Carl and Lori Churchill’s coffee company was born while the couple was talking one night over, fittingly, their favorite roast. It was during the 2009 recession and Carl’s software business, which was designed for the mortgage and construction industries, had all but dissolved. He and Lori were discussing what they’d do next – a business ideally, with low overhead – when inspiration struck.
The couple started Alpha Coffee first as an online business, under the name Lock-n-Load Java. Along with shipments to consumers across the U.S., they also offered local pick-up for customers in their Utah neighborhood, and began meeting people at a parking lot near their house. Over time, said Carl, between the number of trips they were making to hand over bags of beans and local requests for a brick-and-mortar shop, the Churchills opened their first location in 2017, rebranded as Alpha Coffee. Since then, their business has flourished and more shops are in the works.
Carl retired from the military as a Lt. Colonel after 21 years of service. In an interview with Military Made, he discussed his and Lori’s connection to coffee, their business ethos, and how military service and belief in service shape their work and approach to running Alpha. Among their community and charitable work, Alpha sends bags of beans from every batch to deployed troops, and donates a portion of its profits to charities that support the military community, and particularly veterans and their families.
Military Made: What drew you to the coffee business?
Carl Churchill: When Lori and I were stationed in Europe, we were exposed to cafe culture, Italian espresso and other great coffees. When I wasn't deployed, we’d take a four-day weekend and go to places like Paris, and then we'd sit down and have a coffee. So we had been into coffee culture and into quality coffee and craft coffee for a while. It was a natural transition to want to provide really high-quality, small-batch coffee.
We also wanted to give back right from the start, by sending coffee to deployed troops and to donate to charities that helped military families.
MM: Why is giving back important to you and Lori?
CC: A lot of people look at guys in the military and think of them as these aggressive alpha-male types that like combat. But [that’s not accurate]. Instead, it's the sense of serving, it's the sense of protecting people who can’t protect themselves. It's a sense of being part of the solution. And, you know, that was hard when I came out of the military. It's like, okay, the whole objective is just to make money, and to buy yourself nice things?
The transition out of the military, where you're at a point where [you’re] not really serving others. That's part of why we have pulled that into a core part of our business, that sense of serving others and good being about more than just trying to sell something.
MM: Can you tell me about the process of building Alpha from an online business to one that’s now growing into multiple, brick-and-mortar locations? What were some of your biggest hurdles?
CC: We did what I never recommend anybody do: we cashed out our life savings to start the business. It was the middle of the recession. We were starting this company, and I was looking for jobs. And there were hiring freezes everywhere. So, I looked at Laurie and I said, ‘Hey, we're in a financial ambush.’
In the military, when you're in an ambush, you can't just lay there and hope somebody is going to come and save your life. You have to move, you have to make a decision. And your last option is to put your weapon on rock and roll and charge right into the middle of the ambush. Either you survive, and if you don't, you are going to die anyway. We did the financial equivalent of that: we cashed out our 401k and all of our emergency savings, and we used it to start the business.
We worked full time at it for the first year. And then the realization came that we're going to run out of money before the business is going to pay the bills. So I ended up getting a full-time job. And Lori and the kids ran it during the day. Shipping orders, answering customer service, emails, packing things – all the stuff you have to do. And then when I came home from my daytime job and worked till two o'clock in the morning, invoicing, and paying bills and doing marketing, planning, new products, all of that stuff. For probably the next three years there were many, many times where we were like, is this even worth it?
But then, you just persevere. One of my favorite quotes is from Winston Churchill, “Kites rise highest against the wind.” When you have that kind of challenge, people either quit or they double down and they work twice as hard and they figure out solutions. That's what we did.
MM: Were there any crucial turning points in those years – pivotal decisions that led you to where you are now?
CC: There were a couple of them. Early on, we kept trying different things – for example, we used to have a lot of flavored coffees. And we didn't sell a ton of them. But we had a small core group of customers that just really loved the flavored coffees. We’d have some revenue from that and say, we can't get rid of it. Finally, I think it was probably three or three or four years in when we thought, we need to get rid of some of these things that aren't really big sellers and focus on the core.
It's one of the tenets of military tactics is that you reinforce success. If you're encountering a lot of opposition in some area, rather than pouring all your time and effort and your reserves into that strong point, you reinforce where you're having success, where you're penetrating the enemy's lines. And that's how you have the breakthrough. Learning that we needed to reinforce success was a really big win for us
MM: What advice would you give to other veterans who are considering starting businesses of their own?
CC: I talk a lot to veterans who want to start their own businesses. There are two things I tell them: Number one is it’s going to take more time, money and effort than you anticipate, the runway is longer to get lift under your wing. We thought, ‘we've got this amazing coffee, we’re going to give great service, we've got a great cause. And all we need to do is build the website and drive people to it, and it's just going to be a no-brainer, we're going to do great.’
It just takes so much more than that. It's difficult, and that's okay. It's okay for it to be difficult, but you always overestimate how your product is going to resonate.
The other thing I tell veterans is, if you want great benefits, and two weeks vacation, go work for a large corporation. [As an] entrepreneur, you're going to work harder and make less money, but you're also going to love every second of it. It’s building something yourself. We have 30 employees now, we take it really seriously that we've created these jobs and these people rely on us to pay their rent, to make their car payment. But also, to grow in their leadership skills, and their customer service skills [and watch them grow].
Starting your own company is a lot of work. There's no immediate gratification. It's a long, long slog, but it's one that’s got great views all along the way.
MM: Lastly, how would you say that your career in the military has informed how you run your business? Are there lessons you’ve applied at Alpha?
CC: I would say it's got everything to do with it. I started in the military at such a young age [at 17], it had a huge impact on my leadership style, on my value system, on my sense of what's important, what makes me tick, or what motivates me. And we've instilled that in our culture, our culture is based on the warrior ethos. We have a four bullet-point mission statement. In the military, one of the things you have to do is you have to give people a very clear objective, you have to provide them with leadership, you have to provide them with the resources they need to achieve that mission. And then you need to support and remove obstacles as the leader, so that they can achieve the mission.
So that's how we run Alpha, it's that warrior ethos. Good is the enemy of great, it's honing your craft, and it's winning as a team.