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Lexi and Lauren Bates know a thing or two about taking chances. It’s ultimately what led to their thriving coffee truck business that’s resulted in not only one revenue stream but three. Two Sisters Coffee Co., which operates out of Culpeper, VA, officially put their business in drive in 2021 and quickly blossomed into a welcome addition to their neighborhood, making coffee and community accessible during the pandemic at a time when it was needed most. Their merch line, which furthered their community efforts, led them to become a 2023 Square 50 honoree in the category of Merch Maven. Merch Mavens are described as businesses with merch drops so hyped that it’s led to a thriving new revenue stream. The perfect category for a business that had six merch drops over the past three years.
For this growing mobile business, though, expansion has come with a host of wins and learning curves, but in the end, it’s all about the journey (and really, really good coffee).
Turning obstacles into opportunities
Although owning and starting a coffee shop had been a dream of Lexi’s for a while, it didn’t become a tangible possibility until she endured a slew of hiring freezes in 2020 right out of college. Not to mention, there was a global pandemic happening with no end in sight. “[A brick-and-mortar coffee shop] wasn’t financially realistic or the safest option,” explained Bates. But that only presented the sisters with a unique opportunity. “That’s when my sister and I thought of putting our coffee shop on wheels, and that’s when Two Sisters Coffee Co. began,” said Bates.
The path from marketing to merch to maven
Starting a mobile business presented a unique marketing challenge. With brick-and-mortar shops, businesses tend to rely on traditional advertising methods like signage to showcase that they are coming soon. But at a time when the world was inside — not to mention their business was on wheels — Lexi and Lauren opted to think outside the box. “We started a merch line as a form of marketing. We started out by selling t-shirts before we even opened, because we thought it would be the perfect way to spread the word organically,” Bates revealed. And they were right.
According to them, their merch line has helped create a special awareness of their business. “So many customers have worn [our] merch out in public and been stopped by people who have seen us on social media. This has helped create a sense of community and has also made the world feel so small, which is always a really cool feeling,” she said.
But at Two Sisters Coffee Co., merch is more than just cute tops or a marketing tactic. It’s truly about community. The sister duo works with various artists and designers to make sure each merch line is unique and limited. “We usually sell a t-shirt for a few months before we switch it up and release something new the next season or year,” Bates pointed out. This approach ensures that every group of buyers has their own personal connection to the coffee truck in their own special way.
From launch to learnings
Launching a thriving merch line, though, comes with its own set of hurdles. “We have learned a lot from launching the merch line. The biggest lesson being that less is always more,” noted Bates. Instead of offering more than five merchandise items at a time, Two Sisters Coffee Co. opts for two to three limited-edition items, which they’ve found eliminates decision fatigue for customers. “It allows for a lot less stress, which ultimately makes running the merch line more sustainable long-term,” she added.
In addition to limiting the number of options they sell, they’ve also found success limiting how much inventory they invest in. “It is nearly impossible to anticipate how well or not well a merch drop is going to do. We’ve sold less than 10 of an item before, but we’ve also sold more than 200 at a time,” Bates explained. Because of this, they’ve started doing preorders to protect themselves financially and to ensure that they don’t have too much or too little of certain sizes and designs.
Another key lesson they’ve shared is to never be afraid to outsource. Working with various artists and designers has expanded what’s possible for Two Sisters Coffee Co. creatively and created time for them to focus on other aspects of the business. Whether it’s deciding on an eye-catching design for a baby onesie or the perfect quote to plaster over a t-shirt, partnering with artists and designers has been integral to building a merch line that sets itself apart from the competition.
I always believe that outsourcing your weaknesses and honing in on your strengths is something that we love about running a small business; you don’t have to, nor can you do it all on your own. ”Lexi Bates → Two Sisters Coffee Co. co-founder
Helping other businesses find their way
When it comes to the future, the sister duo is passionate about creating a world where all aspiring coffee truck owners can start and succeed, whether they want to sell just coffee or more. “We love consulting other folks on everything we have learned thus far and giving them all the advice we can,” proclaimed Bates. They’ve mentored over 30 aspiring and established small businesses across the world, opening an entirely new revenue stream.
In an effort to deepen this opportunity, Two Sisters Coffee Co. has found another way to grow that emphasizes growth for their business and other businesses. In February 2024, they plan to release an online course to help other business owners learn from their mistakes and grow. “It’s humbling being able to watch individuals start with a dream and grow their own brand that they are proud of,” said Bates.