Ocean Springs — When Adam and Tram Flinchum were trying to get financing to open the Coffee Fusion Café, bankers turned them away. The location they had selected on U.S. 90 was “not worth the effort and money,” some said. Previous food businesses in that location had failed — even after serving up food customers raved about.
The business was planned in an older building, and while it is a high-traffic location, parking is limited. There are only five parking places in front of the business.
There were other issues, as well.
While Adam had worked in the restaurant business for 15 years, this would be his first time to own a business. And the couple wanted to be the first business in Mississippi to offer “bubble tea.” Bubble tea is tea or fruit smoothies that include “bubbles” made of small pieces of tapioca. Very popular in Asian countries, it was an untried concept on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
After bank financing failed, the Flinchums emptied out their 401(k) account and other savings, and went to family and friends for small loans. After remodeling the location at 2758 Bienville Blvd./U.S. 90, they opened the doors of Coffee Fusion in October 2003.
Simply put, the place has been a hit. Coffee Fusion Café was recently named Small Business of the Year by the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce.
“I was totally surprised by the award,” Flinchum said. “We thought we were going to get an award for something small like best coffee. We’re still in shock and very flattered. I can’t say enough about the chamber. They have done so much for us. I’m excited about everything they do. We’re proud to be members.”
The success of the venture has allowed Coffee Fusion Café to recently move a few blocks down the street to open in a brand new building — one with plenty of parking. It is located in a shopping center with a fitness theme. The center includes World Gym, a skating rink, a martial arts training center and a dance/entertainment arts studio.
“We’re a nice addition to that complex, which has active, family-oriented businesses,” Flinchum said. “We’re providing a place where families can go have fun and be healthy. The main reason for moving over here is the parking. We couldn’t expand where we were at, and didn’t have enough storage space. No matter how much we built on to that building, we still would have only five parking places.”
Prior to opening the business, Flinchum had traveled all over the country and always enjoyed seeking out good coffee houses.
“In most places, a really good coffee shop is a way of life,” Flinchum said. “When we settled in Ocean Springs, we felt strongly about doing something like that here. The key to its success is we have tried to make it a cozy, comfortable, cool place to hang out. The trend nowadays in business is if people aren’t spending a lot of money, get them out of there. Most businesses don’t encourage sitting around a lot.
“But we have gone the exact opposite direction. We want people hanging out here, so we give free Internet and have couches, chairs and a TV. We don’t care how old you are. We want this place to be where people gather like someone’s living room. It is not the corporate way, but it is the way cafés used to be in Europe where people gathered for hours to talk and have a drink. People are enjoying that at Coffee Fusion. They are enjoying the fact someone welcomes them like that. I saw a father and his five-year-old son putting together a model airplane at one of our tables for hours. I don’t think most restaurants would let you do that, to be honest with you.”
The Flinchums thought Ocean Springs needed a place like this, and apparently they were right. The café stayed busy despite the challenge of finding parking. Getting a morning bubble tea or coffee to take to school is particularly popular with the high school crowd.
Bubble tea is very popular with the Asian community on the Coast, which makes up approximately 30% of their business. But it has also caught on with the non- Asians that make up the other 70% of the business.
Coffee Fusion offers a wide variety of gourmet coffees in addition to the bubble teas. And it has added a line of healthy food offerings that have also proven popular. Flinchum said it is currently a three-way tie for sales between bubble tea smoothies, coffee drinks and food.
“It was always our intention to have a restaurant café that had great food and drinks,” Flinchum said. “But we couldn’t afford food at first. We have never taken a dime profit off the place, and plow everything we earn back into the business. One month we got a grill and the next extra refrigerator space and so on. That way we can grow and still pay back our friends and family slowly.”
The food and drinks are fresh, made to order and healthy (well, we might have to mention that the pastries and other desserts might not fit into that category).
Menu offerings include an Oriental Mandarin Orange chicken salad, a fruit plate with yogurt dressing, grilled Italian panini sandwiches, and a healthy wrap menu.
Flinchum believes the key to their success is giving top-notch customer service to go with the quality of food, and also running an honest business.
“Be honest to your employees, customers and vendors,” he said. “Rather than trying to save a buck or two by doing something that might be underhanded, have integrity and that will come back in more ways than you would ever imagine. Cheating a customer by not replacing a drink because it will cost money is wrong. Look at it long term, run an honest business and treat your customer like gold. Without them you don’t exist.”
The friendly manner of the Flinchums and their staff is also a draw. Customers’ first names are written on their ticket, and regulars are likely to be greeted by name.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.