Waves, a Vancouver based coffee chain, expands into Alberta with some unconventional franchising tactics
It’s a few minutes before midnight and the newest Waves coffee shop has been open almost a full day. Behind the counter is Abrahim Husin (but call him “Abby,” he insists), the president of Waves Alberta, who is helping tidy and wipe equipment alongside 22-year-old first-time owner Darren Hong. For Husin, who holds the Waves franchising rights in the province, it’s his seventh official opening and his seventh such midnight close.
Photo by Marc Rimmer
As coffee shops go, the 2,000-square-foot corner building on Calgary’s lively 17th Avenue is a sight to behold and just coffee-spilling distance from another, even larger location. “I pick locations that are big,” Husin says. “Inside used to be a dump. I turned it into a castle. I put life and energy into it.”
It’s that energy that the 34-year-old franchiser values more than location. Of the seven shops Husin oversees, five owners are under 40 (Hong is the youngest). Husin’s own team of employees is equally energetic: his general manager is 28, his marketer 27, his training manager 24, and his receptionist 23.
“I want to attract those young ones – someone with energy,” he says. “I don’t want someone who wants to run a coffee shop as their retirement plan. I want to share my passion with these guys who are just starting their life.” When Husin was just starting his career life and attending college in Chicago at the age of 19, he saved $19,000 of his own money and went into business with a friend, who put up the same amount. The two bought a small coffee shop that made muffins and turkey sandwiches on the city’s famous Michigan Avenue, and within two years they managed to sell it for $225,000. He was hooked – not on coffee, but on running coffee shops.
Husin joined the Vancouver-based Waves in 2006 as a 27-year-old graduate of Simon Fraser University’s commerce program. Waves had been open for one year and had only one store, but there were plans to expand. With a business degree and real-world experience running a coffee shop, Husin was a natural fit for the fledgling chain. While the chain continued to expand in Greater Vancouver – it now has 22 locations in and around the city – Husin also pushed it to look beyond the Lower Mainland. Alberta, he advised, was an opportunity the company couldn’t afford to ignore.
The company agreed, and sold him the franchising rights to the province. Husin started in Calgary, working day and night for two years, helping new owners get set up and often spending entire 15-hour days with them until they were comfortable enough on their own. “I had no time,” he says. “I just had Waves.”
It wasn’t long before he was making waves, so to speak, all across Calgary. There are now six locations in Calgary and another in Sylvan Lake. Husin has plans to add several more across the province, in Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Red Deer, Medicine Hat, Airdrie and Okotoks. In fact, just two weeks after Hong’s Calgary location opened, Husin sold another franchise location to a 32-year-old in Lloydminster.
Husin didn’t follow the usual path that most successful franchisors take, although it wasn’t for lack of trying. He advertised for months in major daily papers and attended sweaty, packed franchise shows, but didn’t sell a thing. Instead, he’s sold all of his franchises personally: Every person currently operating a Waves coffee shop in Alberta has, at one point or another, come through the door and met with Husin face-to-face. They either liked the atmosphere or they liked Husin, but whatever it was – word of mouth, in most cases – his reputation grew to the point where he didn’t need to attend franchise shows any more.
“I don’t need franchisees,” Husin says. “I need partners. I don’t need money; I need energy and passion – and it pays off.” He rejects the idea of the franchisor-franchisee relationship and instead considers the owners of Waves locations as his partners in a shared business. Husin says he wants his partners to be as successful as he is and can’t imagine treating them like hirelings. It’s not only poor personal practice, he says, but bad business, too.
Hong certainly appreciates the support. With Husin’s help, he transformed what was the empty shell of a defunct lingerie business into a two-storey coffee shop within a year. He says Husin’s willingness to help him grow as an entrepreneur was critical to his success. “I know I could call him right now with any problem and he would come down here,” Hong says. “I think that’s how a business should be run.”
Some might be reluctant to put their faith in young and untested owners like Hong, but for Husin, it’s an integral part of his approach to doing business. He recalls his time in Chicago, when no one would take a chance on him or his partner: that sense of frustration – and maybe a desire to prove certain people wrong – seems to inform his choices when it comes to finding new franchise partners. “I believe you have to give people chances,” he says. “I love giving people chances.”