MBA alum Angela Garland grows thriving Exit 11 coffee drive-thru business

by | Jun 3, 2024

Lessons learned during her graduate program at UMSL still resonate as Garland and her husband, Scott, continue to expand Exit 11.
Angela Garland

UMSL alum Angela Garland has opened seven Exit 11 Coffee drive-thru shops, including this one in Brentwood. The eighth location will open in Eureka later this summer. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

As Angela Garland and her husband, Scott, prepare to open the eighth location of their Exit 11 drive-thru coffee shop later this summer, she sometimes can’t help but think back on the journey that brought her to this place in her life, owning this thriving and expanding business.

The lessons learned during her 2012 mountain-climbing expedition to Mexico with five of her then co-workers at Century 21 come to mind, and how could they not? She summited the third-highest mountain in North America, Pico de Orizaba (18,491 feet tall), and a few days later reached the top of the eighth-highest mountain in North America, Iztaccihuatl (17,159).

Having overcome the physical and mental challenges associated with climbing literal mountains, metaphorical ones don’t seem so daunting. An Exit 11 location is out of almond milk? There’s an easy fix to that. The point-of-sale system is acting up? It’s not the end of the world.

Life has thrown twists and turns her way – both good and bad – raising four kids, getting divorced, running a business, losing a house and getting remarried, to name a few.

Lessons learned and perspectives gained while pursuing her MBA at the University of Missouri–St. Louis still resonate, too. Garland finished her degree in 2006, when her four kids were between the ages of 9 and 15. She used her time at UMSL to develop her idea of opening a shared office space – the term “co-working space” wasn’t around back then – as part of her degree. Her concept included a business club that felt like a coffee shop but had access to office amenities.

Garland has always thought of herself as a “different” type of learner, someone who doesn’t acquire knowledge in the same way as others. Her natural approach has more of a back-to-front philosophy. At UMSL, the feedback she received from professors, especially from Professor Emeritus Thomas Eyssell, affirmed her style was part of the scope of learning.

“The finance class I took with Professor Eyssell was a turning point for me personally because he reassured me that I was actually smart,” she said. “I went back to school for my undergrad and graduate degrees while raising kids – not only because I thought I needed it for my career, but because I needed to prove to myself that I was smart.”

One lesson in particular that resonated: She doesn’t have to do everything herself.

“I was shocked when I got a B on the finance exam,” she said. “I actually followed up with him to make sure that was correct because I didn’t finish the analysis part. He told me that I was able to do enough analysis to make an executive decision and write a well-thought-out summary, and that’s what CEOs need to be able to do. He said I would hire the accountants and finance experts to do the deep-dive elements.”

Of the 16 students in her UMSL cohort, Garland was the only entrepreneur, surrounded mostly by professionals working in corporate settings who were looking to enhance their careers. That variety offered welcome perspective.

“The program was perfect for me,” Garland said. “It was great to be with other professionals who were working, raising kids and had a life outside of school. The viewpoints of the other adults in the room with different experiences helped contribute to the overall learning.”

The members of her cohort continued to meet for years after graduation to expand on the connection that helped them thrive while getting their UMSL degree.

Garland has long had an entrepreneurial spirit.

After the mountain expeditions in 2012 – the same year she was also rehabbing a 128-year-old house in Shrewsbury – she started moving forward with her plans for managing the shared office space she had worked toward developing while at UMSL. In 2015, she and Scott were married, and not long after they signed a lease at an office building in Washington, Missouri. They initially included a self-serve coffee bar available to members, and within six months, they added an espresso machine and started offering specialty coffee to the public.

The next year, Garland visited her daughter outside of Seattle, and yet another idea was born.

“Every other block had one of these two-sided coffee stands,” she said. “I mean, they were everywhere. They’re 25 years ahead of us. There was no drive-thru coffee shop in Washington, and the only competition was a Starbucks inside of a Target and a small local coffee shop.”

They found an 8×16 trailer they converted into a dual-sided drive-thru and an ideal location – right off Highway 100, on the road leading to both St. Francis Borgia High School and Washington High School, and also on the way to the riverfront area downtown. That location opened in 2018.

“We went from a couple hundred dollars a day to five or six hundred a day not long after we opened,” Garland said. “It was much more efficient. People just drove through, got it and left. We didn’t have to wash their dishes or provide an internet password or sweep up after them. We knew within maybe six months that this is what we should be doing, so we pivoted all of our energy to focusing on how to grow that business.”

Their second location opened in 2020, in the parking lot of a strip mall in Union, shortly before the mandatory shutdown restrictions went into place. That timing was challenging but actually an opportunity for their new venture because of their type of business.

“We were considered an essential business,” Garland said. “A lot of our college workers had to stay home, so Scott and I got up every morning and worked from 5:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day during that time just to get us through. We had a couple other workers who stayed. That’s what put us on the map. People couldn’t go anywhere except a drive-thru, and there were no other drive-thru coffee locations in that town.”

With the memory of getting up at 1 a.m. every morning in Mexico to climb mountains fresh in her mind, waking up early to grow the business didn’t seem impossible.

“Climbing those mountains was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” she said. “After the first mountain, I was like, ‘I’m not doing this again, I’m not going on the other one. I can’t do it.’ It was like giving birth and having somebody say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this again in a couple days!’

Of course, she did.

“It ended up that the guide put me in front for the second climb because that puts pressure on everyone. For me, it was ‘OK, and I’m with all men and I’m not going to stop because I’ve got to be tough.’ And they’re encouraged by me, and they keep going. It was a really good story that I’ve used in our sales conferences, about how naive I was and unprepared, just like you don’t know what to expect when you have a baby. It was a great experience.”

The third Exit 11 location opened late in 2020, in the parking lot of the Cinema 1 movie theater in Washington. In 2021, Angela and Scott opened their roastery in a building right behind their original drive-thru location, a step toward their goal of controlling more elements of the business. In addition to roasting their own coffee beans, they make their own syrups – both the beans and syrups are available online – and cook their own breakfast burritos and quiche. They even started customizing and building out their own trailers as they continue to grow.

“We’re both efficiency people and maximizers and bootstrappers,” Garland said. “If we can do it in-house, we do it in-house.”

They’re intentional when it comes to sourcing their ingredients, too. Every week, a local farmer drops off 150 dozen eggs, and their nitrate-free chorizo comes from a local butcher. The dairy-free/gluten-free bread they use comes from a woman-owned business in Colorado.

They now have two Exit 11 locations in Union, along with coffee shops in St. Peters and Brentwood, right next to the new Brentwood Park. A new location in St. James opened earlier this year, and their Eureka location is set for an August debut. Garland said her goal is to get to 11 locations, primarily along the I-44 corridor. They’ve been asked about potentially franchising the business, and they have considered the idea, though centralizing their operations is higher on the priority list.

“A big part of our success,” she said, “is we each have 30 years of business experience, school of hard knocks and the grit and determination to keep moving forward.”

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