Mount Pearl native opens 'template' cafe for rest of chain

Scott Hillyer was a long time working in the restaurant business before things started to suddenly fall into place enabling him to become self-employed as a co-owner of one of the most prominent and fastest-growing coffee shop chains on the Northeast Avalon.
The opening of the Coffee Matters café and restaurant at 39 Commonwealth Avenue in Mount Pearl marks the launch of the chain’s sixth store and an expansion into evening dining. For Hillyer, who grew up and lives in Mount Pearl, the store marks a coming home for him business wise.
“Since I’ve been 15 I’ve been working in restaurants,” said Hillyer. “Food has been my passion.”
Hillyer actually started at Ponderosa Restaurant when he was 14, as a dishwasher. He stayed until age 30, by which time he was a top manager. He then worked in some local restaurants.
Hillyer said people would often remark to him that he should be working for himself. “But I just wasn’t ready,” he said.
The opportunity to do so, however, came unexpectedly, about a year after he was hired as director of operations for what was then a new cafe in town, Coffee Matters, which set up shop at Military Road and soon opened another store at Paradise. The founders asked Hillyer if he would buy them out.
“I said I didn’t have that kind of money,” Hillyer recalled.
But he did manage to buy the Paradise café. That was in 2010. Two years later, Hillyer and his business and life partner Cyril Peach managed to buy the whole chain, trademark and all.
“That was a costly venture,” said Hillyer. “And it was a scary situation because we were just getting on our feet after the Paradise transaction.”
Hillyer’s background in the industry - and Peach’s in the wholesale and retail food industry – helped ensure a successful transition.
Hillyer, now 44 and with three children ranging in age from late teens to early 20s, is grateful to the original owners, Gary Holden and Earl Norman for having faith in him.
“It’s a hard industry to be into,” Hillyer admitted. “And I’ll never forget when they interviewed me. They said ‘Scott, you’re too smart to be working for somebody else, you need to be working for yourself.’ But they were the ones who gave me the break and who had faith in me. They said, ‘Scott, someday your opportunity will come, and it did come.’”
Hillyer and Peach have worked to differentiate their stores in a crowded café market by making their soups and baked goods fresh daily, locally, and by buying local grown vegetables in season. Coleman’s supplies the fresh baked focaccia bread for the sandwiches, while an in house pastry chef tends to the desserts and scones. Cookies and muffins are baked in each of the stores every day. The cafes also use turkey and chicken that don’t have preservatives.
“We really focus on having fresh ingredients made fresh to order,” Hillyer said. “If there is anything that has given us success it’s the card of paying attention to quality.”
The launch of the Mount Pearl café is the next stage in a possible expansion of Coffee Matters into franchises, Hillyer allowed, though he is not fully comfortable with the idea of giving up control of a location to someone else yet.
“This is why we built this store,” he explained. “I was part of building the Military Road location, and even though it is absolutely beautiful, it’s ornate and it fits that building perfectly because of where it is – the trim package on that was $225,000 – to do the columns, to do the baseboards and to do everything else. So when I looked at the business model, I needed to give somebody a brand for $200,000 from start to finish.”
The Mount Pearl store is a template of what a buyer would get if Coffee Matters ever goes the franchise route. Six stores in, Hillyer and Peach have refined their knowledge of what works best. Everything behind the counter has been designed and placed to be within an arm’s span of a barrista. “Whereas in our other stores, you’ve got to walk too much, you’ve got to go too far. So thinking of franchising I had to be able to give somebody something that is going to work,” Hillyer noted. “Where I’ve worked in this industry my whole life, I knew that some of the stores were just not flowing properly. With this store we were three days trying to simulate counters, plus we brought in some great people like CORE Engineering. We paid them to come in and help us design the store – give us proper air flows, give us proper temperatures. So really this building is state of the art when it comes to that.”
All the research and work, Hillyer said, has even enabled him to know better for the next store what brand of equipment to buy. “So if someone called me tomorrow and said ‘I want to open up,’ I could tell them almost to the penny what it would cost for equipment and all that kind of stuff.”
Hillyer said he’s designed the overall business so that all six stores – downtown, Paradise, the Hibernia Interpretation Centre in Manuels, the Ches Penney YMCA on Ridge Road, ‘Canteen Matters’ at the new double rink in Paradise, and now the Mount Pearl shop - are within a 15 to 20 minute drive from each other. This makes deliveries easier and allows him to spend time in each café throughout the week.
“I tend to be in every store at least once or twice a week and physically working it,” Hillyer said. “I think that’s another key to our success – I’ve really put my face to the name of what Coffee Matters is. And in any company that’s really important.”
Hillyer said he and his partner were looking for a location in Mount Pearl for about two years. “We knew Mount Pearl needed it,” he said. “We do a lot of internal research, we survey our customers and we collect data… And then when I started seeing the mayor of Mount Pearl and the councillors from Mount Pearl coming to my Paradise location constantly to have business meetings and stuff, I said ‘Geeze, we’ve got to get into Mount Pearl.”
But everything he and Peach looked at was either too large or too small. Eventually they settled on a deal with the landlord at 39 Commonwealth.
When Coffee Matters advertised for staff, it got 122 applications. “People want to be part of something in Mount Pearl,” Hillyer said. “And being part of a coffee house, or any new business, is what they want. A coffeehouse is a place where a lot of kids like to work because it’s interactive. And being a barrista is a big thing for the kids today, it’s the hot thing, learning how to make lattes and cappacinos.”
With the first liquor licence for a Coffee Matters café, the company is moving to an expanded evening dining menu. Lamb is the most popular item, Hillyer said.
“And for myself, I grew up in Mount Pearl and my family is from Mount Pearl, so if I was going to do an extra special store, this was where we were going to do it,” Hillyer said. “If this works, we’ll take this template and renovate and do the same thing downtown.”
It’s been a lot of growth for a small company in three years. “We started with 12 employees, and now we employ 142,” Hillyer said.
The three person headquarters staff has moved office out of Hillyer’s basement to a building at 1 Moffatts Road, also in Mount Pearl. In addition to the cafes, the company caters events. “We’ve got 46 weddings booked this season,” said Hillyer.
Even if Coffee Matters gets around to franchising, or his children eventually buy him out, Hillyer can’t see himself ever retiring from the business completely.
“I’ll never, ever give anyone full ownership of the company until I’m dead and gone,” he said, laughing. “When you work so hard for something it’s very, very hard to just let it go.”

Posted on June 24, 2015 .