Incubator program accelerates success for Erie-area coffee company

March 07, 2016

[caption id="attachment_1534" align="alignleft" width="300"]Out of the Grey Coffeehousecafé co-owners Sheila Barton, 39, poses with her husband Jack Barton, 46, both of Fairview Township, behind the counter of their establishment on Jan. 22 in Fairview Township. ANDY COLWELL/ERIE TIMES-NEWS Out of the Grey Coffeehousecafé co-owners Sheila Barton, 39, poses with her husband Jack Barton, 46, both of Fairview Township, behind the counter of their establishment on Jan. 22 in Fairview Township. ANDY COLWELL/ERIE TIMES-NEWS[/caption]

Out of the Grey Coffeehousecafe in Fairview has become a favorite meeting spot -- and for good reason. On a recent Saturday night, the fireplace blazed, warming a backroom where deep couches and chairs welcomed visitors to curl up and chat, a warm mug in hand.

Now that the coffeehouse, 6990 West Lake Road, is a success, owners Jack and Sheila Barton have set their sights on a new challenge. They've launched an online business -- also called Out of the Grey -- that allows customers to create their own coffee, choosing roasting preferences, flavorings and even a name for their custom blend.

In the coming months, the Bartons plan to add additional customizable features -- such as creating labels -- to the site, which can be found online at www.outofthegreycoffee.com.

"When people can create their own coffee, give it a name, it gives them a sense of ownership," Jack Barton said. "They love the concept of fully customizing their drinks."

'People can be skeptical'

The Bartons' unique business idea caught the attention of Jeff Parnell, executive director of the Erie Technology Incubator. Parnell invited Jack Barton and 11 other entrepreneurs to take part in Gannon University's inaugural Technology Business Accelerator in 2014.

Barton said when he first got the call inviting him to take part in the accelerator program, he thought it was a sales pitch. He avoided the calls and e-mails until Parnell finally convinced him it was a legitimate opportunity.

Parnell said he gets that reaction from entrepreneurs frequently.

"People can be skeptical," he said. "Entrepreneurs aren't used to trusting other people with their information or ideas, and they think we're calling to try to get them to reveal information, to take ideas, or compete. I have to convince them that, no, we really want to help."

The entrepreneurs who go through the eight-week accelerator course pitch their ideas to a panel of judges at the end of the program. Barton won the inaugural year, taking home a $10,000 check and six months of residency, coaching and strategic mentoring from the Erie Technology Incubator.

Now, more than a year later, Barton still meets regularly with his mentoring team, a benefit he now pays for.

"They really care about what we're doing. They're encouraging. They hold us accountable. They've inspired us to go further," Barton said. "What they've done for us is priceless."

'Life-changing experience'

The fifth accelerator class begins Feb. 17, Parnell said.

Barton said he has a simple message for the new participants, and other area entrepreneurs or people who have a business or want to start one: Use Erie's resources.

"I never went to (Gannon's Small Business Development Center) before the accelerator program," he said. "I didn't know what it had to offer. And it's not just money. That's a shortsighted look -- it's the accountability, the direction, the excitement from other entrepreneurs. People are so generous with their ideas and their knowledge -- they've changed what I think about, what questions I ask myself -- it's really been a life-changing experience for us."

KARA MURPHY is a freelance writer who lives in Erie. Contact her at www.karawrites.com.


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