written by Megan Oliver | photos by Ezra Marcos
Travis Boersma spends a lot of time mulling the idea of culture. He talks about culture in meetings at Dutch Bros.’ company headquarters in Grants Pass, implements a consistent culture across more than 200 venues in seven states and once went so far as to participate in the television show Undercover Boss to investigate the practices of coffee bean growers his company contracts with in South America.
Jovial and blunt with the cadences of a surfer who just got the best wave of his life, Boersma, 43, appears to have been thrown into the role of CEO but shaped it to fit his life. After his brother and business partner, Dane, died in 2009 from the neuro-degenerative disease known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or ALS, Boersma took a hard look at the family business to assess the culture of the country’s largest privately held drive-thru coffee chain.
“Dane’s passing reminded us of what matters. The business has never been driven by money,” said Boersma. “When we grow, it’s always because its right, not forced. We set goals and model our direction on concepts we respect, like Tony Robbins’ goal-setting workshops and Les Schwab’s company culture.”
The Boersma brothers grew up on a multigenerational dairy farm in Grants Pass, but by 1992, the business wasn’t penciling out. During a weekend trip to Portland, Boersma, then 21 years old, was mesmerized by the rainbow of syrups on display at an espresso cart he visited outside Nordstrom.
Touting the relatively unknown specialty coffee beverage business to his brother, Boersma launched into a franchising pitch—a common tête-à-tête between the brothers as they planned for the future. Dane, who was seventeen years his senior and a family man with three kids, ordered an espresso from a local coffee shop and told Boersma he was crazy for thinking people would drink the bitter beverage. Then Dane drank his first vanilla latte and he changed his tune.
The brothers launched their flagship ristretto espresso cart in Grants Pass, complete with the now-signature double-shot base and free syrups. Ristretto-pulling is a classic Italian process that yields the same amount of coffee from half the water of other systems. Even in today’s coffee- saturated markets, the style is still uncommon in the United States.
The franchising system is the lynchpin to Dutch Bros. success. Potential franchisees must work for the company for at least three years. “We award franchises to people who demonstrate our values and have developed the skills to put the customer at the forefront,” said Boersma. All franchise owners started out as “bro-istas”—the upbeat Dutch Bros. version of a barista, whipping up Caramelizers and Cocomos to the beats of pumping music.
“We really appreciate music,” said Boersma. “If we make coffee without music, something is missing. Music is an ingredient.” This is the energy behind the chain’s recognizable blue-and-white windmill coffee huts.
Bro-istas all wear apparel designed with and shipped from the company’s 4,000-square-foot clothing warehouse at headquarters in Grants Pass. “We wanted to have a look, without requiring a uniform,” said marketing director Dan Buck. The retail arm is also a growing aspect of the business for customers. That branding acumen extends to Oregon State University and University of Oregon athletics, where Dutch Bros. is the exclusive coffee provider.
At the heart of Dutch Bros. family-like culture is social capital. Each franchise gives at least 1 percent of gross revenue to community causes of their choice. In honor of Dane, all proceeds from one day of sales each year goes to ALS research and family support. All told, the company donates more than $1 million annually. “I’m fortunate to have a thriving business rooted in my home town, with multiple generations of Boersmas involved,” said Boersma. “We want to return the support that people have given us. There is so much value in giving back, in paying it forward.”