Shop Talk

Backstory: Couple moves to Raleigh chasing dream of owning a coffee store

Chris Hilliard, front, and his wife, Jackie, work together to serve customers at their Electric Beanz coffee shop Aug. 12.
Chris Hilliard, front, and his wife, Jackie, work together to serve customers at their Electric Beanz coffee shop Aug. 12.

Chris and Jackie Hilliard knew they wanted to open a coffee shop, they just weren’t sure when and where.

They were living in Florida near West Palm Beach. Jackie, now 31, was working for a church office and Chris, now 28, worked at an independent coffee store.

They couldn’t afford to build out a place in their hometown, and no independent coffee shops were for sale there.

So, about a year ago, the married couple turned to classified advertising website Craigslist, and looked for coffee shops in the Southeast listed for sale under their $50,000 budget.

By September 2013, they had identified four. Businesses in Lillington, Greensboro and Winston-Salem were drive-thru spots. But Electric Beanz Coffee Bar in Raleigh, Jackie said, was exactly what they were looking for and within their price range.

“A place where people could hang out, feel comfortable,” she said. “Where it would feel like an extension of our home.”

Terri Voltz had started Electric Beanz in south Raleigh in July 2009. She sold it in February 2012 to another owner who then sold it to the Hilliards.

The Hilliards and their two dogs moved to Raleigh, where they knew no one, in September 2013. They signed the ownership papers around 8 p.m. on Sept. 30 and opened at 6:30 a.m. Oct. 1.

They only slept one hour that first night as they spent the evening adding a point-of-sale system, setting up speakers and making the shop their own.

“We wanted to make it just very comfortable and welcoming,” Chris said. “We want you to linger and hang out.”

The couple had worked together at a retreat and conference center in Manitoba, Canada, for about a year after they married in 2010. Jackie had handled rental sales. Chris was head cook.

They moved back to Florida and explored opening a breakfast place, but decided that was too fast-paced after Chris took a job at one. Chris then worked at Starbucks for more than a year and then an independent coffee store.

The couple bought Electric Beanz with savings and loans from friends and family.

In their first month, the couple said, they started to panic. Wake Technical Community College, which is just down the road, was on a break and business was slow. Then there were unexpected expenses, such as needing to get the air-conditioner and grease trap cleaned, buy a new speaker and fix the fridge.

Amid that initial stress, the couple had to learn to work together again, with Chris training Jackie how to make drinks and work the point-of-sale system.

A month later, they had established a system in which Chris worked the cash register and Jackie made the drinks. They also divided up decision-making responsibilities. Chris would order supplies for the front and Jackie would handle the books.

Kings Grant Commons, the shopping center they are in, also has a Harris Teeter with a Starbucks, which has been a disadvantage because of the competition, but an advantage as many people find the Starbucks online but decide to shop local once they see Electric Beanz, the couple said.

Another challenge has been figuring out how to pull in their target market: Wake Tech students and people living near the store. A website, temporary signs and activity on Facebook has helped, they said.

The best marketing so far, Chris said, was just making good coffee, being nice and getting to know their repeat customers.

“Our feeling is we have just been here long enough to start developing a community,” he said.