Apr 23, 2014

Doug Zell – Wisconsin

Pursuit of Greatness
Doug Zell – Wisconsin

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When we recently caught Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea co-founder and CEO Doug Zell on the phone, we knew we had to talk fast.

The craft coffee power player’s company is currently in the midst of, perhaps, its most ambitious year yet with the opening of five new stores in 2013.

In Chicago, one of those — in Logan Square — opened last month, while two more — in Old Town and Wicker Park — will follow in the coming months. Meanwhile, Intelligentsia’s first New York coffee bar is opening inside the High Line Hotel next week and its San Francisco retail debut is slated for the fall.

Compared to eighteen years ago, when Intelligentsia’s flagship shop opened in Lakeview, the number of craft coffee options in Chicago has exploded in a trend Zell described as mirroring the city’s ever-innovating food scene.

“I think Chicago was a little later on the scene in terms of being widespread due to rent structures and how things work here but, in general, I think it’s fantastic,” Zell told HuffPost. “It means more people are going to be enjoying really great coffee.”

For a company known for a borderline-obsession with quality, was there a fear that such a blitz of new stores could impact their product, we wondered?

“Absolutely, positively not,” Zell said. “When there is evidence of that in other companies, it’s a decision by ownership to compromise and we are unwilling to do that. Our training and quality assurance just have to be that much more rigorous, but it’s something we’ll never let slip away from us.”

Such attention to detail, Zell noted, is particularly important in Chicago, where he said customers are less susceptible to hype than those on the West Coast.

“Chicagoans are different from Angelenos. Angelenos want to be the first in the door, while Chicagoans want to know their money is being well spent. You have to prove your mettle in Chicago.”

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