QSR Innovators: Gregorys Coffee’s CEO Gregory Zamfotis

QSR Innovators: Gregorys Coffee’s CEO Gregory Zamfotis

Since Gregory Zamfotis, founder/CEO of Gregorys Coffee opened the specialty coffee chain in 2006 in Manhattan, the brand has been focused on creating a morning coffee experience that offers the quality of a local roaster with the quick convenience of a busy deli.

The brand was founded on the pillars of high quality products and innovative services, while still making customers feel like regulars, aka “Gregulars.”

“Part of our DNA, and who we are, was always trying to hustle and make people feel special but not rushed,” says Zamfotis. “That balance is hard to achieve and is really something that is not on most companies’ radars. Most just want to serve the best quality coffee or just be really fast. It’s hard to do both of those at the same time. We have made it our mission since day one to do just that.”

One way that Gregorys Coffee has accomplished this mission over the last couple of years is by offering in-store pickup, online ordering, a mobile app and a delivery service. This helped the family business pivot when the pandemic shut things down. With growing popularity for their “Order Ahead” feature on the brand’s mobile payment app and digital ordering option on the Gregorys website – allowing for pickup or delivery both from the store or through a third-party like Uber Eats – the company is seeing a higher adoption rate.

“People are moving into that delivery space more and more, almost by brute force because they aren’t able to leave their homes and they aren’t going to the office like they used to,” says Gregory Zamfotis, founder/CEO of Gregorys Coffee.

Gregorys serves commercial corridors like Midtown Manhattan and Wall Street, busy areas in which foot traffic has been quieted down since people began working from home. Delivery is helping the company augment its business in this new era.

“In the cities where we do our business, you must take every opportunity you have to increase your surface area, due to the high rents that we pay,” Zamfotis says. “In the past, coffee was not really seen as something that people were ordering for delivery, especially specialty coffees.”

“People felt comfortable ordering from the bagel store or from the deli,” he continues. “But people have gotten more comfortable with delivery, with the lag time between ordering and getting their coffee, coming to grips with the fact that the coffee won’t be piping hot the moment they get it.” 

The chain now has four locations in Washington, DC, and a presence in Jersey City, NJ with a newly opened location in Hoboken, expanding its footprint into more residential zones.

Brand Innovators caught up with Zamfotis to learn more about the brand’s digital ordering platforms, vegan menu items and new stores. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did online ordering help you when the pandemic hit?

There were a lot of brands playing catch-up or did not have that as part of their rolodex. As things progressed quickly, trying to launch a platform like that in the middle of the game, while necessary, can be challenging. We already had our ecosystem existing up and running, a large group of people already involved and used to ordering with us that way, so it was part of what we had already been comfortable doing. It actually helped us capture whatever we could early on during COVID because we already had those systems in place, those protocols and procedures to be able to operate and execute within the stores. Digital payments, order ahead, third-party delivery, all these technological advancements, bets that we placed a long time ago, helped us flatten our own curve, helped us get people into our stores and make it as easy as possible for them. 

Do you think the shift in how consumers are eating out will continue even after the pandemic ends?

Habits are hard to break, but also, once you’re forced into a certain situation, new habits can be formed. I think this is getting people out of their previous comfort zones out of necessity. A lot of folks who resisted using mobile applications, order ahead, delivery, have come to find that once you find a concept that can actually execute at a very high level, using these payment methods, you’ll see how much easier and more convenient it can be. 

If you’re not really sacrificing much in terms of quality or dollars, you can get the same high quality product for the same price, quicker, and more conveniently. You may be getting many folks who resisted the platforms before, to jump in. Once you get people into your ecosystem, and they really understand the benefits, and really can immerse themselves in our culture, our menu, and the experiences that we are trying to provide, I think that adds many more touch points through which you get to interact with your guests digitally as well as in your stores. It’s something we’ve been really happy to do over these years.

At a time when fast casual is struggling, you are opening in locations, particularly in more residential areas as opposed to corporate centers. Are you targeting people working at home?

This is something that internally we’ve been thinking about for a long time. Our footprint was heavily concentrated in the daytime office population in Manhattan, Jersey City and Washington DC. That was our bread and butter for a long time. But in an effort to diversify and try to interact with people in all different aspects of the life cycle, whether they are at work or at home or at the gym or wherever, I think we are starting to explore different real estate strategies – Hoboken being one – and new locations that we are working on will reach out to people similarly at different sorts of touch points. 

You recently launched a new vegan item. How are you marketing this expansion to appeal to a wider audience?

We’ve had a pretty rich history of offering healthy and plant-based products at Gregorys. We have our own commissary, bakery, and roasting facility, so we have a lot of flexibility to do unique and one-off sort of products. For forever we were just doing pastries, grab-and-go items, and our coffee and drink menu. A year and a half ago, we formally launched a hot food menu, breakfast sandwiches, avocado toast, things like that. It was doing pretty well for us and we were excited to explore more. 

Part of what happened during COVID, especially early on, was that so few places were reopened, so we found that when we reopened cafes in the early May, we were one of the few food or beverage companies reopened in these markets. A lot of the places where people usually went for hot breakfast or breakfast sandwiches were not open yet. We pushed heavier into the breakfast sandwich market and people were happy with the products that we were pushing out.

We really wanted to come up with a new plant-based breakfast sandwich that you couldn’t find anywhere. That led to, what we call, The Vegan Deluxe. 

We sourced this vegan chia-seed croissant, partnered with Just Egg, Beyond Meat (for the breakfast sausage) and Daiya Foods (for the cheddar cheese), you mix it all together and you have a sausage, egg, and cheese on a croissant that’s all plant-based. People absolutely loved the product, whether they were vegan/plant-based or not. It’s an absolutely delicious product that just happens to be plant based. 

If someone wants a really amazing vegan/plant-based sandwich, this caters to that. And if someone is interested in dipping their toe in the water to see what that breakfast sandwich world feels like, they are usually pleasantly surprised with how they’re enjoying it. It pairs so well with our coffee program and people are really keen on trying new products with us. 

As the holiday season comes, do you have special marketing plans?

In terms of special marketing, we are pushing heavier into digital marketing with regard to general presence. We haven’t pinpointed a strategy as to item-specific marketing, but as far as outside of stores and our social presence (using Google or Facebook or other digital advertising), those are company wide, based on our app or new locations. As far as product-specific, we do leverage a lot of our relationships with some of the partners helping us with ingredients, social and promotional strategy within the company as far as pushing new products in our app and other ecosystems there. 

What are your plans for 2021?

It’s hard to gauge. I’m always trying to be optimistic. We are heading into the winter, things can feel bleak at times. I feel like we are hopefully getting to the end of the tunnel at some point soon. A lot of these behaviors stick, and it’s going to wind up changing consumer behavior. For me, it’s really exciting because this is leveraging some of the things that we are best at, which is creating great experiences and great products efficiently and being as convenient as we can for our guests. 

We are always trying to blend quality with quantity. There are lots of places to get a great cup of coffee, we are not the only ones that do a good job brewing coffee. And there are places that can get you in and out quickly. But I really have a hard time finding places that can do both outside of Gregorys. When we are on our A-game, that’s what we are all about. That’s sort of where things are going. 

As optimistic as I sound, I’m sensitive to what’s going on. Everything we do is done with the tone of trying not only to create great experiences and do the best that we can for our guests, but also taking into account our team and how proud of I am of them for being able to execute and do all these things safely and working super hard and doing all this in a really challenging environment. I couldn’t say how proud I am of the team that we have that allows me to dream big. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t have amazing people around me to put these visions into realities.