Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
The owner and operator of four, soon to be five, Biggby
coffee shop locations in Calhoun County, and a military Veteran, Charles Solano, says he joined the Marines while still in college because he knew he needed discipline.
“The Marines were the baddest of the baddest and I knew I’d get that discipline with them,” he says.
At the time, Solano was a student at Michigan State University majoring in Packaging Engineering. He would have no way of knowing how his experience as a Marine reservist and the time he spent as a customer hanging out at an East Lansing Biggby would both shape the direction his life would take.
“My parents divorced when I was 15,” says Solano, who was living in Pinconning at the time. “The last three years of high school I lived with friends. During my senior year, I got accepted to MSU and left my hometown and never looked back.”
Even though he was moving forward, he says there were frustrations and anger from his teenage years that stayed with him into his early 20s.
Charles Solano stands in front on a future Biggby Coffee shop he will open next year in the former Chase Bank at the southwest intersection of Hlll Brady and Dickman Roads in the Fort Custer Industrial Park.
“At college, I didn’t think life was fair. I was working three jobs and attending classes and, while many of my friends were there to study, I was seeing people all around me and how good they had it. That’s what drove me to better my life.
“In my mid-20s I started to have a more grateful mindset. I wasn’t mad at my parents or situations or things anymore. My time as a reservist made me want to strive to be better, to be more, and to have that sense of accomplishment.”
He signed on for an eight-year commitment with the Marines in 1993 and was assigned to Bridge Company Alpha, headquartered near Fort Custer Training Center. At that time, he says there were two bridge companies in the Marine Corp, one in Battle Creek and one in Oregon that were part of the Sixth Engineer Support Battalion.
While his fellow students were just wrapping up a weekend night of partying at 4 a.m., Solano was packing his duffel bag and heading to Battle Creek to fulfill his once-a-month reservist duties where the drills taught him the importance of discipline and he learned to understand and respect the military hierarchy.
Jokingly, Solano says, the Marines gave him a good haircut and kept him in shape. On a more serious note, he says he received invaluable lessons in the importance of working hard as a way to separate himself from his fellow reservist and identify that as a strength in others.
Morgan Gonoe staffs the windows at the newly open drive-up Biggby Coffee shop on West Michigan Avenue in Urbandale.
“I tend to be attracted to people who I know are doing it right,” he says. “With the military, I saw a lot of people who were working hard, but I also saw some people who wanted to go and hide and go with the easy jobs.”
Although it made him unpopular with some of his peers, Solano says he had no problems grabbing a shovel and digging or being the grunt who would do the jobs nobody else would do.
A salute is not necessary, hard work is
While digging ditches isn’t among the job requirements for the 55 employees working at Solano’s Biggby locations, a willingness to work hard and have fun is.
He looks for qualities in applicants who want to work at his locations on Beckley Road and in Pennfield, Urbandale, and Wattles Park that were drilled into him as a reservist.
“I like it when they look me in the eye and shake my hand,” Solano says, adding that he also is able to see potential that may not be visible during those initial interactions. “I recall one of my employees from my first store being so timid and shy when he first started working for me and now he’s at the manager level with me. You join my team and get a solid foundation of leadership, accountability, and decisiveness.”
Courtney Jacobs, left, and Thomas Baker prepare coffee at the newly open drive-up Biggby Coffee shop in Urbandale.
But, his employees also receive the encouragement to network with customers who may be able to give them leads on jobs outside of Solano’s stores.
“I’ve helped many of my people to go and find other work that they’re interested in. I write letters of recommendation for them and I preach at them to get to know their customers by name and where they work as a way to network,” Solano says. “My first question to them is always, ‘Are you having fun?’ If you don’t like your job or dread coming in, you need to find what will make you happy.”
Solano took his own advice in 2015 when he learned that his job with Post Foods was one of 80 corporate office jobs being eliminated. Prior to Post, he had worked for the Kellogg Co. and a pharmaceutical company in Chicago. While working for Post, he would make a 10-mile round trip from his home in Augusta to his favorite Biggby because the employees there made him feel good.
“They always called me by my first name and knew what I drank,” he says. “They made me feel comfortable and relaxed.”
These are feelings that the owners of Biggby, Robert Fish and Michael McCall, want to instill in their franchise owners and their employees and this is among the Biggby philosophies that Solano was interested in learning more about after he began searching for his “What’s next?”
He and his wife, Jessica, a Kellogg Co. employee and now his business partner, attended a “Discovery Day” seminar and heard Fish and McFall speak with optimism and candor about becoming a franchise owner.
Solano says what he heard that day, cemented his future employment plans.
As he worked to tie up loose ends at Post, Solano found himself in the midst of building out his first Biggby store in Wattles Park. He financed the new business venture by rolling over his 401K into a C Corp that allowed him to use the funds to invest in another business.
“We could handle living on my wife’s salary,” Solano says. “I asked my wife what would happen if this didn’t work out and she said, ‘I will still love you and we’ll figure it out.’ That first year into it was a rough year. It blew away the working capital and we had to refinance our home and Charles had to look in the accountability mirror every morning. A little less than a year into it, I called Biggby and said, ‘It’s not working and I have to move my store.’ I thought I should move downtown.”
Three months later he placed a much different phone call and said, “This store is doing fine and we’re going to make it.” Business had taken an upward turn.
After passing the break-even point at that first store, Solano opened his second store on Beckley Road in 2018. In 2019 he opened a drive-thru location in Pennfield and another one in Urbandale. In Biggby-speak these are referred to as B-Cubed operations.
Customers drive up to the newly open drive-up Biggby Coffee shop on West Michigan Avenue in Urbandale.
He hopes to open his fifth location on the site of a former Chase Bank on Hill Brady Road in late Spring 2022. In an ironic twist, he earlier sought a loan from Chase Bank and was denied.
“I had to go to a bank to get a loan for store No. 2 and Chase Bank said, ‘No, we can’t do it, you’re not ready for it’ and I just bought that building,” Solano says.
That location, he says, will enable him to further touch the lives of others in a positive way which he says is the real secret to his success.
Giving back to the community through donations of coffee or participating in round-up campaigns where customers can round their order up to the nearest dollar, are among the ways that Solano and his employees feel like they are making a difference.
“I do feel like I’ve got a great opportunity to give back not only to Veterans in Calhoun County
and the Calhoun County Red, White, and Blue Foundation
but also to organizations like Girls on the Run
and the entire community,” Solano says.
“I trust that if we give them some money, they’ll do good with it. I think that the world is in a place where we need leaders and leaders have to step up. There’s a lot of fear out there right now and uncertainty and people need to have a strong mindset and be nice and help people. We try to do our thing and make people happy and we’re hoping we can change the world.”
His customers in the drive-thru lanes are playing their own role in being part of the change. They often pay it forward or pay for the order behind them in line. He says, “You wouldn’t believe how long those chains can go.”
In a rare moment of stillness and self-reflection, Solano says his younger self wouldn’t recognize his older self.
“I started hanging out at Biggby’s first store during my freshman year at MSU as a confused undergrad,” he says. “I never thought back in 1995 that I’d be a franchise owner.”