35 Years In, Coffeehouse Decides to Franchise
"Leon Trotsky created the whole plan for the Russian revolution in a coffeehouse in Vienna."
Brian Olson rattles off this piece of trivia like it's everyday information, such as the price of gas or the name of the vice president. But as the founder and CEO of a full-service, European-style coffeehouse, it's slightly more fitting that Olson is avidly aware of the historical roots of his genre of restaurant, particularly at a time when he is preparing to grow his concept.
Café Intermezzo, the Atlanta-based coffeehouse that takes its cue from the 19th century European lifestyle, will begin franchising after nearly 35 years in operation, the brand announced earlier this month. Initial target cities for franchised locations are Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; and Charleston, South Carolina. The plan is to hit 18 stores across the nation in five years.
As for why the time is ripe for Café Intermezzo's debut on the national stage, Olson says it came down to accepting that his full-service coffeehouse concept, which boasts one of the largest cappuccino and espresso machines in the world and an extensive tea menu in addition to food, was not too complex to replicate successfully.
"I had considered the concept in my mind and had convinced myself that it was just very complicated, too complicated, to franchise," he says. "And that was somewhat mistaken on my own part."
The idea for Café Intermezzo sprang into Olson's mind after at trip to Europe in 1971 during which he says he "fell in love with the European coffeehouse." He saw it first in Germany and then in Vienna, Austria, where some of the first coffeehouses in history sprang up during the 18th century. The atmosphere reminded him of centuries-old writers, modern-day romantics, and thinkers in between.
"In 1971, I was just a young man, but the world of food in our country was exploding in franchising at that point," Olson says. "It was fast food and quick serves, particularly in the '60s with McDonald's growing. Things were getting fast in America. Fast and big. Big cups and big portions. And I saw the coffeehouse, interestingly, as a contradiction when I was traveling in Europe, because things were smaller and slower and more methodical."
“I wanted to serve a segment of the population that might appreciate those characteristics,” he adds. “A place where they could go and read the paper or communicate with a friend or romance someone or just think and make notes in their journal, which I saw a lot of in Europe over the years.”
Eight years after his first European adventure, Olson opened Café Intermezzo in Atlanta, his antithesis to the foodservice scene at the time. After nearly three decades of success, in 2007 Olson was just starting to consider franchising his concept, and within months was approached by a franchising company that wanted to fit his brand into Atlanta International Airport. The licensed location opened in 2009 and performed well, inspiring Olson to think broader.
"I decided it was time move forward with it because the concept was unavailable in so many cities around the country," Olson explains. "I've done a reasonable amount of traveling over the years and had not seen anything quite like Café Intermezzo anywhere.
"I used to live in Chicago, and hadn't seen anything come up that resembled the concept, even in New York, so I wanted it to grow based upon that. The presence of all of these elements to help facilitate it helped me convince myself that it was a great way to go, to bring the European coffee house to other areas and serve people around the country."
The first three franchised locations will be in the South, Olson says, because the franchise experts he is working with recommended keeping the new stores close to home. The cities of Charlotte, Nashville, and Charleston were chosen for three reasons: they boast high levels of education, and educated consumers make up the majority of the clientele at the Atlanta cafe, Olson says; the cities have high levels of tourism, but are not defined solely by the tourist economy; and finally, each has strong residential components.
The principal offering at Café Intermezzo is not the food and beverage but the atmosphere, Olson says. The Atlanta store is beautified by artwork, bronze statues, and crystal chandeliers, an atmosphere that harkens back to a 1900 coffeehouse in Austria. Now, as the brand expands, Olson will be principal interior designer at each location, finding homes for the marble statues, bronze chandeliers, crystals, sconces, and artwork he has accumulated for decades.
Café Intermezzo's goal, Olson says, is to become a person's so-called third place. Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg first pitched the concept of the third place in the late '80s, claiming that each individual has a locale outside of work and outside of home that is where she flourishes intellectually and socially.
"This third place is kind of an away-from-home area for reclamation and relaxation and just thinking and being and meeting with people," Olson explains. "A good example in recent American tradition was Cheers. People would go in and be known and feel like they were walking into home."
With its decidedly classical atmosphere and its steadfast rebellion against today's quick-coffee culture, Café Intermezzo remains a mini-vacation in the course of a day, Olson says. "Unlike most new franchisors, it's been a long time coming," he adds. "Dec. 3 will be our 35th anniversary of the original location. I'm grateful and thankful."
By Sonya Chudgar