The ritual of coffee and its allure seem an aspect of most cultures, consumed as a part of a social custom or activity – including the military.
Carl Churchill, co-owner and co-founder of Alpha Coffee, knows the feeling of sharing a coffee moment with others. He deployed many times as a member of the U.S. Army.
“When you sit down with a bunch of teammates, and you share a cup of coffee… it’s a special time during deployment,” Churchill told Reserve & National Guard Magazine, “and so we wanted to be part of that.”
Military service runs in the family
Alpha Coffee is a family run business that is a source of coffee blends for many military personnel. But the military is also a Churchill family business.
Churchill’s stepfather served in Vietnam as an Army Ranger, and Carl grew up around military people. He was drawn to it via proximate osmosis and knew it was his calling.
“I graduated from high school and wanted to raise my right arm,” he said.
Churchill served nine years as an active-duty officer and an additional 12 in the Army Reserve, moving up the ranks from private to lieutenant colonel.
Churchill’s son Trevor surprised him and his wife, Lori, when he announced after his high school graduation that he was interested in joining the military.
“I wanted to do something that was a little bit bigger than myself,” Trevor said. “Just like my dad, a lot of our relatives had served too.”
Trevor is a second lieutenant in the Utah National Guard. He serves in the 204th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade as the brigade assistant intelligence officer.
But Alpha Coffee is the true family business, comprising Carl, Lori, Trevor and the couple’s daughter, Denai.
Carl is the chief coffee officer. Lori is the beverage director, training the baristas and developing the drink menus and recipes. Denai is responsible for branding.
Trevor is the assistant manager at one of the brick-and-mortar locations, but is slated to become the manager of another store once it opens.
“It’s an interesting and also cool dynamic to be a part of a family business,” Trevor said.
Alpha Coffee startup parallels military
When Carl hit the civilian job market, he found the startup model appealing because of its parallel to the military.
“You had a small team, a sense of mission, everybody working together to achieve that mission,” he said.
Alpha Coffee rose from the ashes of a software startup that didn’t survive the 2008 financial crisis.
Coffee seemed to be the right fit.
“We’d been coffee… connoisseurs and living in Europe and having great coffee over there and experiencing café culture,” Carl said.
He also had sampled the robust coffees of Central America while deployed there in the mid-1980s.
“When we went out and met with local commandantes down there, we would drink some of the local coffee, and we were like, ‘Holy crap, this is great coffee,’” Carl said.
Carl and Lori subsequently cashed in their life savings and went all-in on entrepreneurship.
“And here we are over 20,000 bags of coffee-to-deployed-troops-later,” Carl said. “Instead of it being me, and Lori, and our two teenaged kids, in the basement… now we have 35 employees and two coffee shops.”
Navigating the slope of family business dynamics can be rewarding but slippery, too.
“Going into business with family members is very tricky,” Carl said. “It is both an advantage, because you know and trust each other deeply, and a disadvantage because you take things personally and it overlaps and intertwines with your personal relationship.”
He said the key is to “over communicate,” be kind in any conveyance and consider how your words might feel on a personal level.
“You should constantly check yourself by saying, ‘Would I be reacting or communicating this way if this person wasn’t a family member?’” Carl said.
Alpha offers online subscriptions, and its wholesale program is on track to earn $2.5 million in sales this year. The company is also planning to expand its brick-and-mortar operations throughout Utah.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Carl said.