Michael Ripps is President and Co-Owner of Jittery Joe’s Coffee, which opened in Athens in 1994 as a 24-hour coffee shop neighboring the 40 Watt Club. Joe’s now has eighteen cafés, roasts its own beans, and distributes to retail outlets.
Jittery Joe’s may have been named after a scene in the Simpsons, but they are making big moves in the industry. Rather than helping farmers solely through the purchase of fair trade coffee beans, Michael organizes opportunities to engage in direct trade, allowing Jittery Joe’s to work directly with farmers rather than with an entire cooperative.
Michael grew up in Mobile, Alabama, intent on a stable career in banking. After college he took a job at Wachovia, but in 1999, his college roommate offered him an interesting proposition. He was the second employee at Lycos in Boston, and the nascent Internet search company wanted someone from a finance group.
Michael was intrigued by the Internet, so he and his wife took the opportunity in Boston before being selected to run the Lycos Asian division in Singapore. In his role at Lycos, Michael had to wear all the hats, from marketing and business development to negotiations on strategic partnerships. When Lycos was sold, Michael moved to Athens, where his wife had attended UGA, to raise a family.
Fittingly, they bought a house on the net. The house was smaller in real life than in pictures; it didn’t have an office, so Michael started to go to the Five Points Jittery Joe’s. He drank coffee but didn’t know much about it. He ended up meeting Bob Googe, who was looking for a partner for Joe’s coffee business. Michael was looking for something different, and decided to invest in the company.
A Competitive Landscape
Jittery Joe’s was operated by a small team when Michael got started. He drew from his all-in experience at Lycos and had a hand in all operations — save roasting — from finding new customers to hedging contracts on beans. He learned how people tick while running Lycos in Singapore, and that knowledge served him well at Jittery Joe’s.
Jittery Joe’s is in a competitive market where taste isn’t the only consideration. Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s are building their focus on coffee sales, and high-end startups like Intelligentsia are gaining traction on the other side of the market. For Michael, staying balanced as they grow is key to Joe’s ongoing success.
We buy the same high-end beans, but we’re more mainstream and accessible. We strive to find interesting ways to distribute and package.
To Michael, staying authentic is Jittery Joe’s number one priority and challenge. As Jittery Joe’s expands, the company has to sustain the dialogue about who they are as a business: “We have a genuine brand. Charlie has been our Roastmaster for 21 years. But our product is a commodity. Sure, we have a good green bean, but a lot of places are selling something of similar quality, so beyond that, it’s all about how we distinguish ourselves.”
Another challenge is visibility. With Jittery Joe’s concentrated local presence, mistakes are easily seen. That’s why Michael envisions a manageable clip of 2-3 store openings a year, and only in places where Jittery Joe’s a great fit. At this pace, the company can focus on the wholesale side of the business, where most of their growth is coming from.
Since Michael and his family settled in Athens, he’s found that he has a lot in common with the people in the community. He’s been on the board for Athens Foundation for Excellence, serves on the board for Interfaith Hospitality Network of Athens, and mentors at Four Athens. He doesn’t consider himself a natural networker, but he credits pursuing shared interests as a way to meet new people. After all, he met his coffee business partner by hanging out at a coffee house.