Former Starbucks Executive Brings Learnings to Scooter’s Coffee | Franchise News

Joe Thornton

Joe Thornton’s nearly 40 years of experience serving in executive-level roles at Blockbuster, Starbucks, Jamba Juice and more prepared him for his new role as President of Scooter’s Coffee, where he will work alongside CEO Todd Graeve to grow the brand to more than 1,000 locations in the next few years. 

The new president at Scooter’s Coffee is no stranger to the competitive coffee industry. Joe Thornton joined the growing drive-thru coffee chain after spending 11 years at Starbucks, where he led a team of regional directors as senior vice president of licensed stores in the Sunbelt Division and helped lead the drive-thru team.

Though Starbucks doesn’t franchise its cafes, Thornton has plenty of experience growing a franchise. He served 14 years as senior director of franchising at the infamous boom-bust business, Blockbuster Video, providing operational support to 100 franchise owners at more than 1,000 stores.

“It was a very productive model, a rental product that kept people coming back, and the margins were incredible,” Thornton said about Blockbuster.

“I learned a lot in that business model, and the most important lesson I learned was about self-inflicted wounds,” Thornton added. “Most think about Netflix and Redbox taking market share, and I would describe it as giving away market share by not investing in kiosks, online rentals and ultimately streaming.”

Thornton took those lessons to Starbucks in 2006, another high-growth company, where he helped open 1,000 company-operated stores on top of licensed stores. By the time he left in 2017, the brand’s footprint had expanded to more than 9,000 U.S. locations. Now, it has more than 15,000.

“My biggest real learning at Starbucks was about culture,” Thornton noted. “It was a true gathering place we created, so I really enjoyed the experience at Starbucks. Coffee is a universal language just like movies were, which is why I loved both environments. They brought people together.”

Thornton left Starbucks for an opportunity to lead Jamba Juice as chief operating officer and senior vice president, where he helped rework the smoothie brand. “It was a public company that was frankly too small but needed to be private,” he said. Focus Brands acquired Jamba Juice in a take-private deal and paid $13 per share—about a $200 million total sale price.

“It was the greatest gift when that transaction happened. My mother was terminally ill and she passed away four months after I stopped working, so I got to spend those last four months with her,” Thornton reflected. “Through the normal course of work, I wouldn’t have taken the time off as needed.”

Leading through a crisis

Thornton took a year and a half off from work after his mother died, though he managed to publish two books and start a consulting business during that time. Then HMSHost, which operates airport restaurants such as Starbucks and Chick-fil-A, recruited Thornton after their CEO of 40 years retired.

The chance to lead more than 1,500 food and beverage locations in North America and partner with more than 300 brands across the HMSHost network attracted Thornton to the opportunity, and he joined the company in March 2020. Everyone knows what happened next.

On his fourth day, Thornton had to furlough 30,000 employees, and they lost 97 percent of sales in the third week.

There, he learned how to “shut down a brand and bring it back to life,” Thornton said. By the time he left in June, the business had recovered to about 88 percent of 2019 sales numbers.

“Even through a pandemic, you can still stand up as a leader, develop culture, develop people and push that. In the midst of a crisis, it’s actually easier to enact change,” Thornton said, adding he wrote a book on the topic called “The Hostility of Change: Breaking Through Deep-Seated Barriers” that he published in February 2021.

“You’re going to have natural resistance when you introduce new things. People are automatically going to say no, even for something that’s good for them,” Thornton noted. “However, during a crisis, you feel you have no choice for change, and it was ironically easier to get change accomplished throughout the pandemic.”

Scooter’s Coffee calls

Scooters drive thru.jpg

Scooter’s Coffee franchisees can choose between a 664-square-feet drive-thru coffee kiosk or a hybrid drive-thru coffeehouse, which is typically between 1,600 and 2,000 square feet.

When the HR team at Scooter’s Coffee reached out, Thornton said he appreciated the call didn’t come from an executive recruiter. “It signaled something to me about how important culture was to them, that they didn’t want to get it translated through someone else,” he said.

His second conversation was with Don Eckles, who cofounded the Omaha, Nebraska-based drive-thru coffee concept alongside his wife, Linda, in 1998 as “Scooter’s Java Express.” The first franchise location opened in 2001 in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Scooter’s footprint has since expanded to about 500 locations.

The clarity of the brand’s mission, brand promise and competency statement attracted Thornton to Scooter’s, which is slated to have more than 600 stores open by the end of 2022 and 1,000 by early 2024, he said.

“The core competency statement is probably what has resonated with me most out of all the things we’ve done,” Thornton said, which breaks down to “we deliver high-quality, high-margin drinks through a drive-thru lane fast and friendly. That’s really who we are.”

Another factor Thornton appreciated was the brand’s vertical integration, “where we roast our own coffee, bake our own baked goods for stores and ship them directly to stores in Scooter’s trucks,” Thornton said. “That’s a huge advantage given the fracturing of supply chain during the pandemic.”

Related: Scooter’s Coffee Wins a 2021 Franchise Times Zor Award

Related: Are Franchises Next for a Starbucks-Style Union Push?

By contrast, with 15,000 Starbucks locations, there are no Starbucks trucks out on the road, Thornton added. They deliver through a third party, “which again has caused problems for all people in the U.S. Scooter’s in the pandemic was never out of product.”

Thornton will work alongside Scooter’s Coffee CEO Todd Graeve to continue increasing drive-thru speed and adding cafes through existing and new franchisees.

Similar to Caribou Coffee which offers a smaller drive-thru-only “Cabin” model and a full coffeehouse “Chalet” model, Scooter’s franchisees can choose between a 664-square-feet drive-thru coffee kiosk or a hybrid drive-thru coffeehouse, which is typically between 1,600 and 2,000 square feet and is optimal for locations near college campuses and business centers. The total investment to open a Scooter’s Coffee ranges from $512,400 to $860,600.

“And the mission goes a bit further—it’s to create an amazing experience for each life we touch,” Thornton added. “Don Eckles talks about speed leads to loyalty. We send people off with a smile every day, and we talk about smiles per hour, not cars per hour. All these things wrap into who we are and how we operate every day.”

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