As vice president of real estate and construction at Dutch Bros Coffee, Aaron Harris goes above and beyond to advance the coffee chain’s development. When the company—and the world—began shutting down in early 2020 on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harris didn’t let that put a stop to a planned expansion into Texas.
“I packed up my car, drove from California to Texas and moved into a hotel for 90 days,” Harris says. During those 90 days, he continued to personally negotiate and execute deals for Dutch Bros. “We had no idea what the future of the industry would be,” he admits, “but I’m proud of the growth we accomplished.”
Indeed, Dutch Bros opened 72 stores in 2020, with over 100 additional stores projected to open in 2021. Harris remains actively committed to the company’s growth and he places just as much—if not more—emphasis on the growth of its people.
From internal opportunities for career advancement to a drive-through model centered around excellent customer service, Dutch Bros has distinguished itself as a uniquely human-oriented business. Harris is doing his part to keep it that way.
His passion for the restaurant industry first emerged as a teenager. Harris worked his way up in the business while pursuing his education at Saint Louis University and Duke University, where he obtained an MBA. After owning 17 North Carolina restaurants as a franchisee, holding various food- and beverage-related roles in California and forming his own consulting business, he served as director of development for Louisiana-style restaurant chain Popeyes from 2007 until 2017.
At that point, Harris joined Dutch Bros. In his current role, he oversees all aspects of real estate, construction, and facilities across the company’s roughly 500 locations. He handles everything from site selection and material costs to ground-breaks and prototype building plant operations.
Furthermore, Harris has helped Dutch Bros break into new markets in Utah, New Mexico, and Texas by coordinating development efforts in each state. “Opening in new markets entails exporting our Pacific Northwest brand into markets where we did not necessarily have a presence,” he elaborates. “It means choosing sites, building great stores and great relationships in the community, and then being fully supportive once we open those stores.”
Beyond facilitating the rollouts, Harris has introduced a modular building system at Dutch Bros and reduced prototype building costs by about 60 percent. “Reducing those costs has given us the capability to weather the storm––building material costs are through the roof right now—and to continue to scale,” he says.
At the same time, Harris makes sure to keep the Dutch Bros team and the company’s customer base front and center of his priorities. Internally, he seeks to set up employees of all career stages for success. “What we do is invest in people,” he says. “When I look at our team on the facilities, construction and development side alone, I’m so proud of what we’ve done and of the career paths that we’ve put folks on.”
Harris finds that the people-first attitude at Dutch Bros allows them to attract and retain the best talent. In turn, Dutch Bros employees are always ready to go the extra mile to create a positive environment in which to serve customers. “The Dutch Bros experience is all about putting a smile on your face,” Harris confirms. “We’re a daily escape.”
Since most Dutch Bros stores do not have interior seating, the drive-through model feeds directly into the customer experience. As part of the innovative design, store team members run out to waiting cars to take orders in person.
“The beautiful thing about not having a static order point is that we can be 20 cars deep, but if a customer pays in line, they might not have to pull all the way up to the window to get their order,” says Harris, noting that instead, customers can exit the queue via a designated “escape lane” at any point.
Harris sees the Dutch Bros drive-through, with its fast-moving lines and human touch, as a way to brighten customers’ days and build meaningful relationships. “The personal connections that we make in our stores and in our communities are unbelievable,” he says.
He plans to continue forging those connections—not to mention his connections with employees—in the future, no matter how far the company expands. “We have a goal to be at 800 stores by the end of 2023,” he says. “But we also have a reputation as a company that does right by its employees and by its landlords.”
By keeping both the development and the human side of the picture in focus, Harris can count on having a lasting impact on Dutch Bros, the company’s employees, and coffee-loving communities across the country.