GREEN BEANS COFFEE BRINGS JAVA TO TROOPS WORLDWIDE
Brian Laliberte loves his job. Who wouldn’t love hanging out in coffee shops for a living? But there’s a catch: Many of the cafes Laliberte visits as chief operating officer (COO) of Larkspur, Calif.-based Green Beans Coffee are located in Afghanistan, where baristas wear helmets and flak jackets, and their customers carry firearms.
Clearly, Green Beans isn’t your typical corner Starbucks. And it’s not just a coffee company either. True to its corporate slogan — Honor First, Coffee Second — Green Beans is a triple-shot morale boost for U.S. troops deployed overseas.
A Navy brat himself — his father put in 32 years — Laliberte joined Green Beans four years ago, partly because of its mission to serve those who serve the nation. He loves to tell the company’s unique story. Launched in 1996 to provide Seattle-style coffee to Americans living in Saudi Arabia, the company quickly shifted focus when U.S. military personnel discovered the first shop’s friendly vibe and tasty espresso.
As more and more GIs weary of bitter, standard-issue swill spread the buzz, U.S. bases throughout the Middle East began sprouting Green Beans outlets. With the onset of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the company stepped up to become the first U.S. food vendor willing to support troops in combat zones.
“Starbucks wasn’t interested, but our founders said, ‘absolutely; whatever it takes,’” Laliberte says. “And we take great pride in serving our military who are protecting our freedom.”
At the height of the Iraq War, Green Beans operated 55 locations in that country; it still maintains 32 outlets in Afghanistan and an equal number at U.S. bases scattered across the Middle East, Asia and East Africa.
Whether housed in permanent locations on base or mobile field shops fashioned from cargo containers, Green Beans cafes look like most any American coffee shop. Each runs a full espresso bar and most bake their pastry products on site, as much for aroma as freshness.
But coffee is the big draw. In fact, the senior airman at left is holding what the troops have dubbed “the mother of all coffees,” four shots of espresso topped with premium Green Beans house blend.
It’s all part of a recipe intended to give deployed troops a little taste of home. “Green Beans became a cool, neutral place for service members of different ranks to come sit and hang out and forget what they just did the last 14 hours,” Laliberte says.
And now that it’s built brand equity with service members overseas, the company has recently opened 15 shops at installations and airports in the U.S. “We take care of our military when they’re over there, and they don’t forget it,” Laliberte says. “When these service members come home, they say, ‘Where’s my Green Beans?’”
Laliberte has taken a leading role in growing the domestic side of the company. He’s also one of two company execs behind “Cup of Joe for a Joe,” a popular outreach effort that connects everyday Americans with deployed troops via the Green Beans website.
Buy a little coffee, write a brief note of thanks, and you’re likely to receive a heartfelt reply from somewhere in Afghanistan. “Not just ‘thanks for the coffee,’” Laliberte says, “but a couple of paragraphs about how much it means to them. Some of these letters can make you cry.”
A math and computer science major who earned his degree from USD in 1986, Laliberte spent the first 10 years of his career developing IT systems for retail stores. He then moved into operations management, with career stops at firms including Peet’s Coffee, Illuminations, and SmartMove Auto.
Loyalty to USD runs deep in the Laliberte family. Brian’s wife, Cheryl, earned her degree from the university in 1989, and the couple’s son, Austin, is now a sophomore math major.
Laliberte has needed every bit of his education and experience in his role as Green Bean’s COO. No textbook business model takes into account the rapid expansions and contractions that come with following forces into war and back. Or the challenge of shipping supplies deep into Afghanistan. Floods, port strikes, border closures, high-jacked or blown-up trucks — anything can and does happen.
And then there’s the danger factor, something Laliberte downplays. “Afghanistan is dangerous,” he says. “Still you feel pretty safe on the bases because you’re surrounded by unbelievable fire power.” But it’s the forces in the field he worries about. “It’s depressing. You wonder how the military maintains morale, but the troops are upbeat,” he says.
Could the reason be as simple as a good cup of coffee? — Sandra Millers Younger