While his many ventures appear a seamless success, Chris McArthur shares the journey, and lessons learned, of bringing his businesses into smooth sailing.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN AUSTIN
Initially, the dream was to be a career military officer. Dedicating all of high school to the ROTC, from a young age Chris McArthur was set on attending the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point, and finding his way in the role of leadership in the military.
By his senior year of high school, during the application process and physical, McArthur discovered he was colorblind. “So that automatically disqualified me, and what I didn’t realize beyond that, was that it would extremely limit what I could do in the military,” McArthur says. “So all the high-speed, intelligence, high-technology stuff, I couldn’t do.” McArthur had spent four years working towards this dream which was suddenly snuffed and snatched from him.
At the last minute, McArthur applied to the University of Florida (UF) and was accepted. Still he couldn’t brush off this deep desire to serve his country. After his freshman year of college, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve.
“It was eye-opening on a lot of levels,” McArthur says. “I think, as young people, we tend to idealize certain things and create in our minds what being in that career will be like.” Though, in many ways, his time in the Reserve set him up for a baseline of leadership — at least more of a baseline than most 20-somethings ever engage. “I learned so much about overcoming adversity and dealing with stressful situations. Literally, after recruit training, you can essentially deal with anything. The flipside of it for me was I didn’t like not having my freedom. I didn’t realize how much I would feel restricted by having my relationship with the Marine Corps.”
In 2001, McArthur was sent to recruit training. Immediately thereafter, September 11 hit. By 2003, his unit, the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion, was mobilized to go to Iraq. At the front of the invasion force, his unit were the first marines into Baghdad. “At the time of the mission, we knew the objective. It was very straightforward.” The unit arrived in Kuwait to make preparations for the invasion. “Our mission was to travel from Kuwait to Baghdad as quickly as possible, clearing cities of Iraqi armed forces and creating a route by which a supply train could follow safely. We were essentially traveling from city to city, punching a hole through, so that the supply train could come through. Basically clearing the cities of Iraqi armed forces.
“Ours was an Amtrac unit. They’re tracked vehicles — kind of like a tank — but they’re personnel carriers, so they carry infantry troops. They have a 40mm grenade launcher and a .50 caliber machine gun on top, and the purpose is to transport infantry.” By the time the U.S. had invaded Iraq, McArthur’s unit had left Kuwait, clearing the way and arriving in Baghdad in just two weeks.
During his unit’s time in Iraq, talk of weapons of mass destruction, and biological and chemical weapons was becoming a normal conversation … something most troops were mentally preparing themselves to face.
“As a 21-year-old kid, you don’t know what the outcome of the situation is going to be. So I had lots of time for introspection during that time. And so my dialogue with God was very much bargaining, like, ‘Lord if you get me through this, I’ll spend my life in service to you.’
Within his six-month deployment, McArthur had faced a great deal of life-altering scenarios, had found himself at the brink of a war, and in the meantime, while in Iraq, turned 21.
“We had MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), basically these packaged military meals. So we had these really terrible brownies that were freeze dried, and they [fellow marines] put like 10 matches in it and sang me ‘Happy Birthday.’ And they had, in Kuwait, non-alcoholic beer, so they gave me one of those and Doritos for a birthday present. But it was a big deal because Doritos was like gold. But yeah, I’ll never forget that. Not your typical 21st birthday.”
McArthur returned home to Lakeland, still only 21, uncertain of exactly what his next steps would be. “But I just knew that, whatever it was, I was going to make my life count for something.” At the time McArthur, having gone back to UF, declared a major in advertising and sensed his path may next take him to a big ad firm in NYC. “The one hiccup there,” McArthur quickly adds, “was that I had met my wife, Charity.” The couple had dated on and off throughout high school before McArthur left for Iraq, when the relationship was solidified. “Her vision was very different from mine in terms of where she wanted to start a family. She wanted to be near her family, so we decided to stay in Lakeland because of that.”
At the time Charity and McArthur were attending UF, McArthur’s grandfather became ill. “He was a really important person in my life. I wanted to be close by.” So the couple transferred to the University of South Florida, and McArthur began working full time at an insurance company in the sales department. His younger brother Michael was also working at the same company at the time.
“We would have lunch together every day,” McArthur recalls, “and we talked about opening a business together. What would that look like? What are our strengths and how do we complement each other? What do we enjoy doing? And the only thing we knew anything about was the restaurant industry.”
Born and raised in Lakeland, the brothers grew up working in the Imperial Lakes Country Club. McArthur had even spent two years working at KFC. “So we knew just enough about the restaurant business to be dangerous,” he says. As his family was from Puerto Rico, coffee was naturally at the forefront of their minds. “Also we looked at what was happening around us with Starbucks. And we thought, We can be a local Starbucks.”
The two of them began fleshing out ideas for the shop. Then, in 2004, McArthur was attending his brother-in-law’s wedding, where he met his brother-in-law’s new father-in-law. “He was just kind of taken with the idea that I was a veteran and really felt moved to give me a leg up,” McArthur says. After a few conversations, McArthur had his first investor, which soon led to three more investors, providing the initial capitalization for Black & Brew.
In 2005, construction was underway, and by 2006, McArthur, now 23, and Michael, 21, opened Black & Brew Coffee House & Bistro in the heart of downtown’s surging work population.
About nine months in, the company saw they had a wide-open opportunity to cater to the lunch crowd. Initially the restaurant introduced a light menu with about four salads and five sandwiches, still they began to see food was comprising about 75 percent of the business. “So we started shifting gears a little bit, investing in more equipment in the kitchen, expanding, doing a lot more research for the menu.”
The initial vision for Black & Brew was strictly a coffee house. “Very much in the Starbucks vain,” McArthur says. “A full espresso bar, pastries, and live music was supposed to be a big part of what we were doing. And initially it was. We had lots of shows, we had lots of big events, we were packing the place out,” McArthur laughs as he notes, “but not making any money. So we switched gears a little bit.” But this would require another investment for new equipment, and require McArthur and Michael to return to investors for more money. “Which was really humbling,” recalls McArthur, “because we were still losing money at that point.
“That was really a critical point for us, because they were seeing our inexperience. It was showing all over our results.” The investors began to suggest changes for the company, including an upscale 7/11, take-and-bake pizza. “I mean, they were just throwing it all out on the table,” McArthur says, “because at this point, we probably had $200,000 invested in it.” After much pleading, the investors gave the money. “And to their credit,” McArthur notes, “it really set our trajectory for where we are today.”
So the company shifted gears. And fast.
“That was kind of a turning point for both of us,” McArthur says, “because we decided that if we were going to be effective restaurateurs, we needed to be effective leaders first. So we really started studying leadership, reading as many books on the subject as we could, and then we were connected to a few people in the community who really started to mentor us.” One influential individual being Dr. Larry Ross, who the two had initially hired as a consultant to help the company stop bleeding money. “That business arrangement,” McArthur says, “eventually developed into a friendship and then a mentor relationship. The time and energy he invested in us was invaluable and played a big role in helping us to turn the corner on our success.”
When things could have gone sour, McArthur never entertained thoughts of ending the business. It wasn’t an option. “I think both of us were so naive, I don’t think it occurred to us that we could fail,” McArthur seems to realize as he speaks, “and, honestly, that’s a blessing because it helped us to focus and not worry as much.”
Though the close relationship and clearly set focus for the brothers certainly helped them jump the first hurdle of finding the most successful track for Black & Brew, about three years in, Michael decided to pursue music full time. And McArthur bought his ownership. “At the end of the day,” says McArthur, “him moving on to pursue music, he’ll tell you was the best decision he’s made. But I also think it was the best thing for our relationship. Existing in that pressure cooker of an environment day in and day out was brutal. Mike has always been my best friend. If he had stayed, I believe that we could have survived it and done well, but I think him being able to pursue what he loves is phenomenal. So I rolled with it and made it work.”
Maybe it’s the Marine still in him; you just learn to roll with it. Though McArthur would be the first to credit much of what he learned about leadership to his time in the Marines, he’d still be the first to admit, he had a bit more to learn.
“What I didn’t understand was that I needed to tailor my leadership to the people I was leading. That military leadership,” McArthur grins and laughs, “didn’t necessarily, universally apply. And, not making excuses for myself, but it was an extremely high-pressure situation.”
Granted, most leaders may easily make that excuse when breaking into a brand-new business, working 80 to 90 hours a week, while losing money. “I often took out my frustration on my employees, and it showed in terms of our turnover. And, I was a little bit of a tyrant, just to be honest,” McArthur admits. “One day, after hearing me speak down to one of the employees, my brother grabbed me by the shoulders and said, ‘Chris, you’re not Gordon Ramsay. People are not going to work for you for the esteem of working for a great chef. They’re not going to stay.’ Eleven years ago and that has stuck with me.”
In less than 10 years, Black & Brew had reached the kind of Lakeland essential status many strive for, attaining the sweet spot of not only meeting a clear need during lunch hour, but also by offering menu staples that keep customers coming back and creating a reputable team environment that translates more as the Black & Brew family than “staff.” Still, McArthur knew he wanted to continue to contribute new facets to the city’s culture.
“The motivation was kind of two-fold,” McArthur says. “The first was, how can we continue to be an asset to the city and how can we improve on what we’re doing?” (It’s one of the company’s core values, and a question they ask themselves at least twice a year at their leadership team meetings.) “It was actually born out of one of our strategy sessions, talking about what we could do to improve the business.”
And secondly, he says, “Because of where we were at in the business, leadership was very strong at Black & Brew. I was having less and less of a role to fill, so I needed something to do.”
By 2014 Patriot Coffee Roasters was underway. McArthur went to San Francisco to take coffee-roasting classes. He bought a small, half-pound electric coffee roaster and began to practice. Just a half pound at a time. “I thought it would be really easy, but it’s insanely complex.” For two months he would return home from a day at Black & Brew, go on the back porch, and begin roasting. “So, lots and lots of trial and error, but I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew I wanted to launch in the farmers market.” He built a trailer for the market, and launched a Kickstarter campaign. Patriot Coffee reached its goal in 30 days, making close to $16,000 from Lakelander’s excited to invest in the of launching Lakeland’s first coffee roastery. Meanwhile, McArthur spent nine months providing Patriot coffee every Saturday at the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Market.
Shortly before the launch at the market, McArthur’s grandfather passed away, and the company was dedicated in his honor. A picture of McArthur’s grandfather, which could be seen on the trailer at each market, now sits above the roaster at the company’s roasting facility on South Florida Avenue, a brick and mortar shared with Born & Bread Bakehouse.
“The vision,” McArthur says, “is to eventually, in a significant way, aid Armed Forces personnel who’ve been wounded in combat. We haven’t been able to do that yet, because we haven’t made any money yet,” he notes with a grin. “The one thing we’ve done to this point is we’ve launched Operation Gratitude, where we are asking people to nominate a family member who is currently serving, and we’ll send coffee out to their entire unit. Operation Gratitude has shipped its first shipment this month. Our goal is to select one unit to send coffee to each month.”
In addition to the many local spots serving Patriot coffee now, including The Poor Porker, Hillcrest, etc., Publix recently reached out to McArthur to sell Patriot coffee throughout the state. Publix has a program called Florida Local, basically an end cap that features products made in our state, featured in 355 stores in Florida. Publix plans on rolling out the program by May, which will significantly increase Patriot’s production in the months to come.
In addition, next year Black & Brew prepares to open their second location this fall at the Lakeland Public Library on Lake Morton. “Our goal is to not only be an amenity for Library patrons, but to serve as the neighborhood coffee shop for East Lake Morton,” notes McArthur. Customers can look forward to the same Black & Brew experience, with a menu that will be unique to the location. The second opening will feature a large selection of toasts on Born & Bread sourdough, freshly baked pastries, ice cream sandwiches, and an array of craft sodas in addition to the full coffee menu.
In addition to opening and maintaining a successful business and launching new ventures which the city has quickly embraced, McArthur may be just as well known for leading a tightly run business as he is for maintaining an enthusiastic team of employees and low turn-over rate. “Part of it is simply taking care of your people,” he says. “Listening to them, learning about their dreams and goals for their lives, treating them like the valuable people they are.” Outside of day-in and day-out employee relationships, McArthur holds get-togethers throughout the year for his team, sharing meals at the restaurant and having them to his house for a barbecue.
With 25 employees at Black & Brew, two currently at Patriot Coffee (and likely more, when they’re in production mode of Publix’s upcoming rollout) McArthur is known as an employer who is readily available to his staff. Not only listening and mentoring, but he has even been known among the team to look out for employees to the extent of paying off a car so it wasn’t repossessed or giving an employee an old car. “We try to leave no doubt in our employees’ minds that we absolutely care about their well-being,” McArthur says, “that they’re not just an employee but a member of our family.
“We treat everyone with respect and dignity. It’s part of our core values. It’s communicated from day one. Mandy, our general manager who’s been with us for almost 10 years now, embodies that to a “T.” So it’s just been compounding. We’ve built a strong core of really great people who continue to attract really great people. And it just creates this environment that, yeah, we’re here to work, and we expect to work hard, and we have high standards, and there’s a mission to accomplish, but we also love each other and take care of each other. There’s no magical thing that we’re doing. It’s just about treating them well.”
Though McArthur is still quite young and it’s early on his track of business ventures, there are a few things he would change. “It’s easy in hindsight to say, ‘I wish I had invested more in myself as a leader.’ But everything from that point to this point has made me the person I am today. So I’m very excited about where I am today, and the opportunities ahead of me. Nothing good or really worth having ever comes easy, so I’m grateful for some of those hardships and some of those challenges.
“Do I wish I hadn’t spoken to some of those employees the way I had in the beginning? Sure. But I think we have to be thankful for those lessons along the way.”
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