118: Scott Svenson: From founding Seattle Coffee Company to being acquired by Starbucks & then starting MOD Pizza. This is a story about pizza with a purpose!

September 26, 2019

Scott Svenson

Scott Svenson and his wife Ally Svenson are the founders of Seattle Coffee Company that was acquired by Starbucks back in 1998. This company is a company that they grew in the UK, even though they grew up in Bellevue, Washington just outside of Seattle. Scott moved to London with a US investment bank. His wife had a keen sense of everything that London could use, including a Starbucks-style coffee cafe experience. Scott had an investor partner to get involved and soon Seattle Coffee Company was born in the United Kingdom. Over the course of 2 and a half years, Seattle Coffee Company expanded to about 85 locations primarily in the UK, along with partners that opened stores in South Africa, South East Asia, and the Middle East.

On this episode of Finding Your Summit Podcast, we talk with Scott Svenson, co-founder, and CEO at MOD Pizza and the Founder and Ex-CEO of Seattle Coffee Company. Neither Scott nor his wife and partner Ally had any previous retail or coffee experience when they began Seattle Coffee Company. They just had a really clear vision and a strong belief that failure was not an option. Scott said: “The greatest gift I have had in my personal journey is the fact that I found someone (Ally), we actually went to high school together. We have been together since she was 15 and I was 16. To find that life partner, somebody who is kind of your proverbial better half, who is a great compliment to the way that I look at the world, it has been a total gift.”

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What You Will Learn:

In what ways did Seattle Coffee Company differ from its inspiration, which was Starbucks? Scott explains: “When we decided to do it, we really made it our own and so Seattle Coffee Company really had a very different vibe and personality than Starbucks. We sold a lot more food. It just had a more European, kind of gritty feel to it.” Scott and Ally were initially paranoid about Starbucks coming over to London and taking their market share. They eventually agreed to sell to Startbucks and become their expansion partners in the UK, the Middle East, and Africa. 

What was it like when Starbucks was interested in buying them out? “Orin Smith said to me most directly, he said, ‘we are setting out to build the world’s most loved and enduring brand. And we know to do that we need to be successful in two key markets globally. One is in Tokyo, where we are (they had just expanded into Japan several years before and that was their focus). The other is in London. And that is where you guys (Seattle Coffee Company) are. And so we know if we are going to fulfill our mission, we need to figure out how to work in the UK and we are either going to compete with you or we are going to work with you.”   

There are now over 200 Seattle Coffee Companies licences through Starbucks in South Africa. Scott shares: “I stayed with Starbucks for about 2 years, and while I was here, my primary focus was integrating the businesses, coming up with a plan to transition over all of the sale of coffee companies over to Starbucks, and then putting into place a plan to launch Starbucks into continental Europe.” 

What brought about their move from the UK and to bring their family back to Seattle, Washington? Scott shares: “I will never forget, flying on the plane and looking at my wife Ally and saying, ‘alright, now we have a chance to prove to ourselves whether or not we were just lucky or if we are any good.’ Since we have been back in Seattle has been largely that, bringing to bare all of the things that we learned while we were in the UK.” 

How did Scott Svenson evolve from coffee and relocating back home to creating a pizza empire? Having a lot of options and money in your pocket to keep you feeling secure can make it tough to stay motivated. Scott talks about what were the reasons him and his wife Ally were excited to start MOD Pizza: “We’ve always loves all things Italian. And we love Italian street food. So it started about an 18-month journey of us exploring this idea and we finally decided that there was enough there where we thought, listen, let’s try this.”  

Made on Demand (MOD)

They have over 450 locations and 80+% that are company-owned and they have nine US partners and another partner in the UK. Scott says: “We have discovered the power of purpose. The power of and the reward that goes with building a business that is truly trying to accomplish something that is bigger than us, bigger than the people involved and using business as a platform to make a positive impact on society and on our communities.” Scott’s wife was thoroughly interested in the ‘why’ behind MOD Pizza and believed that the last thing that the world needs is another ‘soulless restaurant.’

Success and Culture

Doing things to help others makes yourself feel better in the process. MOD Pizza has supported people that society has typically turned its back on and have had barriers to employment, such as people that have neurological disabilities, people that have been homeless, been in foster care or in jail. “We have actually built a successful business and we have been the fastest growing restaurant brand in the country for the past four years. But it is not the financial side that gives us any long-term sustainable gratification. It is the impact that it is having on people’s lives.” Hear all about how Scott Svenson was able to find his summit in this new episode. 


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