YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – After eight years of growth in and around the Mahoning Valley, StoneFruit Coffee Co. is preparing to expand beyond state borders. Founder and owner Josh Langenheim plans to open a new concept called StoneFruit Social in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by year-end.
“It’s going to be a very unique place,” he says.
Renovations are underway for the 2,500-square-foot café and bar, which is being built inside the Foundry Lofts, a 500-bed student housing complex near the University of Michigan campus.
Langenheim estimates the total investment will be around $1 million.
“The offer was so good, it was hard to say ‘no,’ ” he says.
StoneFruit Social will offer coffee and breakfast items in the morning. It will shift to serving brunch around lunchtime and will switch to a bar in the evening, Langenheim says.
“Now you hit all three sections and that’s a recipe for success. I don’t want to have any dead time.”
Langenheim attributes the fast growth of the company to his willingness to listen to employees and customers and, most important, to the company culture he has established throughout his stores.
“If you get to know your employees and you lead with love, treat them the way you would want to be treated, all of these things fall into place,” Langenheim says.
But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Langenheim says entrepreneurship, while well-suited to him, often gets viewed through rose-colored glasses.
“You have to be ready to get very, very dirty. Entrepreneurship is hard,” he says.
Langenheim started StoneFruit with a $5,000 investment. It was just enough to make the building suitable for his coffee business, which until that point had been a hobby.
Langenheim worked as a corrections officer before enrolling at Youngstown State University, where he graduated with a degree in psychology that he would put to good use with StoneFruit.
He worked in marketing until eight years ago when he finally had enough savings to open his first traditional store inside a former beauty salon on Market Street in Boardman.
“I didn’t make any money for a long time. Anything I did make I would just reinvest,” Langenheim says. “I listened to customers. I listened to employees and kept going.”
As business at the Boardman store started to grow, he closed the Canfield shop and began looking for other growth opportunities.
In 2017, StoneFruit opened a store on the campus of YSU, followed by new locations in Canfield, Poland and Cleveland.
Langenheim says he prefers to renovate existing spaces instead of building new. For example, both the Canfield and Poland locations are inside former bank buildings.
“I think it’s cool to take those things and revitalize because that’s what the area needs,” he says. “We don’t need new. We need people to come in and revitalize what we already have and bring it back to life.”
StoneFruit was among the first tenants in the Firestone Farms complex when it was built in Columbiana. The store has since closed.
Langenheim says he was probably “too early” with the opening and that he doesn’t consider the store’s closing a failure.
“You only fail if you allow yourself to continue to fail,” he says.
Langenheim seems to have a never-ending supply of business-related quotes and anecdotes ready at a moment’s notice, many of which relate to what he considers the most important aspect of his business: company culture.
“Culture over customer because without culture I won’t have a customer,” Langenheim says. “I hire fast, I fire faster and promote quick.”
Langenheim says the company culture begins during the interview process, which is usually handled by his wife, Hunter.
“We would not be here today without her and her due diligence,” he says.
During the interview, the Langenheims try to find out what makes the prospective employee tick and what his goals and motivations are.
From there, Langenheim says each employee has a choice between two paths: a path to success and a path to failure.
“If we see somebody that is taking that proper path, immediately pump them, promote them, give them more money. Do whatever you need to do. Everybody is motivated by something,” he says.
“If somebody is motivated by time, give them more paid time off. If they’re motivated by money, keep pumping them up, even if it’s a dime. But keep doing it. Give them a dime every four weeks.”
However, if the employee begins heading down the path to failure, Langenheim says that’s when it’s time for an “uncomfortable conversation” that focuses on communicating expectations and explaining ways to correct whatever is wrong.
“There’s no emotion here. As soon as we have that uncomfortable conversation, I shake your hand and we’re done. It’s in the past. Let’s go be successful,” Langenheim says.
“If they continue, then you have got to eliminate that person or you’re going to start creating a negative culture because then everybody is going to start testing the machine.”
One of those who took the path to success is Mike Cupp, who purchased YSU StoneFruit from Langenheim in 2019.
Cupp worked for Verizon for 20 years and for the last nine years, he worked remotely, spending a lot of time working inside the Boardman store.
“I got my notice that I had six months left; they were cutting a bunch of positions. Josh and I came together and strategized and I became part of the team,” Cupp says. “It’s been a fantastic partnership.”
Cupp also handles the wholesale operation for StoneFruit, which supplies coffee to more than a dozen cafes.
The StoneFruit brand consists of three companies: StoneFruit Coffee Co.; Steel Valley Coffee Roasters, which roasts about 10,000 pounds of coffee per month; and Steel Valley Brew Works, which opened inside the Southern Park Mall in January 2022.
The 12,000-square-foot restaurant and bar features pool tables, pinball machines, and hosts a wide variety of events, including bocce leagues, trivia nights, and live music. A recent big hit was the introduction of the first Brew Works adult prom.
The manager of Steel Valley, Bronson Hawthorne, is a great example of Langenheim’s philosophy of promoting fast.
“It’s an amazing space. I’m very fortunate,” he says.
In April 2022, Hawthorne applied for a server position at Boardman StoneFruit. He had never worked in the restaurant industry.
“I just went in there and applied and started as a server and moved my way up,” he says.
Less than one year later, Hawthorne was named the manager of Langenheim’s newest venture, overseeing 25 employees.
“I don’t ask anybody to do something that I wouldn’t do. I try to be a good leader and help everyone out,” Hawthorne says.
Doing everything possible to make the employees successful is another hallmark of Langenheim’s management style.
“Your retention rate really holds on when you understand that the employees do not work for you. I work for the employees,” he says.
While Langenheim clearly enjoys what he does, he reiterates that entrepreneurship is difficult – a daily grind that consumes a lot of the entrepreneur’s time.
“It’s all a headache. Everything is a headache. Every ounce of everything we do is all a giant headache,” he says. “But if you get a good team of people that support you and you support them, the culture takes care of all the worry.”
Pictured at top: Josh Langenheim opened Steel Valley Brew Works in January 2022 inside Southern Park Mall.