College campuses are fueled by caffeine. The majority of students and professors can be seen gripping a coffee mug as they trek across campus, and coffee is everything from a substitute for sleep to a source of warmth on a chilly day. Cornell has a special relationship with coffee. Nick Bayer ’00 is the founder and CEO of Saxbys, a hospitality and coffee company that opened in 2005. Saxbys is no regular cafe; alongside creative drinks and delicious food, they also have a mission to “Make Life Better” and change the communities they serve. They make an effort to employ those experiencing homelessness and started the Experiential Learning Program in 2015. Through this program, Saxbys partners with universities so that on-campus cafes are entirely student run and the student cafe executive officer is fully responsible for the business. I spoke with Bayer to learn more about Saxbys’ unique business model and his time at Cornell.
The Sun: Why coffee?
Nick Bayer: I truly believe coffee is the most inclusive business in any industry. The “thesis,” if you will, (and believe me, it wasn’t this thought out when I started, but it was what I felt) was that any and everyone could both be served in and work for Saxbys. And that has played itself out in that we serve millionaires and the homeless from our cafes every day and they’re treated with equal dignity and respect. We also employ people with Ph.D.s and many others that were formerly homeless, incarcerated, etc., and everyone starts at the exact same position with equal opportunity to grow their careers.
TS: What prompted you to found Saxbys and what is in store for its future?
NB: I founded Saxbys because I love people and the relationships I build with them, and I wanted to build a business on that strategy. I wanted to combine my commitment for impact with the competitiveness only found in business, so I decided being (what is today called) a social entrepreneur was my calling.
This is an incredibly exciting time for us as we just opened our state of the art roastery in South Philadelphia and debuted our direct sourcing program, in which our coffee team travels the world and builds relationships, cups the coffees and buys 100% of our coffee directly from the origin. We’re also continuing to expand our Experiential Learning and hope to have a national footprint for the program in the next five years. Lastly, we are on the precipice of passing the final audit to certify as a B-Corp — making Saxbys a business that not only talks about doing good, but certified in doing it!
TS: In relation to doing good, I just read about increased plant-based options at Saxbys — could you see a future where Saxbys is all plant-based?
NB: We have an incredible product and marketing team that’s been paying close attention to industry trends and the requests of our guests. The “Plant Powered” program is something we saw enough data on to launch, but candidly, didn’t realize it would be the success it has been so quickly. In aggregate, our Plant Powered offerings sell 300% more than we had projected.
TS: Wow! So, have you thought about bringing Saxbys to Ithaca?
NB: Absolutely. It is a major goal for us to bring our Experiential Learning Program to Ithaca and discussions are happening.
I’ve had countless university leaders, from president to provosts to faculty, tell me how critical “power skills” (critical thinking, cultural agility, emotional intelligence, etc.) are to the educational landscape now and that it is pretty much impossible to teach those skills in a classroom. The ELP, which is both classroom learnings and the opportunity to hone power skills through doing, is not only a nicety but now a necessity in educating young people.
TS: Many students do work at cafes on campus, but running the entire cafe would be a great experience for those studying hospitality. Speaking of, what do you do in your partnership with the Hotel School?
NB: I’m incredibly proud to be one of the first and the longest serving entrepreneurs in residence via the Pillsbury Institute in the Hotel School. It’s been game-changing for me both as an entrepreneur and person to serve the next generation of leaders we get to do as EIRs.
TS: Did you have any part in creating the coffee class in the Hotel School, “The Business of Coffee: From Farm to Cup”?
NB: I was able to meet with Professor Jacob Chestnut on my recent visit to campus. We’re going to collaborate quite a bit moving forward!
TS: I’ll definitely try to take that class next year. So, you were not a Hotelie — what did you study at Cornell?
NB: I majored in government and economics. At 18, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. My interests certainly changed over time! I’ve always been a people person but was too short-sighted while at Cornell to realize that the best college and the best hospitality program in the country was just across campus.
TS: How did your Cornell education and experience prepare you for “the real world”?
NB: Cornell was incredibly challenging and competitive in the best possible way. I played baseball, was a member of Sigma Chi and worked a bunch of different jobs on top of all the academic requirements. Furthermore, every person I met was really accomplished, driven and going places. I always joke now that I could have cried in the corner about it or rolled up my sleeves and gotten to work. I’m glad (far more often than not) that I chose the latter!
Another huge advantage of Cornell is the network which is truly second to none. Whether here in Philadelphia or traveling internationally, Cornell people are always down to not only meet but help one another — and we are everywhere! I haven’t missed an opportunity to build my Cornell network and it has been immeasurably valuable for me.
TS: Thinking back on your time at Cornell, where was your favorite spot on campus?
NB: This might sound a little strange, but standing at the south end of the Hoy Parking garage looking West holds a special spot for me. In addition to looking down on Hoy Field, where I spent a ton of time and have countless memories, it is the most sweeping and gorgeous view, not only of Cornell’s campus but the Ithaca region. I’d be remiss — and in a lot of trouble! — if I didn’t also say the Great Hall in Greystone (Sigma Chi’s house). That is where I met my wife Hally (formerly Schreiber) who graduated Human Ecology in 2002.
TS: Favorite class?
NB: Gamelan (wonder if that class is still taught!).
TS: Did you acquire the necessity for coffee while at Cornell?
NB: Haha, definitely not. Coffee wasn’t consumed the same way by college students as it is now — it’s now such a core part of the social experience.
TS: And finally, arguably the most important question, what is your favorite Saxbys drink?
NB: My go-to is a bit of a secret menu item at Saxbys called The Cure. It is Saxbys espresso and coconut water over ice — it caffeinates, hydrates and quenches all at the same time!
When I went home for Thanksgiving break, I made a beeline to the nearest Saxbys. Over the summer, I tried all of their brews, which were flavorful and perfectly caffeinated. But after researching the company and perusing their menu online, I felt it was necessary, as a serious journalist, to taste test their holiday specials. I ordered the matcha pumpkin latte with oat milk, and I can honestly say it was the best drink I have ever consumed. The sweetness of the pumpkin blended with the bitter matcha and balanced perfectly so that all flavors came through. In addition to Saxbys being a positive influence on the communities they serve, they also make incredible coffee. I would love to see Saxbys in Ithaca.