Nick Stone has stood at the crossroads before. Long before he founded Bluestone Lane – and long before it became the largest Australian hospitality export in the United States – his AFL dream was crushed not once, but three times.
When the St Kilda Football Club brought an end to six years in the AFL system – three two-year stints at Collingwood, Hawthorn and the Saints – at the end of 2005, Stone dusted himself off and channeled that disappointment into the next phase of his life.
Now more than fifteen years on from the day he learned his football career was over by reading about it in the Herald Sun, the 39-year-old is facing a much larger challenge.
Stone is the chief executive officer of a café group that numbered 52 venues before the coronavirus clenched its hands around the globe in March.
The Brighton product was in the process of relocating back to New York just before the pandemic struck but was forced to remain in Santa Monica, Los Angeles with his wife, Alexandra, three-year-old daughter, Arabella, and one-year-old son, Oliver, and navigate the crisis from the west coast.
Instead of dwelling on the unfair reality of the situation, in a year where the company was set to expand even further, Stone and the executive team at Bluestone Lane leapt into action. Within 12 hours they had devised a blueprint to survive the months ahead. This is what they did.
“Our revenue fell 90 per cent in the first week. That’s how severe it was. We had to lay off 700 staff which was devastating. We made adjustments very quickly because there was no real downside. When you drop that much that quick you have to try anything because it couldn’t get any worse. 40 of my locations had to close to start with, so early on was the time to accelerate that pivoting,” Stone told Man of Style.
“In our locations, we measured out our ability to put tables out straight away; we couldn’t get 50 per cent capacity because we are too small and we can’t maintain six feet from each of our tables. New York space is so expensive, so you jam tables in and that’s part of the new atmosphere and energy of New York dining.”
“We had to find a way of selling and providing a service in a way that doesn’t require dining on-premise. So, we moved exclusively to contactless, curbside pick-up and delivery very quickly, investing a lot of time, money and energy into our system, loyalty program and our app.”
“I was so impressed with the team to execute this and pull it off within 12 hours. The volumes were nothing like what they were, but they were OK, which gave us a sign that we will have something when the new normal really kicks us in.
“One of the biggest takeaways of the new normal is humans are going to get used to different ways of being served. Buyer behaviour will change dramatically. It takes 60 days to get a new habit. So if you operate this way for the next six months or 12 months or 18 months, people will forget about certain ways that they used to get their coffee or burger or whatever. That’s a bit confronting, but humanity will prevail.”
The new normal sounds like a poorly written sitcom that would be funny if the situation wasn’t so dire, and if so many high-quality hospitality businesses weren’t facing extinction.
Bluestone Lane’s commitment to protecting its customers in New York City now includes light technology that continuously sanitises indoor environments. They will roll this out at every store over the coming months. Welcome to 2020.
It is a completely different world from just seven years ago when Stone opened the very first Bluestone Lane in a hole-in-the-wall site in Midtown, while still working as a director for ANZ in the New York office.
Despite having never worked in hospitality previously, Stone decided to pursue this path after developing the business idea as part of an assignment at Fordham University. Everyone else in his class went down the tech path while he analysed Starbucks, and it was then when he realised that New Yorkers didn’t know what they were missing. They consumed large amounts of coffee, but it was all about the caffeine rather than the connection.
“I ended up in New York in late 2010 to go to business school as a way to find my way to New York to follow my girlfriend – now wife – who was working there and my ultimate dream of working in Wall Street. When I was studying in New York I couldn’t believe how different the coffee culture was,” Stone explained.
“The consumption of coffee was massive, but it was only focused on the transaction. It was about convenience and speed which was very, very different to what we know in Australia where you are a local at your café; there is a reciprocal relationship; they know your name, face and order; and it goes both ways. That was extremely different in New York at the time.
“I became an absolute student in the industry and I leveraged my background in corporate finance and playing footy in an elite environment for six years to develop a proposition that I thought could be scaled in the US and grow.”
Bluestone Lane wasn’t the very first Melbourne inspired café serving silky flat white and smashed avocado to set up shop in Manhattan, but they were different. They were created to scale.
Stone added a second venue within four months and a third in the West Village less than 12 months after opening his first store. It was then, after that location exploded, that he believed anything was possible.
“The third one really provided the encouragement and confidence that it could become something special. We couldn’t handle the volume. We didn’t have any money to build, we hardly could afford air conditioning. But we had everyone under the sun walking in. It was an incredible journey,” he said.
“From there we were very lucky. The first six stores were all winner; they were all home runners; that gave us the confidence to explore new markets. And when it worked there, you start to realise it could be a real brand.
When Bluestone Lane grew to 12 locations in 2016, Stone became full-time CEO, turning his back on his second career to go chips in on his third.
Not too long after that, the company started attracting interest from investment firms. And that’s where the billionaire owner of NFL franchise the Miami Dolphins, Stephen Ross, entered the fray. RSE Ventures – a fund that invests on behalf of Ross – invested $20 million in 2018 as part of a plan to expand to more than 100 locations in the ensuing few years.
Now they have more than 50 venues across eight markets – New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Toronto – and now they are navigating through a once-in-a-century crisis.
“It has been a crazy, exhilarating, challenging, colourful adventure. Now we are dealing with the reality of COVID but I’m very proud to have the largest hospitality export in the US,” he said.
“Short term could compress because the economics don’t work anymore and we need certain things to happen. But then the ability to scale again could be quite attractive when there is less competition, more talent on the market and there could be a lot of vacant sites where you could get good deals.
“I also think that our model at scale has to move to quick-serve lens out of necessity because you won’t be able to operate like you used to. Labour rates and management of wages was such a big challenge for us and was the biggest challenge in scaling successfully. With the new world, with a reduced labour model, it does encourage me that the economics of the units over the long term could be more robust.”
Starbucks has more than 31,000 in more than 80 countries and was once something to aim for inside Bluestone Lane’s evolving headquarters.
COVID-19 might have delayed that ambitious goal, but it hasn’t derailed the plan.
If there is one thing Stone’s football career has taught him, he knows how to overcome adversity.