THE WARRIOR MENTALITY: FROM COMBAT VETERAN TO COFFEE SHOP OWNER.
Carl Churchill and his wife, Lori, are the proud owners of Alpha Coffee—but their path to success has been a bumpy one.
Carl grew up moving from one military base to the next, and the "warrior mentality" was an integral part of his life from day one. After graduating a year early from high school, he convinced his stepfather to sign the papers so that he could join the Army. After receiving an ROTC scholarship and acceptance to several prestigious colleges, Churchill enrolled at the University of Utah.
"I lived in Utah for two years in high school and became obsessed with biking, skiing, and camping — the state was paradise to me," he says.
Carl started out as a 17 year old Private in the US Army. He subsequently earned a scholarship and graduated as a Distinguished Military Graduate from ROTC and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in Military Intelligence. He served a total of 21 years, including multiple combat deployments, with the 9th Infantry Division, 3rd Infantry Division, 1st Armored Division, and Special Operations Command.
"I met the love of my life who would eventually become my wife on my first deployment while stationed in Washington. At first, she wanted nothing to do with an Army guy," laughs Churchill. "We've now been married for 32 years. I always say I won the lottery when I met her."
Churchill comes from a long line of military men. "My stepdad was always deployed. Everybody I hung out with as a kid - their dads were going off to combat for a year at a time, so it was normal not to have your dad home on your birthday or special occasions," he says. "When I met Lori, something shifted—I resolved that if our marriage was going to work, I was going to do everything I could to be an important part of her life and the lives of our future children."
When he joined the military, coffee was simply a way to load his body up with caffeine before a mission. "On every deployment, we would choke down terrible coffee with lots of cream and sugar to make it palatable," he says.
Throughout his deployments in Central and South America and Europe, Churchill acquired a taste for quality coffee. "Lori and I traveled all over when I wasn't in training or deployed," he says. "That's where we started to appreciate great coffee and the cafe culture. In the mid-eighties, I was deployed to Central America, and we would meet with local commanders from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and they would offer us local coffee. It was like the clouds parted—this is what coffee was supposed to taste like."
While in Europe, the couple experienced espresso, cappuccinos, and true lattes and became coffee aficionados. Meanwhile, Lori’s brother-in-law started roasting coffee in the Pacific Northwest, and they began to learn about the specialty coffee industry and sourcing quality beans.
After nine years of active duty and after the birth of their first child, Churchill was deployed so often that he decided he needed to leave military life behind him. "I left for a year, but I missed it too much. The camaraderie, the sense of service, all of that, so I ended up doing a short mission for the special op command Europe and entered into the Reserves," he says.
Churchill started his military career as a Private and retired as a Colonel. Knowing what it's like to start at the very bottom has made him a better leader both in the military and as a business owner.
"My philosophy has always been to work hard and stay humble," he says. "I'm not a gambler, but I'm willing to bet on myself and my team, and I'm willing to take calculated risks after assessing the challenges and the chances of success."
Churchill retired from the Reserves in 2006, and shortly after, in 2008, the recession hit. "I was in between jobs, we were without an income and healthcare, and we had two kids, a mortgage, and a car payment," he says. After three months, Churchill told his wife that they needed to go all-in and start their own business with the savings they had left.
"If you're in the military and get caught in an ambush and nobody is coming, your last option is to get everyone on the squad to rock and roll and charge the ambush. You're no longer in the kill zone if you can charge through it and get to the other side. At this point, we were in a financial ambush, and the only way out was to fight," he says.
Over coffee the following day, Carl and Lori decided to start a coffee shipping business in their basement and grow it from the ground up. "At that time, Amazon was still predominantly selling used books, but they had just started selling other things as well. We decided to start packaging and shipping Lori's brother-in-law's coffee to people's homes. A big part of our business model was to donate a portion of profits back to the military from the very beginning. I always drank lousy coffee, and I wanted to send them great coffee to show them we're still thinking of them."
From the start, it was a family operation, and the kids, who were teenagers at the time, helped with the grinding, bagging, and shipping of the coffee.
"We grew slowly in the beginning," says Churchill. "Two steps forward and one step back. I started working another job full-time on the side and would help with Alpha after work and on weekends."
"My philosophy has always been to work hard and stay humble," he says. "I'm not a gambler, but I'm willing to bet on myself and my team"
After a few years, the Churchills took a giant leap and opened their first brick-and-mortar coffee shop at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. They opened a second cafe a few years later. A month and a half after opening the second, the Covid-19 pandemic hit with full force.
"Lori and I did what we always do," says Churchill. "We put on a pot of coffee and formed a battle plan. No closing, no laying anyone off, no cutting anyone's pay. At that time, we had a team of 30 people that relied on us to pay their rent, mortgages, everything."
Alpha Coffee started doing curbside delivery and online ordering. An employee sat by the front door during operating hours to take orders, and the staff used the time to clean the shops and keep their growing customer base caffeinated.
At the same time, the Churchills launched Alpha Coffee on Amazon. "We did everything to protect our team while also taking some business risks that paid off," says Churchill. And it did pay off—Alpha Coffee is getting ready to open up a third shop, and there are plans for a fourth after that.
As it expands, Alpha Coffee remains dedicated to giving back to the community. The "Grounds for Good" program focuses on supporting veterans, the planet, and the local community. The "Coffee for Troops" program has sent over 20-thousand bags of coffee to troops, and Alpha donates to various charities focused on veterans, conservation efforts, and local programs supporting local first responders, teachers, law enforcement, and outdoor recreation programs.
"We founded Alpha on four key principles, and we will continue to stand by our mission," says Churchill. "Be a warrior, work as a team, hone our craft, and serve others."