Serving Up Coffee and Compassion

Bobbi Custer, ’14, changed her major three times in college. She was searching. For what, she didn’t know yet. 

She had arrived at Heidelberg with a passion for the field of developmental disabilities and her mind set on being a teacher. But a classroom experience her freshman year changed that. 

“I was in a classroom with 6-year-olds playing drums. I realized I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t be a teacher,” Custer said. 

What do you do when you realize the career you had planned since the seventh grade was no longer an option? Luckily, she was at Heidelberg, which allowed her to explore and experience different majors and professions. She dabbled in several areas before being inspired by The Patricia Adams Lecture Series to look into business

“The Patricia Adams Lecture Series gave me the opportunity to see strong women in business,” she said. “I thought this was something I could do.” 

Owning a business wasn’t a foreign concept to Custer. Her father had recently started his own business that helped adults with disabilities through interactive programming. Seeing her dad start a business that put together his passions of ministry and giving opportunities to people with disabilities gave Custer the confidence to do the same. 

“So I asked myself, ‘What are my passions and what can I put together to give others opportunities?’” 

It was a simple answer: coffee. She would start a coffeehouse that would hire adults with disabilities. 

Now all she needed was a plan. 

Armed with an idea, Custer began using her Heidelberg experiences to flesh out the details. She worked with several faculty members on different parts of her business plan – Dr. John Cook helped her with inventory and pricing and Dr. Mary Lou Kohne talked with her about marketing. She brought everything together for her senior capstone project, which was the complete business plan for the coffeehouse. She also secured an internship with the Juniper Tree coffeehouse in Tiffin. 

“I’m happy I was able to go to a small school where they allowed me to pick an internship that was geared toward my interests, not just some corporate job,” Custer said. 

Heidelberg also gave her the opportunity to engage with successful businessman and Heidelberg Trustee Lee Shobe, ’60, whom she met when he served as the Executive-in-Residence for the School of Business during her senior year. 

“I remember a discussion we were having about business strategy and she struck me as having good analysis and thought,” Shobe said. “I attended her capstone presentation and was very impressed.” 

Custer appreciated all the help she received from Heidelberg, especially the interest Shobe showed in her. 

“It was humbling to be able to work with somebody who was in charge of such a big corporation, but still had the humility and patience to work with me through the whole process,” she said. 

Shobe enjoys creating engagement opportunities with students and loved the chance to help Custer. 

“Bobbi was the first student I worked with who had an actual business plan she wanted to implement,” he said. “She made it relevant, and I stayed in contact with her throughout her start-up process.” 

While developing her plan at Heidelberg, Custer originally thought it wouldn’t come to fruition until she was in her 40s as perhaps a side project. But when a building came up for sale and she found investors to help with the startup funds, she decided to go for it. 

Custer graduated from Heidelberg on May 11, 2014. The Spotted Cow Coffeehouse opened its doors three weeks later on May 31 in her hometown of Urbana, Ohio. 

Her family has not only been her support system, but also her inspiration. Custer has two brothers with Down syndrome, and it was the experience of growing up with them that was the true seed of her idea. 

“Growing up with them helped me frame this company,” she said. “I want them to have their dreams just as much as I want to have my own dreams.”

Custer’s timing correlated with a push for individuals with disabilities to find jobs in the community so they are integrated, not separated. However, her reasoning is different from many companies. 

“It’s not hiring out of pity,” she said. “It’s being able to show they have the skills to do a job and can learn.” 

Custer looks for willingness over ability in her employees, believing they are teachable and eager to work. She currently has six employees, including an operations manager. While the job is not extremely difficult, it gives them the opportunity to learn a skill and perform a task that not everyone can do, which builds confidence and provides
an income. 

Shobe believes Custer’s passion was integral to her success. He tries to convey to students that sometimes success is more than knowing all the numbers and finding the right strategy. 

“It’s your values that give you a competitive advantage that emerges over time. Our choices are big shapers of who we are,” he said. “Her faith is important to her and creates a strong center in her life.”

Custer believes her business is just as much about showing compassion as it is about serving coffee. 

“By making sure my employees are happy, I know they’ll create a good experience for our customers,” she said. “I want to build up my employees internally.”

The Spotted Cow offers more than coffee. It is a gathering place with rentable rooms and event space. It is also connected to a gift shop of craft items. It has grown into a vibrant spot in the community. But like all great ideas, there were growing pains. 

As owner and founder, Custer’s dream for the Spotted Cow Coffeehouse was about more than making money, but she soon realized that companies can’t run on ideals. 

“Even if you have a socially beneficial idea, you still need to make a profit. This was never about the money for me, but I need to survive to continue to make a difference,” she said. 

Survival is not easy. Nine out of 10 new businesses fail within their first two years, and Custer ran into some obstacles early on. She had to work through issues with the zoning board, electrical problems, and the biggest concern of new businesses – revenue. 

“The hardest part is trying to make do without a lot of revenue when you’re starting out,” she said. 

All new business owners face challenges, but Shobe wasn’t worried about Custer’s ability to handle early setbacks. 

“I knew with that much drive she would be able to handle disappointments,” he said. “She’s a unique person with a lot of creativity and drive.”

Custer used that drive to fight through the setbacks and her creativity to come up with solutions to problems. Owning a business is an exercise in perseverance and she felt prepared by her Heidelberg education. 

“When you’re in college, you get the experience of support. But the roadblocks you’ll face aren’t always teachable,” she said. “You need to be able to stand up for yourself.”

And she has. From meeting with the local government to networking with area professionals, Custer has fought for her business. She has taken on new roles and responsibilities from human resources to marketing, and felt the professional preparation through the School of Business truly prepared her for running a business.

“I'm dealing with business owners on a professional level so being able to continue my correspondence with professors who know what I’m going through has been really helpful,” Custer said. 

Custer has come a long way since that education class forever changed her career goals. What started as a search for purpose ended up giving Custer a meaningful career that is making a difference in her community. 

“I was blessed to have my family here to help me get the operation going,” she said. “I got to make my business plan come to life.”

Life moves fast, and sometimes Custer looks around in amazement at what she’s accomplished. But has her reality met her expectations? Has her idea become what she envisioned? 

“It’s like going to a different country. You have all these ideas in your mind of, say, the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You know what it looks likes in pictures, but until you get there you don’t know the smells, or the actual experience. You have all these ideas in your mind, but until you’re living it, it’s not the same. It’s just a picture.” 

But now, she’s living it. Her idea came to life. 

Dreams coming true is on the menu. 

The Patricia Adams Lecture Series gave me the opportunity to see strong women in business. I thought this was something I could do.

The Better Business Bureau of Central Ohio awarded Bobbi Custer, ‘14, and The Spotted Cow Coffeehouse its annual Spark Award, which recognizes millennial entrepreneurs.

Published in Spring 17

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