Riding The Curb
Sometimes The Road To Success Takes You For A Ride
Words by Jason Rushin | Images by Chase Nuuhiwa | Spring 2016
“My phone number was 808 Mr Shave,” Sumner Ohye explained as he recounted his path from shave-ice-truck proprietor to coffee-shop owner. “But I really wanted to open a store selling outdoor gear.”
Circuitous. A route or journey longer than the most direct way.
Ohye began his professional career while studying in the University of Washington’s entrepreneurship and marketing program. His first job was as an intern for Nordstrom, the venerable Seattle-based retailer, which is ranked one of the best places to work and is known for their exceptional customer service.
Oh wait. Ohye corrects himself. His first job was working at REI, the venerable Seattle-based outdoor gear retailer also ranked one of the best places to work.
After Nordstrom, Ohye explains, he worked for Starbucks, the venerable Seattle-based coffee purveyor, ranked one of the best places to work. From there, he went to T-Mobile, the venerable Seattle-based...okay, you get the point.
Ohye is excited to recount his path because it’s been linked together by good luck, but also by fantastic customer service. As he worked the shoe department of Nordstrom, he would visit other shoe stores so he could help customers find products that Nordstrom doesn't carry. When he worked the counter at Starbucks, he would visit other coffee shops to learn more about the trade.
“At Nordstrom, they teach you that, whatever your product, be a master,” he explained. “Before Starbucks I wasn’t a coffee drinker. In fact, my very first visit to a Starbucks was the day before my interview. I went in just to check it out, to see what they offered and how they worked.”
It’s that type of dedication to becoming a master that has helped Ohye grow his own business from an unpainted food truck to a coffee shop that’s the buzz of local and national caffeine cravers.
When Ohye moved back from Seattle to Kailua to live with his father, he drained his retirement accounts and bought said unpainted food truck.
“I didn’t want to be in debt to anyone,” he said. “The stock market crashed right after that, so a food truck was as good an investment as the market.”
But being an entrepreneur isn’t for the faint of heart. Draining your retirement accounts—even when you’re young and have time to rebuild them—isn’t generally considered a sound financial decision. Getting into the food truck business, especially with little to no experience, is probably a worse financial decision.
Besides the risk-taking attitude, entrepreneurs also need perseverance. If there’s a trait that separates a successful entrepreneur from everyone else, it has to be this: the willingness to keep believing in your idea even though your friends and customers are telling you why it won’t work.
Ohye took his unpainted food truck, turned it into a shave ice retail store, and hit the streets. As he planned his routes, he also planned out his business, calculating what he needed to sell in order to break even. Within the first few weeks, things weren’t adding up.
“I wasn’t doing a fifth of my projections,” he discovered. “I was out selling all day, but people don’t buy shave ice at 8 a.m. I thought, ‘This isn’t working.’ But I was in the weeds and it’s hard to step back and figure out what to do.”
Here’s a third trait that separates successful entrepreneurs from the rest: good luck. For Ohye, it was fortunate timing to get a call from the University of Hawaii. They were looking for a food truck to supply coffee to an underserved area of their Manoa campus. So Ohye added coffee production to his truck and drove over.
“At that time, most of the coffee trucks in Honolulu were, like, the bikini girls selling coffee,” Ohye recalled. “For UH, it was just like, you have coffee and you wear clothes. Great.”
Hearing Ohye explain how woefully unprepared he was for the coffee cravings of UH sounded like it was more stressful than not selling shave ice. He would run out of water. Run out of cups. Run out of everything. Oh, and a few weeks before he was scheduled to start at UH, his generator overheated. Luckily his grandmother lent him the money to buy a replacement.
But he stuck with it and learned at every step. Each day, sales increased.
Then more good luck presented itself when a retail location opened up in Kaimuki. The store didn’t have wheels, but Ohye saw the opportunity for customers who had wheels.
“It was on the good side of the street. It had easy in and out. There was access to the highway. I could just visualize it.”
So he signed the lease, stripped his truck of everything he could, and opened up The Curb coffee shop.
“I’m not a coffee snob, but I want to be authentic,” Ohye explained. “I want to be the best.”
But to make money, you have to serve both snobs and people who just need a jolt.
“Coffee lovers have gotten a louder voice lately. Some people just want to wake up. Others want a harmless first date. It’s all of these things that come together to make a truly great coffee shop. But we didn’t set out to be only for people really into coffee. It’s for everyone. If you like milk and sugar, go ahead. They’re on the counter for a reason. They aren’t props.”
Ohye did have some early hiccups as he tried to be more transparent with customers, which you can read as different. His drinks were named by ingredients. If a small latte calls for 2 ounces of espresso and 5 ounces of milk, it was listed on the menu as the “2 oz. espresso, 5 oz. milk” drink. He thought it was an innovative way to market his drinks while explaining to customers what they were getting and why it cost what it did.
“It was not as awesome as I thought,” Ohye admitted. “But, now I think, if you’re giving me money you can call it whatever you want.”
The results of Ohye’s dedication and willingness to change are paying off. The Curb is growing, selling more, and gaining national recognition. No less than two U.S. World Barista Champions have visited the shop. January sales are up 35 percent over last year. And a new product, nitrogen-infused cold coffee (think of a coffee version of a draught Guinness beer), is available in their shop and is in the process of being bottled for takeaway sales.
Even with success in his sights, however, Ohye still has his moments of doubt.
“Sometimes people ask me about Nordstrom or Starbucks and say, ‘Why did you quit that job?,’” Ohye says. “It’s a real head scratcher.”
Jason Rushin is a Honolulu-based marketing consultant for technology companies and is editor-in-chief of Accelerate Magazine.