What is one way to learn about the ups and downs of owning a business?
Be in a punk rock band.
Years of gigs and travel and selling products in a band helped Rory Van Grol succeed today as co-owner of Ugly Duck Coffee LLC.
Van Grol was the lead singer in punk bands throughout high school and after college. Gigs took him across the country and to Europe. Unknowingly, it helped groom Van Grol to become an entrepreneur.
“Being in a band, you have to figure out financially what that looks like,” he says. “If you’re playing in punk bands, you’re not making any money but you need to get from point A to point B so you need to figure out, ‘OK, we need some gas money, how do we make this work?’”
Van Grol, 36, co-owns the coffee bar with his wife, Cristina. It has been in operation since June 2015, first as a strictly mobile enterprise and now with a location at 89 Charlotte St. The firm still does events and catering through its mobile component.
Van Grol grew up in Rochester and was drawn to skateboarding and punk rock in his teens.
“Skateboarding influenced me to get into hard core punk music,” Van Grol says. “That allowed me to start traveling and touring and getting out there in the world. I was playing in bands—yelled into microphones and jumped around like an idiot.”
Skateboarding culture is a microcosm of its own. Van Grol believes in what it stands for.
“That culture is DIY—it is a no-one-is-going-to-do-it-for-you mentality—I just connected with that and those kind of people,” he says.
Life and business require risk, which is something people should embrace, Van Grol says.
“You figure it out. You take leaps and you test yourself,” he says. “There are hard times, stressful times. There’re times when you go home and you’re absolutely crushed, but at the end of the day you wake up and it’s on you.”
He attended Monroe Community College, graduating with a liberal arts degree in 2000.
In 2006 Van Grol moved to Rhode Island and, in 2008, began working at New Harvest Coffee Roasters after he learned about roasting coffee through a friend.
“I was always kind of doing my own thing, but I think that helped me be more confident in what I was doing and grow as a person,” Van Grol says. “I really didn’t know a ton of people in Rhode Island and it helped me develop and adapt to a situation, meet new people and put myself out there more than I typically would.”
He learned why coffee tastes better when roasted. The variations of making coffee instantly drew Van Grol to the business.
“And I was like (to his friend), ‘why does your coffee taste so much better when you brew it?’” Van Grol says. “And so we just started talking and that’s how I got into good coffee. He opened my eyes essentially to this world of good coffee.”
In 2009 Van Grol returned to Rochester to be closer to family. He began working for The Owl House and Joe Bean Coffee roasters.
Joe Bean Coffee Roasters was one of the companies locally that was innovating with coffee itself as well as with the customer experience. Van Grol saw a chance to be part of something bigger and took it.
Starting his own business was something that had become a goal since leaving Rhode Island.
“It was always in the back of my mind, even when I was working at these other places,” Van Grol says. “We were developing the mental capacity to figure it out and do it. It takes time and energy and thought.”
Working at local establishments helped Van Grol learn about another side of the business: serving customers.
“When I was in Rhode Island I learned a lot more about…the production side of things, but I had never really served a ton of (coffee),” Van Grol says. “So I wanted to be able to serve people. I had never really worked in the coffee service side of things: to be a barista and to pull shots, talk to people and engage people in that way.”
He looked to open his own location but hit a roadblock.
The first physical location of the business fell through because of various factors. The hardest part was letting go of the original plan, Van Grol says.
“The first brick and mortar didn’t work out,” he says. “It was a huge growing moment because we knew it wasn’t going to work out and we could have kept trying, but we walked away from it.”
Deciding to focus on a mobile business instead was difficult but necessary for the vision of the business to continue, Van Grol says. The couple turned their attention to building out the mobile component of the business with hopes of opening a location in the future.
In career moves or life in general, when difficulties arise Van Grol seeks counsel.
“My wife Cris is awesome. She’s a great sounding board,” he says. “We can talk through things really well.”
The couple opened their shop on Charlotte Street in May 2016. It employs six, including the couple.
Today a challenge is stepping back and allowing employees to make their mark while they adhere to the vision and service philosophy of Ugly Duck Coffee.
“I think it’s challenging from the aspect of I know what I want and I know what I’ve been doing, and it’s challenging to let go of those things that you’ve controlled for so long,” Van Grol says.
Ugly Duck Coffee is right in the middle of the Inner Loop construction site. Revitalization of the area is coming soon, Van Grol said.
“Things are starting to move further this way; we’re still on the cusp,” he says. “People still feel like it’s a little dusty and a mess but, one foot in front of the other, we focus on the fact that things are changing and we’re working on it. Hopefully next year it’s going to look completely different than it does now.”
The name Ugly Duck Coffee was chosen to evoke the spirit of openness the location appeals to, Van Grol says. Coffee should be taken seriously but still be fun.
“What’s kind of fun (is) not taking ourselves too seriously but still unique and we landed on Ugly Duck, ” Van Grol says. “It’s re-creating that idea of championing the mentality of what is ugly and what isn’t?”
Lots of things happen at a coffee bar. Being a space that people gravitate toward is not lost on Van Grol.
“So many things happened in here already,” he says. “Business meetings, relationships, marriages—we’ve seen regulars come in with new babies—it’s amazing. You’re part of their tradition; you’re part of their experience. We’re more than just a beverage; it’s a space.
“I think it’s really neat to work in a bar setting. There’s a reason why there are so many bars in places to go to,” he adds.
The endgame of Ugly Duck Coffee is simple: the business strives to improve a customer’s quality of life.
“Essentially I want people to come in here and feel better when they leave,” Van Grol says.
“Whether that’s through coffee or through conversation or a high five or whatever music we’re playing, whatever it is, I want them to feel better when they leave the shop.”
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