Mel Elias: LA's Coffee King
By kedric francis
Mel Elias looks like someone who must have made a living off of his looks at some point in his life. Dark-eyed and exotic, with just a touch of silver in his tousled hair, Elias moves like an athlete and has the confident air of one who is comfortable being the center of attention.
So it’s a mystery as to why he is not the most famous face associated with The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (fans such as Jennifer Aniston and Emma Roberts have long lent LA-celeb cred to the brand). He is the president and CEO, after all, and is part of the family that owns the company.
Founded in LA in 1963, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf is an iconic California brand inspiring serious loyalty among its customers. And with 900 locations in 28 countries expected by the end of this year (up from 34 US stores when Elias joined the company), the future for the global brand looks bright.
It’s not surprising that the dapper Elias is passionate about his company’s products, or that there’s a vision behind its success. “You go to the store for a social experience,” he says. “We’re in the business of enriching people’s lives.”
As the 43-year-old speaks it’s hard to place the accent in his voice, which isn’t surprising since he’s a Singaporean who was schooled both there and in London and has lived in LA for 13-plus years. He opened the first Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf store in Kuala Lumpur, holding a variety of positions in the franchise. Later, when he and his family bought the company, he moved to LA to help manage what was then a Camarillo-based concern.
Since being named CEO, Elias has overseen phenomenal growth while trying to maintain the “cool kids go there” quality that originally set the company apart from its competitors. “I’m not a believer that when you become ubiquitous or when you grow very big you lose your exclusivity,” he says, citing Apple as an example. You can get Apple’s products practically everywhere, yet, “there’s still a sense of exclusivity and intrigue about them.”
Elias describes The Coffee Bean as a “high touch” company, not high tech, and he works hard to maintain the small-company feel.
“We encourage creativity, experimenting, and risk taking,” he says. “The ability to make mistakes is critical to a spirit of entrepreneurialism. If you punish people for trying and making mistakes, you lose the one or two gems that are created in that environment.”
One of those “gems” was the invention of the “Ice Blended” coffee drink, which was concocted in the ’80s by a barista at a Coffee Bean store in Westwood, who brought a blender in from home, borrowed ice from the store next door, and started mixing ingredients, ultimately inventing what has become a massive product category in the world: frappé beverages.
Another seemingly risky move that has paid off big for The Coffee Bean was the introduction of single-serve coffee makers and capsules, which are sold in the stores. “[Customers] would be drinking someone else’s coffee at home,” Elias says, citing trends toward more caffeine consumption behind closed doors. “Let it be ours.”
Elias can wax philosophic about any number of topics in the beverage business, making them all sound fascinating. His office is filled with idea boards, piles of books (from Japanese design tomes to Where the Sidewalk Ends), and renderings of new stores. It’s the workplace of a designer, architect, or other creative type, not what one would imagine belonged to the CEO of a coffee company.
The offices themselves are on an unlikely stretch of La Cienega, just north of the 10, and have a lived-in, comfortable atmosphere. It’s not a designer-created workspace, but one that reflects the authentic ethos of the company.
“Happy, inspired, engaged team members will work their hardest for the business; they will be more creative, they will be more personable, and they will give a better customer experience,” he says. “And if you give a better customer experience, you’ll get better sales.”
Elias’s passion naturally extends beyond just business. The jet-setting bachelor is apparently off the market.
“The short story is that I met the girl of my dreams [Vanessa Moshay, a creative producer] over a year ago and recently got engaged. [Marriage] will be a very exciting new phase of my life.”
photography by Melissa Valladares and thinkstock; shot on location at mr. c beverly hills
Cover shoot: September 2014 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.