” described Maddy Wolfenbarger ’22, then deputy director and current director of Summit Outpost. The reason people fought for this space is because it is a student space, in its own right. It is owned by students, like Brian [Helfrich, CEO] was a student, Tim [Helfrich, COO] was a student. They own it, but as we work on it… it’s really important to keep the space for us.
A renegotiation led to the continuation of Summit’s stay on campus. As Brian Helfrich ’07, CEO of Summit Coffee, looks to the future of the business, he says the business itself remains rooted in Davidson – both the city and the college.
At the foot of the mountain
Summit’s story begins in the late ’90s, a time when Helfrich said Summit was as far from its prime as the specialty coffee industry as a whole. The small business began operating in a decades-old building, serving not only as a cafe but also as community space. It took years for it to “really take hold,” Helfrich said.
“When my brother bought it in 2003, Summit was doing 15% of the business he does today. Main Street in Davidson, you could walk outside at 1 p.m. and you wouldn’t see a car. There was no car parked there, no car was driving… that’s what Davidson was, ”Helfrich said. “Once we persevered through the 2008-2010 recession, we came out with a certain aspiration to grow, that’s when my brother hired me to help facilitate that growth. “
Helfrich has been CEO for five years and executive shareholder alongside his brother Tim for ten years, both witnessing firsthand and guiding the growth and development of the company.
“For years we didn’t know exactly what [the Summit franchise] was going to look like… We wanted to grow, we wanted to expand the brand, ”Helfrich said. “We started roasting and got into this whole aspect of the business, which is importing coffee, visiting other countries, wholesale distribution to other cafes and restaurants… and we’ve since opened five more cafes to get to seven. And we have four more that are in development right now. So that puts us at 11 and counts. I think our ambition is to be at 50 in the next five years.
The aforementioned 11 summit locations are in the state. The 50 potentials will make the Summit evolve at the national level.
“From 2022, we will leave the state. Our first markets are Atlanta, Charleston, continuing to expand into North Carolina, then there are a handful of other out-of-state markets… that we’ll likely pursue: northern Virginia, New England… the next two years, which are exciting, ”he said. “Our macro marketing goal is to become a nationally recognized and locally valued company.”
Beyond Summit’s physical expansion across the United States, Helfrich is excited about developing the company’s brand beyond espresso.
“We are a lifestyle brand. And I’m not even sure what that means. But that’s what I like to say that we are. We place a lot of importance on our slogan ‘Find Your Top’, which I think has very little to do with coffee and has a lot to do with personal development and aspirations, ”he said.
Summit launched an online advertising campaign where the company partners with athletes to promote the brand and its message on social media. The list to date consists of Courtney Dauwalter, an ultramarathon runner, and Phil Henderson, a mountaineer.
“We try to target specific demographics and groups of people that we think our brand will connect with. And so the outdoor industry and athletes logically fit into the Summit Coffee brand in some ways, ”he said. “What we want people to do is be inspired, encouraged or motivated to understand no matter how high they are. And not a literal mountain, although it might be for them. But whether you’re a parent, a kid, going to work, or doing something in sports … just figure out what you want to accomplish and then be encouraged to do your best to push yourself further, which is. sort of fundamental in the way we run our business, ”he said.
Summit, Outpost and Davidson
On the day that Summit Outpost, affectionately known as “nummit,” opened on the Davidson College campus in 2013, Helfrich’s first daughter was born. He spent the opening day of Outpost in the hospital. It’s an odd comparison to make between the birth of a child and the opening of a new operating site, but Helfrich explained how “bad timing” led to two parallel developments both in terms of potential and impact.
Outpost “started all of our growth,” Helfrich said. “This was the first growth extension we’ve ever tried outside of this downtown Davidson footprint. It was the first time we were like, “Okay, what else can Summit be? And we have learned so much. We’ve made so many stupid mistakes. We tried so many things that didn’t work. And so I think it’s been kind of an incubator of ideas that has helped refine what Summit is good at, what we want to be.
Yet as Helfrich looks to the future, he claimed Summit knows where he came from and who built it.
“We are rooted here at Davidson,” he simply said. “The two Davidson cafes are the ones we believe we have the highest level of connectivity with because we live here…. Davidson ticks all the boxes for a community we want to start a business in. I think it’s progressive, it’s user-friendly, it’s active, it’s social. And I think these are all important things to be the foundation of our business. “
Helfrich and his management team plan to prioritize the maintenance, development and branding of existing locations just as they plan to focus on the next steps. In fact, Summit Coffee hopes to bring some idea of southern coffee to the small town it hails from to each new location.
“The more we grow, we continue to inject resources into our current cafes,” confirmed Helfrich. “Our store in downtown Davidson, we just had a massive renovation this summer. And so it was a reinvestment in this cafe to update it from a brand perspective. And so we’ll continue to make sure our spaces are relevant and up to date. “
“The expansion has already changed Basecamp a bit as they need a more streamlined process of building cafes,” said Sarah Woods ’21, current director of Basecamp and former director of Outpost. “They will change a bit but… these two cafes, Outpost and Basecamp, will always be like the home port.”
Find the top
Since the lease renegotiation agreement between Summit Coffee and Davidson College, their bond is stronger than ever: changes to student-only staff at Outpost, new dining dollar limits (or lack thereof), and options for More recently added late night catering have allowed a preferred student space to stay just that.
While Summit Coffee, Davidson College, and the City of Davidson continue to undergo substantial development, they remain inextricably linked to each other, their individual growths pushing and pulling each other.
“Last year, you know, there was a period where we thought we were leaving campus, and there was some uproar, so it was interesting to go through. But now I’m excited to continue to find ways to deepen our relationship with the college and continue to be a good alumni group. And yes, who knows where Summit will be in a few years? Helfrich asked rhetorically, before stating “Well, I have an idea.”