interviewsVeterans and Startups

Veterans and Startups: Intelligentsia Coffee Interview

by Grace Bonney

For the second installment of today’s Veterans and Startups series, I spoke with Doug Zell, the founder of Intelligentsia Coffee. In addition to making one heck of a great latte, Intelligentsia has been known for high quality coffee, its commitment to sustainable coffee farming and beautiful coffee shops that have become favorites among the design community. (I’m pretty sure those blue and white tiles from the Silverlake store- designed by Barbara Bestor– have been in every design blog feed ever). Since it’s founding in 1995, Intelligenstia has grown to 11 coffeebars across the country, from New York to California. Doug has such great advice and feedback on what it’s like to run a big company while keeping small-company ethics and values in mind. I hope you’ll find his insight (and over 18 years of experience) as inspiring as I did. Thanks, Doug! xo, grace

*Click here to read the companion interview from this morning, with new coffee business Heartbreak Coffee.

Click through for the full interview after the jump…

Basic Info:
Your Name: Doug Zell
Your role at Intelligentsia: Founder and Co-CEO
How long have you been at Intelligentsia?: 2014 will be 19 years. I started the company in 1995 with Emily Mange in Chicago.
Where can people find your business online: Twitter (the company’s and mine), Facebook and our website.

Design*Sponge: What was the inspiration/reason for for starting Intelligentsia?

Doug Zell: Originally it was simple…we wanted to bring great fresh roasted coffee to Chicago.

D*S: What is a day in the life of your job at Intelligentsia like? What takes up the majority of your work day?

Doug: It varies widely and wildly. Most recently I get to guide the vision of the company and pursue the big ideas that will help is move forward. We’ve great folks and great teams to help get the day to day things done. And honestly I still love to go on big sales calls and interact with our baristas and customers at our coffee bars in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

D*S: What is the thing you’re proudest of that you (or the company as a whole) have done at Intelligentsia?

Doug: Pioneering Direct Trade for the specialty coffee industry and building a great company that allows us to do good at source and here. I am also thrilled to say that we’ve built a company that does the right thing and has allowed more than just me to prosper. We’ve provided opportunities for people to grow personally and professionally and I’m not the only one who has been able to buy a home as a result. I never would have imagined that would be possible when we started over eighteen years ago and honestly I find it all quite thrilling. I love being part of helping to setting the stage for others to be successful.

D*S: We love your branding and the identity associated with Intelligentsia (it’s fantastic)- how did it come about, how did you decide on the look and what role does that play in the brand and company as a whole?

Doug: Well we wanted something thoughtful and inspired, yet accessible to all. On the good days we feel like we’ve largely pulled it off.

The logo was done by Planet Propaganda out of Madison, WI. Most recently we’ve been working with Haberman out of Minneapolis as they are great at helping to tell the stories of pioneers who are making a difference in the world.

D*S: What has been the biggest ongoing challenge as a business, and what have you done to address or solve it?

Doug: The greatest challenge is always the people. The challenges are just the challenges. With inspired folks, any challenge can be overcome. I am thoroughly convinced of that.

D*S: What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting?

Doug: Never lose focus of quality and never be satisfied. We’ve always kept this in mind and held it to be of the utmost important. I’ve always said that unimpeachable quality is the very best position to defend.

D*S: What do you wish you’d known (or what advice do you wish you’d had) about the coffee business (or running a business in general) looking back?

Doug: Stay focused on having the right people and stick with your gut. You may get it wrong sometimes, but the companies and products that people really love/adore were absolutely conceived and built that way. And realize there is no such thing as an expert, it’s just the person who can most charismatically bull***t you. We’ve had consultants on occasion and that’s exactly what it amounts to be.

D*S: What advice to you have to new businesses in your field starting out or what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?


Do your home work thoroughly.
Believe in what you are doing with all of you.
Dive in with vigor and never give up.

People will always tell you it’s not possible. They’ll be dead wrong.

D*S: What are your goals going forward or next steps you’d like to take as a brand?

Doug: To build the greatest coffee company there ever was and inspire others to do the right thing. To demonstrate that it is indeed possible to have a business that does good in far flung parts of the world AND can be profitable!


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  • I adore Intelligentsia. In college I worked at a little coffee shop in Chicago supplied with their beans. They were so great to work with as a supplier and a mentor company of sorts, and their product is truly top notch. And yes, their branding is tremendously good! I miss being able to get to their cafés–I now live in Seattle, and have not had better coffee here. In my book the only other coffee that does it for me is Four Barrel out of San Francisco or Oblique in Portland. I get all excited when I find a spot in the Northwest brewing Intelligentsia. Oh, and their exceptional chai concentrate is the antidote to all the flat, overly sweet premade chais out there. Keep up the awesome work, Doug!