A coterie of Foster School alumni are purveyors of fine coffee and chocolate
Coffee and chocolate. Chocolate and coffee. Oh, how we love them so! The way they look. The way they smell. The way they taste on the tongue. The way they fortify those who seek comfort or creativity, especially in a place like Seattle that is renowned for grey skies and curious minds.
Why have so many alumni of the Foster School of Business followed their hearts—and noses—to the bean-based industries of coffee and chocolate? We can only speculate. What we do know is that the producers propelled by these exacting epicureans range from micro-roasters and boutique chocolatiers to celebrity darlings and global powerhouses.
Here is a tasting menu of companies powered by Foster grads who have, in their way, mastered the art and science of coffee or chocolate—or, in a few cases, both.
-Ed Kromer and Kristin Anderson
Jeff Babcock, Co-Founder and CEO
Jeff Babcock’s (BA 1979) interest in coffee was sparked by a visit to the original Starbucks while at Foster in the late 1970s. He quit the family business in 1983 and moved to Florida to open his own coffee shop before eventually returning home to co-found Zoka in 1997. Launched in an era of big-name coffee getting bigger, Babcock set out to create true specialty coffee. This has meant roasting every day “because we want to do it right,” he says. “And I think we have for the past 25 years.”
Peter Keckemet and Sam Tanner, Co-Founders
Talk about a perfect blend: coffee and chocolate. Sam Tanner (BA 2016) and Peter Keckemet (BA 2016) dreamed up Joe Chocolate out of their desire to create a consumable aimed at college students for Foster’s Creating a Company class. Experiments began with caffeinated oatmeal and ended with their chocolate/coffee hybrid. After graduation, Tanner and Keckemet perfected their caffeinated chocolate and built a full-fledged business, with vigorous wholesale and online sales and a spiffy new storefront in Pike Place Market—where they sell cups of “Joe” alongside their “bits of buzz.”
Evan Oeflein, Emileigh Thylin, Brian Wipfler, Co-Founders
Seattle Strong started as a project in Foster’s Creating a Company class. Evan Oeflein (BA 2018), Emileigh Thylin (BA 2018) and Brian Wipfler (BA 2018) had zero prior experience in the coffee industry but were intrigued by the growing popularity of cold brew coffee. With positive feedback on their nitrogen-infused product and an invaluable boost from the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, they took Seattle Strong to market in 2018. Three flavors of Seattle Strong—each creamy, frothy, smooth and fragrant—are now available at grocery stores around Seattle, with plans to expand.
Catherine Clementi, Head of Procurement
Managing procurement at one of the biggest chocolate companies in the United States is more than just a sweet gig. Yes, Catherine Clementi (MBA 2018) gets to eat free chocolate and taste some cool, delicious recipes. But she also gets to drive responsible sourcing efforts at Ghirardelli, a subsidiary of Lindt and Sprüngli. In addition to improving processes, forecasting prices and navigating supply chain challenges, she participates in the implementation of a farming program, “which supports cacao farmers, their families and communities across the world.”
Ryan Fritzky, Co-Founder
Ryan Fritzky (BA 2005) launched Bean Box in 2014 as an “all-access pass to enjoy the world’s best coffee at home.” The subscription service delivers tasting experiences of multiple coffees expertly curated from independent roasters across the nation. While developing the concept, Fritzky and his partners interviewed patrons of indie coffee shops in Seattle who would “describe tasting notes like you’d see on wine promotions,” he says. “The coffee was so superior that we fell in love with the idea of bringing such a local and craft experience to people everywhere.”
Karen Neugebauer, Founder
While recuperating from a back injury shortly after graduating from Foster, Karen Neugebauer (MBA 2004) discovered a passion for making fine chocolate. She opened Forté in Mount Vernon and began conjuring remarkably elegant and flavorful artisan chocolates. Though she has won countless national and international accolades—including five golds at the International Chocolate Awards—what really motivates her is helping people celebrate everyday moments and major milestones: “I believe that life—and chocolate—is as amazing as you make it.”
Legions of Foster alumni have powered Starbucks, the hometown coffee company that has grown into one of the world’s greatest brands for its ethical sourcing, pro-social policies, high-quality product, and communal “third place” experience that created an industry. A prime mover of that industry was the late Orin Smith (BA 1965), who led Starbucks as president and CEO during its period of steepest ascent in the early 2000s. He’s also the namesake of Orin’s Place in PACCAR Hall, which has sustained the Foster community with Starbucks Coffee since 2010.
Fran Bigelow, Founder and President
Fran Bigelow (BA 1965) is a living legend in the chocolate world. Since opening her first chocolate shop in 1982, she has built a global brand beloved by all. A pioneer in the American artisanal chocolate movement, Bigelow is still considered one of the nation’s top chocolatiers. And her eponymous company continues to produce impeccable chocolate confections, composed of organic and fair trade ingredients, which are available through retail shops in Seattle and Japan, a thriving online business and specialty gourmet stores across the country.
Kari DeGraff, Founder
Kari DeGraff (EveMBA 2019) always wanted to create something of her own. When the Air Force veteran recognized the potential of the cold brew market while attending Foster, she started Scoot! in her garage. She opened the first Scoot! Café in Cleveland in July 2020, offering the classics but using her own cold brew concentrate in place of espresso. “Successfully opening a storefront, growing a new brand and introducing a new coffee technology in the midst of a pandemic is an achievement,” says the Best of Cleveland awardee.
Christine Zess, Director of Finance and Accounting
Even a chocolate company of dreams needs to mind its finances. Christine Zess (BA 2002, EMBA 2016) does just that for Theo Chocolate, the first organic, fair trade-certified, bean-to-bar chocolate maker in North America. From its fanciful production facility in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Theo inspires people to make a better world through chocolate. It’s certainly setting the tone by producing exquisite chocolate—winner of multiple international awards—with a deep commitment to organic and fair trade practices for the planet, farmers and consumers.
Andy Liu, Founder and President
Ever thought: this decaf is weak? Andy Liu (MSCM 2018) has. After poor sleep prompted him to swear off caffeine after 2 p.m., he found conventional decaf coffee unsatisfying bland. So, he gathered a team of fellow scientists and engineers and developed a revolutionary way to extract caffeine from any coffee drink. Decafino’s patented compostable Decaf Pouch works like a reverse tea bag: its natural plant extracts and minerals attract and bind with caffeine molecules like a magnet does metal. What remains is all the intricate flavor and aroma of coffee—minus the buzz.
Erin Andrews, Founder and CEO
Erin Andrews (Ascend Seattle 2020) likes to call indi “the most backwards chocolate company ever, since we didn’t start with making chocolate.” The one-time finance executive started making cocoa butter lotion and lip balm after her daughter—Indi—had a bad reaction to conventional body care products. She eventually expanded into chocolate, sourcing the highest-quality beans directly from farmers around the world to create simple, sumptuous chocolate bars and truffles in her glass-walled Pike Place Market factory and shop.
Cara Castro, Director of People + Culture
What if coffee didn’t require beans at all? The big brains behind Atomo have done the impossible: reverse-engineered the coffee bean and recreated its molecular compounds using upcycled ingredients—date pits, chicory root, grapeskin—to brew a perfectly consistent, sustainable, delicious cup of coffee. Founding CEO Andy Kleitsch, a mentor in Foster’s entrepreneurial programs, recruited wine-industry veteran Cara Castro (MS Entre 2019) to lead marketing and people operations. And Seattle—hotbed of coffee and tech fanatics—has proven uniquely suited to incubating their tasty technological marvel.
Danielle Laubenstein, Director of Global Marketing
Danielle Laubenstein’s (BA 2008) career in chocolate was love at first bite. Straight out of Foster, she was hired as a field sales manager for Godiva Chocolatier. As she learned more about the health benefits of cacao—a bona fide super food—she moved on to lead marketing at Chocolove. She jumped at the recent opportunity to join Mauna Loa, where she has presided over a comprehensive rebranding of the company that has elevated the Hawaiian macadamia in all of its forms—the best of them covered in chocolate.
Jody Hall, Founder and CEO
Jody Hall (EDP 2010) left a career at Starbucks to open the first cupcake-dedicated café outside of New York City back in 2003. Cupcake Royale, serving Stumptown Coffee under the Verite Coffee banner, grew into a Seattle institution and spun off a seasonal favorite each Valentine’s Day: the Deathcake, a pitch-black aphrodisiac infused with house espresso and Theo chocolate ganache. Now, Hall has launched Wunderground Coffee, infused with the ancient medicinal benefits—focus, calm, immunity—extracted from different genera of mushroom.
Alexander Lóng, Founder
Alexander Lóng (MBA 2004) began experimenting with chocolate in 2007 while running a laser company that provided RD&E for the US military. Over time, chocoholic became chocolatier—actually “Grand Master Chocolatier,” according to the International Chocolate Salon. In his boutique SELEUŠS shop in downtown Seattle, Lóng practices time-honored French techniques to turn out micro-batches of hand-crafted chocolate truffles of the finest ingredients and most imaginative pairings (such as coffee and chicory, orange blossom honey and Greek rose). Confections for the connoisseur. “At SELEUŠS,” he says, “we make chocolate, not candy.”
Efrem Fesaha, Founder and CEO
Efrem Fesaha (Ascend Seattle 2019) left a finance career in 2019 to open Boon Boona Coffee, a potable expression of his proud Eritrean heritage. Boon Boona—words for coffee in East African dialects—sells house-roasted coffee and beans sourced from the continent of Africa. And it has quickly become a cultural heart of the area’s East African community (including a weekly traditional roasting ceremony) and flourishing hub of the diverse neighborhoods around its Renton and (Seattle) Capitol Hill cafés.
Bob Burgess, Founder and CEO
If Seattle is the epicenter of the coffee industry, then Bob Burgess (BA 1977) is an original catalyst. He began importing commercial espresso machines and manufacturing coffee carts and kiosks in in the mid-1980s, then established the Seattle Barista Academy—a first in the US—in the 1990s. And today he leads Beverage Specialists, a supplier of flavor additives, including the curious “Coffee Pop,” a carbonated mixer with hints of caramel and citrus alongside the punch of Brazilian arabica coffee. Take that, Red Bull!