Meet the Ex-Karate Champ Who Built an International Coffee and Juice Chain Around a Cult of Bros
'We want to end up being a real alternative to Harvard Business School,' he says.
This story originally appeared on Money.com.
With an hour to go before the strangest, most exhilarating competition involving fresh fruit and a Vita-Mix the world has ever seen, a warehouse nestled between a series of other airy spaces at Copenhagen’s Papierøen Island is tense. Backstage, contestants are practicing their mixer-flips and ice cube balancing acts, while on stage, a wiry ex-karate champion who could pass for a Danish Sean Penn stalks back and forth, delivering an odd, profane pep talk.
“There is no reason to ever f–king feel entitled,” 46-year-old Kaspar Basse admonishes his audience. “There’s no reason to blame the f–king weather because you can’t do anything about it. Be f–king different. It’s OK to want to look good. Most of us don’t. But it’s OK to want to look good. It’s OK to be vain. Vain is only a bad thing if you’re goddamn lazy.”
Before him stands a legion of mostly handsome Danes, mostly half Basse’s age, hanging on his every word. He is the leader of this cult, the fresh juice and coffee company Joe & the Juice, a business that has grown in 15 years from a single shop in Copenhagen to an empire with 190 locations in 14 countries. Basse may come across like a middle-aged dad establishing street cred with a foul mouth, but he commands an enormous degree of respect in this room. Which is why, when he opens it up to questions, the first one is a crowd-silencer.
“What is our proportion of women to men in the workplace?” asks London’s Ross Fellows-Patel, who is no outsider to Joe and the Juice — but an employee.
“I’m not the right one to ask,” Basse ducks, before another executive reveals that the total percentage of women in the workforce is just six. Basse then interjects, “We want to bring more women into the company. Should that be a natural development, or should we force it? I believe it shouldn’t be forced, that we should motivate people to be inspired to work for us, because it is a great company.”
After a few more questions and presentations, the “ShowOff” begins. It’s hard to describe, or at least hard to overstate, the insanity of a ShowOff. At its most basic level, it’s dudes from Joe stores around the globe making juice. But they’re not just making juice: they’re flipping pitchers into the air and catching them, they’re juggling ice cubes, they’re pouring juice into cups balanced on their foreheads, their biceps, their backs. They’re shirtless, they’re sweating and they’re on a stage in front of dozens of screaming young men and women. Each Juicer is given a few minutes to perform a series of tricks, and ultimately make a smoothie. They’re rated by judges for style, execution, and whether they actually completed making a smoothie. It’s a hilarious competition, and there’s no better place to bear witness to the enthusiasm Joe’s employees have for their work place. The level of stoke at a ShowOff is through the roof.
The company’s growth is as impressive as its employees’ behind-the-counter antics. From 2012 to 2016, Joe’s revenue doubled, from $176 million to $396 million. In 2013, Swedish investment firm Valedo Partners bought the company for $48 million, with Basse keeeping a 10 percent stake, and remaining its CEO. Last October, private equity firm General Atlantic joined as shareholders in the company, equipping Basse with the cash he needs for a North American expansion: Joe & the Juice is planning to open 150 stores in the U.S. in 2018, competing directly with the Starbucks gorilla for a slice of not just the $40 billion coffee market but the $2.3 billion consumers now spend on juice and smoothies.
But the woman question is interesting because it’s also undeniably a company full of dudes. Not just dudes but bros: chest bumping, weightlifting, screaming-in-each-others-faces (with joy!) bros. But what’s particularly unusual about Basse’s band of bros is that they’re bonding not over protein supplements or the New England Patriots but … juice. Fresh-squeezed, fresh-blended, virginal, organic juice. And the company’s testosterone-laced culture seems to lie at the foot of its success, as the competition in Copenhagen made clear.
Basse, who like many of his employees has sculpted arms covered in tattoos, grew up in Copenhagen with his younger brother, Kristoffer. His father, Jørgen, was one of the owners of the successful department store Magasin, and his mother, Anne-Lise, worked in sales for IBM. Basse enjoyed an upbringing of opportunity, excelling in soccer and karate. In his 20s, Basse and his brother were both champions in the sport — Kaspar actually beat his brother to win the national title at age 25, in a match that displayed the difference between their two fighting styles. Kaspar was the more creative and unpredictable, his brother more disciplined.
They took divergent career paths as well. Kristoffer ran a telecommunications company, and after a few years in online marketing, Kaspar decided to do something his friends found a little strange: he opened a juice bar in a department store near the Kongens Nytorv square in Copenhagen. It lost money every year (it still does) but Basse learned an important lesson the day a guy named Philip Finsteen walked up to the front counter and asked for a job. Basse was the only employee at the juice bar and couldn’t afford to take on help, but he did need someone to fill in for him so he could attend his mother’s birthday party that Saturday. He agreed to train Finsteen on Friday and let him run the bar on Saturday. “Don’t f–k it up,” Basse warned him. Finsteen tripled the store’s sales. The takeaway: for his company to succeed, the people who worked for him mattered more than anything.
“The main difference between bricks-and-mortar and online retail is your people,” he says. If you program employees to read from a script they’ve memorized instead of hiring people you trust to interact well with customers, he says “you’re already running it as an online business. Why pay the rent?”
Despite that the department store location was losing money, Basse decided to expand to stores with bigger footprints, more traffic and higher rents, — “there’s something about the law of bigger numbers” — and he maintained an obsessive focus on culture. Instead of a human resources department, Joe & The Juice manages personnel in its “Human Potential Development” department. Instead of having his employees memorize a script, he sized them up based on their charm and energy.
“We don’t teach our people how to engage,” he says. “That’s defensive.”
He offers juicers a kind of exchange program, letting them work in stores at other locations across the globe. Joe’s key performance indicators include soft metrics, like “Meaningfulness quotient” and “social mobility,” valued above same-store sales that can be misleading and that can trick managers into fixing the numbers with “short-sighted tactics like discount campaigns and asking people to prostitute themselves by up-selling.” A few years ago, Joe & the Juice started holding those informal “ShowOffs,” which evolved into a wild party with DJs and drinks and juice-making acrobatics that’s clearly infused with guy culture (juice names include “Hangover Heaven” and “Sex Me Up.”) But they’re also undeniably fun, and unimaginable at a Starbucks company retreat. Ninety-nine percent of Basse’s upper level managers began as juicers, and the average age of his employees is 33.
“We want to end up being a real alternative to Harvard Business School,” he says. “We might have summer camps. We need to tie people closer to us, to make it impossible for you to leave. Imagine if you could give your son five Joe & The Juice shares as a Christmas gift.”
Chicago-based Retail Analyst R.J. Hottovy says there’s room for a company like Joe to expand in the U.S. “People are looking for new experiences with coffee; you’re seeing a trend towards healthier and more authentic. Starbucks generally does an OK job of meeting that demand, but in this day and age, consumers have a shorter attention span,” he says says. “Joe has a very energetic crew, and you’re only as good as your crew is.”
Basse is eager to expand his American presence beyond the 22 stores Joe has in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco. He also wants to figure out a way to make the culture more accessible to women, he says.
“You can’t build a community across the globe without women.”