Some people will do just about anything to get their morning cup of Dunkin’ Donuts brew. Gregory Nigro opened his own shop.
And not in an easy location: he opened his Dunkin’ in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a place known for being buffeted by hurricanes, nor’easters and other foul weather that can make running a business even more challenging.
That may seem a little extreme for most people. But most people aren’t Nigro, a real estate professional and inveterate coffee drinker. “I’m what is known as a three-cupper,” said Nigro. “I need to have a cup of coffee with me at all times.”
And not just any cup: Nigro is a coffee aficionado. And when that perfect cup of coffee proved elusive, he took matters into his own hands.
A Business Opportunity
A native New Yorker, Nigro grew up driving to the Outer Banks for family vacations. But it wasn’t until he was making the trip as an adult with his own family that he realized there were no good coffee places on the long, long ride. “There were no Dunkin’ Donuts, only convenience stores,” he explained. “That wasn’t really our cup of tea.”
Where others might see disappointment, Nigro saw a business opportunity. He knew Dunkin’ Donuts was expanding, and he figured that North Carolina was ripe for a franchise. So he decided to bring the iconic coffee shop south, moving his family down in the process.
“My passion has always been business,” said Nigro, an affable man with a welcoming smile. His first business was real estate, which he began right out of college and spent years learning from the ground up. “I know how to roof a house, sweat pipes, you name it,” he said. “I may not be the best, but I can talk intelligently.”
That experience was the perfect lead-in to life as a franchise owner. It gave him the skills to be able to identify, develop and structure a deal.
In the summer of 2008, Nigro opened his first shop, in northeast North Carolina. A hands-on owner, he slept in his car behind the shop as he worked to understand the business from beginning to end. He has since expanded to 17 stores, stretching from Richmond, Virginia, to the bottom of the Outer Banks. Five of his Dunkin’ locations are currently in various stages of construction.
Nigro knew from the start that Dunkin’ was the partner he wanted. For one thing, everyone he talked to loved the brand, especially the banks when he went to them to secure financing. “There’s no other coffee purveyor comparable,” said Nigro, adding that their strong brand and leadership position makes them recession-proof. “They have tremendous products and staying power.”
Early on, he identified that 65 percent of visitors to the Outer Banks are from the New England area, where there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts on virtually every corner. “Right out of the box, their experience was the same,” said Nigro. “They wanted their fix in the morning. It’s part of you.”
Passion for the brand extends to the people he hires, who get to know customers by the sound of their car, and to his family as well. His wife Danielle works in the business, and he has even conscripted his 10-year-old daughter Allie, who began working in the office this summer. Jackson, 3, is the only one not pulling a paycheck. Yet.
A Challenge to Weather
But passion alone can’t protect the business from the challenges of an unusual location; that’s where hard work and planning take over.
The Outer Banks are a long, narrow chain of barrier islands that curve along the coast of North Carolina. They are a vacation destination with white sand beaches, warm weather and a laid back lifestyle. The year-round population of 30,000 swells to 300,000 in the summer months; local businesses have nine weeks in which to make the bulk of their money.
Few regional businesses are based here. Nigro has six shops in the Outer Banks, four of them on the water. Staffing is “interesting,” he said, given the seasonal nature of the area. He hires college students and foreign exchange students in addition to having some long-term staff. He succeeds by balancing the seasonality of his Outer Banks stores with the year-round stability of his stores on the mainland and in Virginia.
“I’m blessed to have built up a local following; I work on that daily,” he said.
But the geography of the area poses another unique challenge: hurricanes. With the open ocean on one side and the more protected sound on the other, the islands are perfectly situated to bear the brunt of strong tropical storms, nor’easters and full-blown hurricanes.
These storms are strong enough to carve away swaths of land and deposit sand in new locations, changing the topography of the Outer Banks regularly. And the weather can shift quickly, giving residents only a few hours to prepare. So planning for storms requires military-like precision.
“Hurricanes impact our business weekly,” said Nigro. Throughout the summer season, he tunes into the weather channel regularly to see what’s on the horizon. When a storm is forecast, it’s all hands on deck, preparing to board up windows and tie down outdoor furniture. “It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said, “it’s a number of days’ process.”
It’s not just the buildings he needs to keep safe. Nigro also takes care of his staff, making sure that the college student with no family nearby has a place to stay, or that he has checked in with the foreign exchange student.
Nigro himself rides out storms on the island. With only two bridges linking the Outer Banks to the mainland, it can take days to get people back after a mandatory evacuation. “You lose one week and it’s a huge loss,” he said. “Getting back up to speed can be a several day situation.” He stays to make sure everything keeps running, saying he’s always felt safe.
But he questioned that decision in 2011, when Hurricane Irene came to town. The storm devastated the area, hitting the more vulnerable part of the island. The island was locked down for three days, with a mandatory evacuation. Nigro and his family stayed.
It was one of the worst storms he had ever seen. “The entire Sound was empty, all the water went out to sea,” he said. “You could walk from the Outer Banks to Curatuck (on the mainland). Then we saw the water rushing back in like a tidal wave – it was crazy intense.” The storm caused significant damage, flooding the beach road and taking out houses.
Still, Nigro and his family came through it with unflagging enthusiasm for the area. They love the people, the atmosphere, the laid-back feeling of life in a vacation destination. “People come down here and comment on how different it is from what you expect,” said Nigro.
And despite inevitable future storms, he remains on the lookout for new opportunities, gearing up to continue bringing Dunkin’ brew to locals and visitors alike.
“Someone once told me it’s the most expensive cup of coffee I ever bought,” said Nigro. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.