Beginning Wednesday, an Indiana-based coffeehouse owner will get national attention for his role in a cable TV reality series about turning around failing businesses in Erie.
“Undercover Billionaire: Comeback City” is a spin-off of “Undercover Billionaire,” a Discovery series about a self-made businessman who turned $100 into a thriving business, “Underdog BBQ,” in 90 days in a city he never visited before, Erie.
In turn, businessman Glenn Stearns was approached by other Erie businesspeople seeking to turn their failing businesses around, including coffee shop owner Gisele Littrell. Her story is profiled in the first “Comeback” episode Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Discovery.
“Glenn is so committed to helping other people succeed,” Commonplace Coffee owner T.J. Fairchild recalled. “I had so much fun hearing from him, and meeting the entrepreneurs in the series who were so grateful for his help.”
Stearns found that Tipsy Bean Cafe needed more help than he could provide.
“They did a Google search and found what I do,” Fairchild said. “So they called me in as the coffee expert.”
Expert, indeed. Fairchild started Commonplace Coffee in 2003 at 1176 Grant St. in Indiana.
“Commonplace offers handcrafted coffee and pastries in an atmosphere that builds and fosters the neighborhoods it serves,” according to a description provided in announcing Wednesday’s show. “In addition to baked goods, Commonplace also provides cafe consultations, wholesale coffee, equipment, service and training to a diverse cross-section of businesses looking to create or build their coffee program.”
Meanwhile, Fairchild has expanded his business to a bakery in Shelocta, a place in the pantry at Indiana Regional Medical Center and five Pittsburgh locations.
“Right now we have 60 employees company-wide,” Fairchild said.
As Littrell posted on Facebook, Tipsy Bean Cafe is “a coffee and eatery caf￩ offering savory food, beverages and pastries in a relaxed and artistic atmosphere.”
Why “Tipsy”? “She has some sort of cocktail bar concept as well,” Fairchild said. “A coffee bar with cocktails optional in the evening.”
On her website, Littrell talks about the dream she’s had as an entrepreneur for 20 years and with a vision for Tipsy Bean Cafe that goes back 15 years.
“These are exciting times for locals and transplants alike in Erie, but to continue the progressiveness and entice people to stay and relocate here we need to become the city also known for its great social environment, inclusivity, diversity and dedication to the arts,” she wrote. “The Tipsy Bean is strategically placed in (Erie’s) Hill District to help create this shift for our city’s identity by being at the forefront of collaborating with other local business owners to establish a cultural neighborhood for Erie residents.”
As Fairchild found out, that coffeehouse had its problems.
“I gave her everything from general business advice — from how to set up her organization for a daily schedule to how to brew coffee well,” Fairchild said.
And how to brew espresso.
“The difference between coffee and espresso is, there’s high-pressure water forced through the coffee,” the Commonplace owner said. “It basically was only pushing a small amount of pressure through the coffee.”
Ergo, it was sending out coffee-flavored water, rather than the little oil droplets that high pressure causes, trapping the coffee fragrance in a very oily and viscous blend.
“We ended up donating some equipment to her because her equipment was in such bad shape,” Fairchild said.
The coffeehouse is one of six small businesses that Stearns will seek to turn around, in 27 days apiece.
“That was kind of a goal Glenn Stearns set for himself,” Fairchild said. As Stearns said, the average small business in America has just 27 days in cash reserves — and if it can’t turn it around in 27 days, they’ll never be able to.
As the episode with Fairchild providing advice was filmed in July, did the owner turn things around? Viewers will have to tune in to find out — including Fairchild, who hasn’t seen the finished product.
However, as he said, he’s continuing for a year as a consultant.
“I got to work with a wonderful coffee shop owner who is so kind to her guests,” Fairchild said. “There’s no question she could surpass her dreams.”
Stearns has made “Undercover Billionaire” a fixture in the Wednesday night lineup on Discovery.
In its first season, Stearns bet big that the American dream was still alive and well, by allowing himself to be stripped of his name, wealth and contacts. Only having $100 in his pocket, Stearns was dropped into a brand new city to see if he could build a million-dollar company in 90 days.
For its second season, inspired by the bet Stearns made — and won — three new entrepreneurs have stepped forward to embark on the same audacious challenge.
Real estate investor Grant Cardone, technology fund CEO Monique Idlett-Mosley and self-styled serial entrepreneur Elaine Culotti each are betting $1 million that they can go undercover in three different cities with just $100 apiece and top the million-dollar mark in 90 days.
That’s what viewers will see Wednesday nights at 8 p.m., followed by “Comeback City” at 10.
Both shows are in the genre of reality television, with entrepreneurs hiding their identities at 8 p.m. ala CBS-TV’s “Undercover Boss,” followed by a show that, at least in the first week, may remind viewers of cooking-themed reality shows on Food Network or Fox.
Fairchild hoped he wasn’t doing “Coffee Shop Nightmares” on Discovery, though he felt “they were putting me into that position on camera.”
He said he “kind of called” for the cameras to stop rolling, but conceded, “they could have captured all that.”
“The original shot was to have me using her equipment,” Fairchild said. “I get two or three steps in and I find out we don’t have the tools” to produce a good cup of espresso.
In the end, he said, friendships developed — as well as an opportunity to tell viewers about his dreams a couple hours out of Erie.
“There were two or three times when I was very much able to address the camera,” Fairchild said.
It wasn’t just to address how inferior the coffee was.
“By way of introduction they asked about the history of our company,” Fairchild said. “So I was able to give a nod to Indiana and to Pittsburgh.”
Discovery is seen in Indiana on Comcast Channel 47, AT&T Channel 278 and DISH Channel 182.