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COFFEE TALK: Gillman's latest venture, an upscale coffee bar, already is connecting with customer base

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Scott Gillman, founder and owner Ground Connection, and CEO of Mascott Corporation.
Scott Gillman, founder and owner Ground Connection, and CEO of Mascott Corporation. - ()

Scott Gillman, CEO of Mascott Corp. in Hillside, has operated more than 50 restaurants under a dozen different brands since 1989.

Last year, he wanted to do something different.

“I wanted to build my own concept,” he said. “I wanted to create a great business using everything I had learned.”

After opening Markers Restaurant in Jersey City with his brother, Marc, and franchising brands such as Cinnabon, Noodles & Company and Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, Gillman was bought out by corporate in 2013 after successfully opening 13 Smashburger stores in 37 months.

It was the right time for a new venture.

“What I really wanted was to create a place where people could slow down, meet up and enjoy something delicious,” Gillman said. “In recent years, I became intrigued by the growing number of specialty coffee shops opening in New York City, especially in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“Having developed restaurants over the past 25 years, I started to consider how we could successfully bring the high-quality, specialty coffee shop experience from across the river to New Jersey.”

Biz in brief
Company: Ground Connection
Headquarters: Hillside
Founded: 2015
Revenue: Mascott Corp., Ground Connection’s parent company, is projecting $12 million in revenue this year across all brands.
Employees: About 25 per Ground Connection location; 200 companywide at Mascott Corp.
One more thing: Bigger doesn’t always mean better when it comes to Ground Connection’s signature double shot espresso drinks, said Scott Gillman, founder and owner: “We have found that over the year and a half since we’ve been open, people actually start moving down in size. The more you like (the espresso), the smaller you will get.”

Gillman founded Ground Connection, a new coffee bar concept, in February 2015.

“Nowhere else in America can you get a really great cappuccino and a really great $7 cheeseburger,” he said.

Ground Connection serves specialty small-batch roasted coffee and espresso drinks using Toby’s Estate coffee from Brooklyn, alongside 18-hour cold brew coffee and house-made teas on tap.

It also offers specific-to-market, quick-service menus of daily food preparations made from scratch.

Want a classic sandwich or a gourmet salad? Ground Connection at The Shops at Riverside in Hackensack has it covered.

Need a quick coffee run? The coffee bar at The Livingston Mall in Livingston can make it happen.

Looking for a fresh, hot-from-the-kitchen lunch? Ground Connection’s newest location at Harborside Plaza 10 in Jersey City opened in June with a menu including everything from avocado toasts to smashed and seared Angus beef and falafel burgers.

But it’s Ground Connection’s four signature double shot espresso drinks — the three-ounce macchiato, the six-ounce cortado, the eight-ounce cappuccino and the 12-ounce latte — that truly elevate the concept.

New Jersey expenses
Scott Gillman, founder and owner of Ground Connection and CEO of Mascott Corp. in Hillside, is concerned about the future of the restaurant industry in the potential wake of a $15 minimum wage hike.
“The average person working for me at (Ground Connection) at The Shops at Riverside (in Hackensack) is earning between $13 and $15 an hour right now, but that is not because it was mandated,” Gillman said. “It is because I pay higher wages to do a good job.”
Gillman said that his employees start out making at least $10 an hour-plus tips.
“Higher wage rates and insurance mandates are good for our employees, but it still needs to make good business sense. If I am going to put in X amount of money, I have to get Y in return,” he said. “I don’t want to build a brand in which I need to get to a critical mass for the economics to make sense.”
In New Jersey, rising costs of living and doing business are making that difficult to do all around.
“Rents are almost double what they were when I was (franchising) and our margins are continuously squeezed,” Gillman said. “I personally think there is going to be a huge shakeout in the restaurant business.”

“Overall consumption of coffee is down slightly, with about one in two people drinking it regularly,” Gillman said. “But specialty coffee, especially among millennials, has doubled over the last eight years.

“Espresso-based drinks among younger millennials in their 20s has tripled, too.”

Each espresso drink is hand-steamed with the ideal ratio of farm fresh milk from Hudson Valley Fresh in Poughkeepsie, New York, to create the right texture.

It’s not easy to pull off.

“Everything we use costs more — that is one of the struggles,” Gillman said.

For one thing, coffee cultivated and processed by farmers associated with the Specialty Coffee Association of America costs nearly twice as much as Starbucks’ coffee.

“We don’t buy coffee from a country — we work with great specialty roasters who have involved relationships with farms in coffee-growing countries,” Gillman said. “We charge more as a value-add, and we like to cover the additional costs. Otherwise, if we tried to keep the same margins, your $2 cup of coffee would become $4 — but we only charge 35 cents more for specialty coffee that costs twice as much.”

A cortado espresso at Ground Connection in Jersey City.
A cortado espresso at Ground Connection in Jersey City.

Ground Connection also uses very few processed items.

“If we can make our own syrups, dressings and sauces, let’s do it,” Gillman said.

Despite keeping it simple — Ground Connection offers one blend for espresso and one blend for drip coffee — the high-tech equipment it utilizes to weigh ground coffee and cook fresh food requires an initial investment of $500,000 to $1 million to start.

That’s why Gillman said he would not open in Jersey City unless it was with a 20-year lease.

“It will take time for people to find us; but someone once said to me that luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” he said. “Jersey City’s vibrant community and thriving food scene makes it a perfect location for the Ground Connection concept.

Gillman hopes that the city’s residential boom — including a series of three micro-unit apartment towers being built across from Ground Connection’s location over the next six years — will keep the coffee concept thriving.

Moving on up
If a good employee works at Ground Connection for just six months before accepting a better opportunity, Scott Gillman, founder and owner of Ground Connection and CEO of Mascott Corp. in Hillside, has achieved his goal.
“If you have learned something here that has been valuable enough for you to carry with you into the future, I’ll be really happy,” he said. “If you work with me for 10 years or longer — like my operating partner and corporate chef Steve Parker has — and you build on your career, that is fantastic.”
Gillman prefers internal promotions at Ground Connection due to the full confidence he has in his staff — many of which already have management capabilities, he said.
“For example, Alex Matrando, the director of our coffee and tea program, has been training with me for two years,” Gillman said. “He worked for Starbucks for 15 years, which brought him a passion for coffee but not the skills necessary to do what we do.
“And Allie Watson missed most of the initial training, starting the day before Ground Connection opened. She caught on so quickly that she was a general manager within a year.
“Some of these kids are really amazing.”

“The goal is not to have a predefined path of development, but to let the development happen naturally,” he said.

Gillman is in no rush to expand. Mascott Corp. brands are up 12.9 percent a year to date and the company is projecting $12 million in revenue for 2016.

So, Ground Connection has the room to grow organically and internally.

“We could build one a year and be really happy or maybe an opportunity will present itself,” he said. “Part of my strategy was knowing that looking for 2,500-square-foot spaces that we would gut and build from scratch was not going to work. I can be flexible in what we do if we can simply have both a coffee shop and a great food program. For example, we might take a place with better rent because other places can’t use it for what they need.”

Gillman is in discussions with several real estate developers, but said he is careful not to get too ahead of himself.

“Every day I get inquiries that I am evaluating,” he said. “But I don’t want to chase them — I want to meet in the middle. I know that there will be ample opportunity for growth, and we will expand when we feel we are prepared and the right opportunity presents itself.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

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